We are delighted to welcome Edward Cox back to the Gollancz Blog. Today for your Friday reading/Bank Holiday reading we’ve got a brilliant short story to share with you. We’re not going to say too much, we’ll let Ed tell you more about The Skin Mechanic.
Sunshine isn’t the only thing inside me. As readers of The Relic Guild will know, there’s a touch of horror, too. It’s a grim and grisly desire to weave into stories the things that I find frightening, disturbing, and to then convey the resulting nightmares to readers.
The idea for The Skin Mechanic lived in my head for over fifteen years before it was written. The seed was sown when I read an issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman called Collectors. It’s a story about a convention for serial killers. At this convention, the guest of honour is a particularly gruesome nightmare called the Corinthian. The other serial killers are in awe of the Corinthian; they worship him and his work.
This misguided and disturbing form of worship in Collectors was the driving force for The Skin Mechanic. And within my tale there is a quick nod and wink to Gaiman’s work.
The Skin Mechanic
I want to tell you about Mia.
Mia never knew when to shut up and listen. Sometimes it seemed she only had to open her mouth and an unending breeze of random topics floated out: stuff that had no link to the next titbit of stuff. And, regardless of what I had to say, she never stopped talking at me. Junk was all that came out of Mia’s mouth; that, and the smell of blood.
Funny – she was so quiet when I first met her.
Mia had stood at the side of the road, hitchhiking during the dark hours of early morning: a small woman – a mousy blonde some might say – young or old, it was always hard to tell. I remember thinking she must be stupid, standing alone at the side of the road like that, making such an easy target of herself. But she had flagged me down, and I pulled the car over.
Mia jumped into the passenger seat. “I know what you’re expecting,” she said, “but hear me out first.”
That was the first thing Mia ever said to me. I thought perhaps she was a prostitute, new to the game because she looked so fresh and clean. And that she could have absolutely no idea what I was expecting.
She leaned over bringing her face close to mine. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,” she whispered. “Please. Drive. I have a gift for you.”
Maybe it was loneliness that made me trust her; maybe it was the smell of blood on her breath. I still don’t know why I gave in so easily. I had driven, following Mia’s directions, to a dirt track that cut into a wood. I parked and we left the car. She took my hand and led me through the trees. We came to a clearing, and that was where I found Mia’s gift.
It was a young girl – seventeen, eighteen maybe – with a mass of black hair, and black make-up that had run and smeared across her face. She was skinny, naked, kneeling on the leafy ground, yet still somehow statuesque. Her eyes were vacant, and I later learned that drugging people was a favourite trick of Mia’s.
“Do you need to take her somewhere special?” Mia asked. “Should we get her back to the car?”
I shook my head and pulled a cutthroat razor from my pocket.
Mia gasped, excited, and her eyes gleamed in the moonlight. “Can I watch?”
The girl in the clearing didn’t react as I approached her; she didn’t shy away as I opened the cutthroat; she didn’t flinch as I walked around her, slicing the skin of her back and chest and arms. She just stared off into some unknown distance, and her blood ran freely.
I stepped back from her, and from behind me, Mia spoke in a low voice.
“Is the razor important?” she asked. “Like a ritual knife or something?”
“No,” I replied.
And that was the first thing I ever said to Mia.
As for the cutthroat, there really is nothing special about it. I don’t even remember where I got it from. Using a sharp blade is just the quickest way to make someone bleed, I suppose.
“So what now?” Mia said, eagerly. “When does Max arrive?”
I still don’t know what Mia was expecting on that first occasion. Perhaps she thought there would be some grand pre-show, like the warm summer night would suddenly change to bitter winter. Or maybe the moon and stars would disappear, and the shadows would rise up, hissing and screaming, to announce Max’s arrival …
The only sign that he was around came when the girl fell face down on the clearing floor, as though she had been shoved in the back. She came upright again, as if someone was controlling her on puppet strings, and then the skin of her arms and body ripped away as easily as ripping off a blouse. The skin flew into the air, spraying blood, and disappeared.
The dead girl looked normal enough around the face and head and from the waist down; but the exposed muscles of her torso and arms glistened wetly. Max had been and gone, just like that, just as he always does.
