Tattoo Thief by Alison Belsham
A policeman on his first murder case
A tattoo artist with a deadly secret
And a twisted serial killer sharpening his blades to kill again…
When Brighton tattoo artist Marni Mullins discovers a flayed body, newly-promoted DI Francis Sullivan needs her help. There’s a serial killer at large, slicing tattoos from his victims’ bodies while they’re still alive. Marni knows the tattooing world like the back of her hand, but has her own reasons to distrust the police. So when she identifies the killer’s next target, will she tell Sullivan or go after the Tattoo Thief alone?
I peel away the blood-soaked T-shirt from the unconscious man’s back to reveal a spectacular tattoo. The photocopy I take from my pocket is crumpled but it’s good enough for me to check against the image on his skin. Thankfully, there’s just enough light from the street lamp to see that the two designs look the same. A round Polynesian tattoo in heavy black ink adorns the man’s left shoulder, an intricate tribal face scowling from its centre. Spreading out from the edges is a pair of stylised wings, one extending down the man’s shoulder blade, the other extending across the left side of his chest. All of it is speckled with blood.
The images match. I have the right man.
There’s still a pulse in his neck, but it’s faint enough to reassure me that he won’t cause any problems. It’s essential to do the job while his body’s still warm. If the corpse cools, the skin stiffens and the flesh becomes rigid. That makes the job harder and I can’t afford mistakes. Of course, flaying the skin off a living body means so much more blood. But I don’t mind blood.
My backpack is lying nearby, discarded as I pulled him into the bushes. It was easy enough – the small park was deserted at this hour. It only took one blow to the back of his head and he crumpled at the knees. No noise. No commotion. No witnesses. I knew this was the route he’d take when he left the nightclub because I’d watched him take it before. People are so stupid. He suspected nothing, even as I walked towards him with a wrench in my fist. Seconds later, his blood was spreading across the ground from a wound at the temple. The first step executed most satisfactorily.
Once he was down, I hooked my hands underneath his armpits and dragged him as quickly as I could across the stone paving. I wanted the cover of the shrubs so we wouldn’t be seen. He’s heavy but I’m strong, and I was able to pull him through a gap between two laurel bushes.
The exertion has left me breathless. I hold out my hands, palms down. I see the ghost of a tremor. Clench fists, then open again. Both hands flutter like moths, just as my heart flutters against my ribs. I curse under my breath. A steady right hand is essential to carry out my assignment. The solution’s in a side pocket of my backpack. A packet of tablets, a small bottle of water. Propranolol – the snooker player’s beta-blocker of choice. I swallow two and close my eyes, waiting for them to take effect. At the next check, the tremor is gone. Now I’m ready to begin.
Taking a deep breath, I reach into the bag and feel for my knife roll. Satisfaction floods through me as my fingers touch the soft leather, the steel outlined beneath. I sharpened the blades with great care last night. Intuition, you might say, that today would be the day.
I drop the roll onto the man’s back and untie the cords. The leather unfurls with a soft clink of metal, the blades cold beneath my fingertips. I select the short-handled knife that I’ll use for the first cuts, marking the outline of the skin to be removed. After that, for the flaying itself, I’ll use a longer, backward-curving knife. I buy them from Japan and they cost a small fortune. But it’s worth it.
They’re fashioned using the same techniques employed for Samurai swords. Tempered steel enables me to cut with speed and precision, as if I’m carving shapes out of butter.
I put the rest of the knives on the ground next to his body and check his pulse again. Fainter than before but he’s still alive. Blood seeps from his head, more slowly now. Time for a quick, deep test cut into his left thigh. There’s no flinch or intake of breath. Just a steady oozing of dark, slippery blood. Good. I can’t afford for him to move while I’m cutting.
The moment has arrived. With one hand holding the skin taut, I make the first incision. I draw the blade swiftly down from the top of his shoulder across the jutting angles of his scapula, following the outline of the design. A red ribbon appears in the wake of my blade, warm as it runs down onto my fingers. I hold my breath as the knife carves its path, savouring the shiver that rolls up my spine and the hot rush of blood to my groin.
The man will be dead by the time I finish.
He isn’t the first. And he won’t be the last.
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