“Fuck,” Mia whispered. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” and she knelt beside the girl and began licking the blood from her raw body.
Mia wanted sex after that.
We stayed at a cheap and dirty motel, and she was experienced in bed. It pleased Mia that I was so inexperienced, I think; that she was my first fuck. She was in awe of me, and I could do no wrong. It was a strange feeling.
Mia liked to smoke, sixty or more a day, one after the other. And while she smoked and lay beside me on the bed, she said, “You’re nothing like what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know what I was expecting. Something different, I guess.”
I’ll never know how Mia found me; I never asked. But her expectations, I suppose, explain in part why you haven’t caught me to this day. You’re always looking for the wrong type.
“Tell me about Max,” Mia said.
I remained silent, and perhaps she thought her forwardness offended me. The truth is I hadn’t known what to tell her. For whatever reason, Mia quickly changed the subject, and that was when I learned how much she liked to talk. She told me all about herself. She told me that she was a killer, just like me, and the police had been chasing her for a long time.
“Of course,” she said, lighting her third cigarette off the butt of her second, “everyone thinks I’m this copycat killer – you know, some nutter who’s inspired by one mass murderer or another. The police are fucking idiots. They don’t know their arses from their elbows. The only thing they’ve got right is that I’m female. But they don’t realise I’ve been the only killer all along. I’ve never copied anyone in my life. I’m much older than anyone realises, and as for that nickname they gave me, well …”
On and on she went, pausing now and then to draw smoke from her cigarette.
You know Mia. You let the press name her Lady Bathory because her victims are always found in bathtubs, drenched in their own blood. You say she thinks she’s a vampire, one who incapacitates her victims with drugs. You say she’s a copycat killer because her modus operandi seems the copy of a string of unsolved murders dating back fifty years or more. But Mia was adamant; insisted you’ve only ever been chasing her.
Even now that doesn’t seem likely, but who can say for sure?
“The police got my motives right, though,” Mia told me. “I mean, of course I’m not a vampire, not in the classic sense. I can eat and drink anything I want – except rum and seafood, they make me sick – and all that holy crap and sunlight malarkey is just stupid. I’m not super-strong, either, which is why I use drugs on people. But I do drink blood to stay young, to stay alive. I look and feel fantastic all the time. It’s funny – I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of blood, but you just get used to stuff, right? Really, I only have to drink it once a year, maybe twice. When I feel the itch, you know? I suppose I do it more often, because, if I’m honest, I like the power, the thrill of being higher on the food chain. How often do you kill people?”
Technically, I’ve never killed anyone, but Mia had been desperate to talk about Max, so I felt obliged to give an answer. “Once a month.”
“Once a month!” Mia spluttered. “But …” and I could see her eyes doing the maths.
More than two years you’ve been looking for me. That’s over twenty-four victims.
Mia said, “The police say you’ve only killed ten,” and I shook my head. The truth concerning my body count delighted her more than anything. She laughed with a bright sound, and covered my face in kisses.
“This is why you need to be with me,” she said. “We understand each other more than anyone can. We’re a perfect match.” She straddled me, and the heat of her crotch gave me an erection, but when she said, “I can’t believe I’m actually here with the Skin Mechanic,” the very mention of that name left me impotent.
Mia rubbed herself against me and said, “Tell me more about Max.”
But I couldn’t. I just wanted to sleep. Because, strangely, I wanted to see if Mia would still be there in the morning.
Of course she was. She held my hand all through that night.
Mia worshipped me. She thought Max made me invincible or something. When you’re placed up on a pedestal like that, it’s incredibly difficult to get yourself back down again. If I had told Mia that we were nothing like each other, she wouldn’t have listened. If I had explained that I cared nothing for power or status, she wouldn’t have believed me. If I had told Mia that I was terrified of Max – that I did what he wanted because death was the only thing I feared more – she would’ve talked over me. She was the most damaged person I’ve ever known, and I didn’t know how to leave her behind.
Mia was at her quietest in the car, while we travelled around. Her cigarette smoke made me feel sick, though I never complained. The smell was something new, different. The smell of companionship, I suppose. A month went by all too quickly, and it was again time to mark someone’s skin for Max.
Mia was excited. In another motel room, she sat on the sill of an open window, smoking a cigarette. I lay on the bed, naked and cold after sex. It was late. Past midnight. Almost time.
“I’ve been thinking about something you said the other week,” Mia began. “See, I met this guy while I was looking for you. Another killer like us. His name’s Larry. He’s a policeman, believe it or not. They’re looking for him up north. The Sat-Nav Killer?”
You know Larry. You let the press name him the Sat-Nav Killer because he stole cars with satellite navigation, and then chose one random address from the address book. He would drive to that address and kill whoever he found. He had no specific territory, and his victims weren’t linked. Proved a hard man to catch, right?
Mia said, “Larry told me the police know of more mass murderers and victims than the public will ever hear about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no conspiracy theorist or anything, but what if that’s true? The police only admit to finding ten of your victims, but maybe they know the real count, and choose not to reveal it.”
Is that true, I wonder? Do you give mass murderers a quota, and once they pass the allotted body count you don’t publicise further crimes? Have you found everyone Max has killed?
Mia blew smoke out of the window and grinned. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a big meeting once a year, for people like you, me and Larry? You know, a secret convention for mass murderers. You’re so famous you’d be the guest of honour, like the Corinthian in that Sandman story.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“The Sandman?” she stressed. “The comic?” I shook my head, and she rolled her eyes. “The point is you and Max are legends. I mean – Christ!” she looked awed. “Larry would shit buttons if he knew I was hanging out with the Skin Mechanic and his demon.”
Are you thinking ‘demon’ is a metaphor?
“Why does Max want skin?” Mia continued.
The question made me feel miserable, and I shrugged. “Max is a liar,” I told her.
She replied, “Demons always are, aren’t they?” and flicked her cigarette out of the window. “I want to meet him,” she said. “I want to talk to Max. Tonight. Can I?”
I shrugged again. It wasn’t up to me. But Mia took this as an affirmation, and she clapped her hands with delight, saying, “I’m going to take a shower, and then we’ll go find him some skin.”
You see, Mia thought we were a team, but I hated the pleasure she got from my situation. While she was in the shower, I went out alone.
Max once told me that he was making a cloak of human skin a mile long, as a gift for the devil. Once, he said there was an exotic upholsterer in the Middle East who paid through the nose for human skin. Another time, he told me that it just tasted good with fries and a strawberry thick-shake. Take your pick, because whenever Max speaks he never says the same thing twice.
I’ll tell you that it was a homeless man I found that night, and he thought I’d give him money in exchange for a blowjob. Maybe you found his body where I left it. Maybe he’d been chewed so badly by rats, you didn’t realise what you discovered was the Skin Mechanic’s . And I’ll admit I should not have returned to the motel; that I should have left Mia behind and moved on. But I did return.
It was nearly dawn when I got back. Mia lay on the bed, watching TV. Her lips were clamped tight, and she was scowling. She didn’t look at me when she spoke with a flat voice.
“Where have you been?”
She wasn’t expecting an answer.
Mia was naked, and her breasts and stomach were flecked with blood. More had smeared and dried around her mouth and neck.
The bathroom door was closed, but light spilled from the gap underneath. I stared silently at Mia for a long time, until eventually she took her eyes off the TV and glared at me.
“Fuck you!” she snapped. “What did you expect?”
Leaving Mia to the TV, I went into the bathroom and locked the door behind me.
Blood streaked the walls, the mirror and sink, and formed a puddle on the cracked tiles of the floor. There was no water in the bathtub, but there was a girl. Her hair was red, not natural, not strawberry or ginger, but bottle red. It covered her shoulders and breasts. She wore blue jeans, tucked into knee high boots. A single ring pierced her nose. Her wrists and throat had been cut. Her jeans were wet, but not just with blood. There was a sour smell in the bathroom.
The girl in the bath was undeniably dead, but her eyes were open, alive, watching me as I sat on the toilet seat. And she was smiling. Her eyes were green.
“Hello, Skin,” she said. Only, it wasn’t her; it was Max speaking through her, playing games with me. “It’s been a while since we spoke. Oh, I like your new friend, by the way. Mia, right? She’s a wildcat. She likes to drug her victims.”
My hands were sweating, shaking.
“What do you know about her?” Max asked, and I shrugged. “You’ve got to be careful, Skin. I’ve been watching her. I tell you, Mia’s fucking mental! You’ve really pissed her off. She doesn’t give a shit who she’s killed here tonight. What if it’s someone important?” The dead girl in the bath smiled again. “You should check for ID.”
I shook my head.
“It’s not a suggestion, you fuck-stick. Do it!”
Dead, green eyes watched with glee as I stood over the girl, and gingerly pulled a slim wallet from her jeans pocket. There was sixty-five pounds inside, a credit card, and a driver’s licence. She was no one important, as Max damn well knew. I pocketed the cash, and dropped the wallet into the bath.
“I worry for you, Skin,” Max said. “This Mia sits on your cock and you go all cross-eyed like you’re drunk. You keep her around and you’ll get clumsy. You keep her around and you’ll get caught. Then you know what’ll happen, right?”
I did, like I’ve always known. He made me feel sick.
Max sighed. “You’re such a shithead. That bitch will get you thrown in a prison cell, and when they lock the door behind you, whose skin will you mark for me then?” Max sucked air over dead teeth. “Inevitably your own, and that’s the truth of it.”
I knelt before the toilet and threw up.
Are you looking for a motive, a reason for doing what I do? Then understand this: Max is my parasite. Or maybe I’m his. There’s no separation. I can’t just run away from him. My entire life is a survival course because all Max really wants is me; and should the day ever arrive when I do not provide him with some other victim, he’ll rip the skin from my body without hesitation. That’s the nature of our relationship. And Max assures me my suffering won’t end when I’m dead.
I had heaved and heaved into that toilet until my stomach was empty.
“Oh, grow some balls,” Max said. “I’m trying to help you here, Skin.”
There came a tentative knock at the bathroom door, and Mia’s muffled voice said, “Who are you talking to in there?”
“Uh-oh, it’s the missus,” said Max. “Remember what I said, fuck-wit. Get rid of her, or I’ll be taking your skin quicker than an Indian scalping a cowboy.”
Max’s laugh became a sigh that faded to nothing, and the dead girl in the bathtub fell still and silent.
Mia’s knocks were more urgent now. “What’s going on?”
When I opened the door, Mia was dressed. I barged past her into the bedroom, and grabbed my few possessions.
“Are you okay?” she said, and that was the first time I heard weakness in Mia’s voice.
“I’m leaving,” I said, and quit the motel.
I would’ve done it then. If she hadn’t chased after me, I would’ve left Mia behind. As it was, we ended up travelling on together.
We never spoke about what happened, but, after that night, Mia became paranoid. She constantly sought assurances that I wouldn’t leave her behind when what she called ‘Skin Day’ came around again. She was obsessed with Max, asking question after question, but never truly listening to any answers I gave. I realise now that without Max I held no interest for her.
When ‘Skin Day’ did come around again, I felt that I had no choice but to take Mia with me. Perhaps I should’ve told her that.
I awoke late that morning to the sound of Mia coming into the room. She had been out to get me a fast food breakfast: bitter coffee and anaemic pancakes with a sachet of maple-flavoured syrup. I ate in bed, while Mia smoked by the open window. There were tears in her eyes.
“I just heard on the radio,” she said. “The police caught the Sat-Nav Killer last night.”
I carried on eating.
“Don’t you care?” Mia asked. I remember her voice sounded somehow empty. “Larry was my friend. Fucking pigs! I wish I could kill them all.”
I just didn’t know what she wanted me to say. It didn’t matter.
“You don’t get it, do you?” Mia’s teeth were gritted. “That could’ve been you and me. If we’re not careful, the police will find us eventually. We need to look out for each other.”
Perhaps Mia was jealous. Did she wish Max was her parasite? I think so. The breakfast she gave me had a bitter aftertaste that made me feel sick, and by the time I realised what Mia had done to me, I was already too doped to move. I remember her saying, “I’m going to look after you from now on,” and then there’s a gap – a cut scene.
I suppose Mia had kept me drugged all day long, because when I woke up it was night. I lay in the bath with dried vomit on my chest and pain behind my eyes. There was a man in the bathroom with me. He was crouched by the door, peeking through the keyhole. The door was obviously locked from the outside.
When he saw I was conscious, he put a finger to his lips and whispered, “Keep quiet. I’m a policeman. Stay calm, and I’ll get us out of this.”
An undercover cop. He thought I was one of Lady Bathory’s victims – which wasn’t far from the truth, I suppose. He was frightened. He shook his head a couple of times as if to clear it of grogginess. Obviously Mia had got him into the bathroom with the help of drugs, too.
Mia’s voice came through the door. “You’re going nowhere, Mr Plod,” she said. She sounded excited. “You’re going to die here tonight.”
The policeman couldn’t have escaped. The window in the bathroom wouldn’t open, and even if he smashed it, it was too small for him to climb through. Shouting for help was pointless too; the motel was caught between wasteland and a noisy motorway.
Desperate now, he said to me, “Can you stand? If I get this door open, are you strong enough to fight?”
“I can hear you, you bastard!” Mia screamed through the door. “It’s not me you’ve got to worry about – it’s the man in there with you. He’s the Skin Mechanic.”
The policeman looked at me, his expression doubtful but calculating.
You have to understand, I had no idea of the time, and all I could think was that Max would arrive any second to take my skin unless I acted. I panicked. Mumbling, “Sorry,” I fumbled the cutthroat from my pocket, and tried to open it with thick fingers. Mia had thrown me into a fighting pit, a dog-eat-dog situation, and I didn’t stand a chance. The policeman took one look at the cutthroat, and he beat the crap out of me.
I don’t really remember what occurred next. I suppose Mia must have figured out what had happened and opened the bathroom door. I remember hearing a scuffle, but no shouting, and the sound of one person hitting another with something heavy, over and over and over. And then Mia was at my side, helping me to sit up in the bath. She put my cutthroat into my hand, as though it would give me comfort, and she pushed the hair back from my face. There was a bruise forming on her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said, kissing my forehead. “It wasn’t meant to happen that way. But don’t worry. I’ve taken care of things for you. That copper – he’s dead. Max can take his skin.”
But Mia didn’t understand; she never had.
Max isn’t interested in just anyone’s cast-offs. He’s only interested in what I provide for him. He only wants the skins I mark, and he wants them live, fresh. And that night, Mia had backed me into a corner.
The first cut seemed to confuse her. I slashed the cutthroat across her face, and she stared at me, disbelieving. The second sliced through her T-shirt and the skin of her stomach. She jumped to her feet and backed away. There was blood on her hands and in her eyes. There was no time to say anything more to each other, no time for goodbye or sorry. Max stripped her naked, and her shredded clothes fluttered around the bathroom like confetti. Mia gave a worried moan, and then Max ripped the skin from her body, all of it, from head to toe. Mia’s raw and wet remains slapped to the bathroom floor in a heap. Her skin hung in the air like a full body suit for a moment, and then disappeared.
I should’ve left her long before, when I had the chance.
If you’re scouring these words for clues that will reveal identity, don’t bother. Everything I’ve written here, everything I’ve told you, will only lead to Mia: Lady Bathory. At least that’s another case you can close.
You’ll never find me. Let me tell you straight; it’s impossible for you to know who I am, because you think I’m already dead. You won’t catch my face on CCTV, find my fingerprints or any other forensic evidence. Max won’t allow it. He doesn’t want you to catch me. He wants me to give up. He wants me to reach the day when I finally refuse to mark anyone else for him. That’s the game he can’t lose, you see. No one’s skin is more desirable to Max than that of the Skin Mechanic.
And please – please – if you go public with this, allow the press to publish it, don’t let them say it’s a confession, or that I’m crying out for help. Let them know the truth.
Let them know I just wanted to tell you about Mia.
Edward Cox is the author of The Relic Guild and the forthcoming The Cathedral of Known Things. The Relic Guild is out now in trade paperback, eBook and audio download. The Cathedral of Known Things will be out in bookshops and online in October. You can find out more about Edward Cox by visiting his website or following him on Twitter.