Originally I thought this was part of DI Paula Parsons’ backstory but it doesn’t fit her anymore, so this is DI Hayley Carter, Parsons’ predecessor, and I don’t know how it ends exactly, except it ends with her being booted out of the force and Parsons taking her job.
Featuring: police corruption, head trauma, murder
Blood rushed in my ears, drowning the murmur around me. People blocked the steps up to the police station, gathered around the figure sprawled across them, half beneath the central handrail. They looked up at me and back down at the woman, while I grimly gripped the rail and let them move around me. Their faces and uniform blurred into the background of my consciousness, as I focused on the way the side of her head was deformed, caved in, clotted with blood. I didn’t have to fumble my way around her throat with trembling, clumsy fingers like PC Forester, to know she was dead.
“What the fuck, Carter?” Detective Sergeant Stanley rumbled at me, as if I’d put her there as a practical joke.
PC Forester staggered away to lose his breakfast down a convenient drain. It was his first corpse and his first suspicious death, all in one.
I tried to moisten my lips, but my tongue was dry as cardboard.
“I don’t know, sir,” I croaked.
The woman on the steps was wearing a black trouser suit I recognised – I had one exactly like it. Her hair was short, like mine. Her shoes were identical to the ones I was currently wearing. But these details of my wardrobe were lost on DS Stanley, who was focused on the bigger picture.
“Why does she have your face?”
I had no easy answer to that. “I don’t know, sir.”
My truthfulness was met with a flat, unimpressed glare. “Well, since this is your first day as a Detective Constable, I suggest you start doing the legwork to find out why.”
I nodded, stomach churning. Permission to be excused was not going to be granted. “Yes, sir.”
I had no idea who she was, or why she had my face, or how she came to be dumped on the steps of the police station.
The only thing I knew for certain was who’d killed her.
It may have been PC Forester’s first corpse, but it was my first cover-up.
It had all begun a few months ago, when the woman with my face got off the train at Pagham Parkway station. Our eyes met through the window of the station cafe. I was just picking up a coffee and revising for my detective exams – I was still a PC myself then, desperate to prove myself and pass my detective exams, and the station should have been Traffic’s responsibility, but with cut-backs it was part of my beat to swing by on the way to the TravelInn Hotel and the commuter estate on the edge of town. That day I’d thought I was seeing things. I knew weird shit happened here – Pagham-on-Sea was that sort of a town – but seeing myself, in my own clothes, sent an icy shudder down my back.
The woman’s eyes locked with mine for the briefest of moments, and I saw my own expression mirrored on her face, like a reflection. Then a group of people pushed their way to the barriers, and she was borne along with them and out of sight.
I tried to forget it. I told myself all kinds of comforting things. But I kept seeing her.
I saw her across the high street.
I saw her sitting in my favourite cafe.
I saw her going into the cinema.
I saw her going past me on the bus.
She was everywhere. This woman had got off a train one grey day in January, walked into my life, and wouldn’t leave it. I began to see her in people that looked nothing like me. I saw her in people with fair skin, who couldn’t possibly be me. I saw her in kids, too young to be me. I flinched at my own reflection in car windows, shop windows, mirrors, puddles; I recoiled from my own appearance as if it caused me physical pain, the mental equivalent of stepping on a pin. I would stand in front of my door, keys scoring their livid marks into my palm as I clenched my fist around them, staring at the door handle, the portal to my waking nightmare. The pit of my stomach churned and flipped every time I had to leave the house, every time I had to look both ways to cross the road, every time I caught a stranger’s eye. I lived suspended in the fear of knowing you’re about to fall, before you hit the ground.
That was why, when I saw her again, I followed her.
On the 17th of March at eight o’clock in the evening, I caught a glimpse of the woman with my face leaving the Prince Albert pub. I saw her in the orange of a streetlight, turning around a corner with only one swift, backward glance.
It was a seedy area, the house next to it a dilapidated, crumbling heap, and the Prince Albert itself was a notorious no-go pub for police. If someone had seen her in there, and thought she was me…
A bubble of rage burst in the front of my skull, my chest hot and tight. I ran after her around the side of the pub and down the alleyway, not thinking.
“Hey!” I don’t know how I managed to shout. My throat was dry and constricted, snakes squirming in my stomach, whipping up queasy crests that rose and fell, causing my heart to flutter and pound.
She turned, my face staring back at me with a confused expression, blank, vacant, defeated. “You,” she said, in my voice, and I stopped dead in the midst of the rubbish bags and debris from the half-demolished wall the other side of us.
“Me,” I asserted, half for my own benefit, half for hers.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?” she asked. I recognised that flat, dead tone. It was my grandmother’s tone when things didn’t go her way. She had the same puffy bags below her eyes as me, the same heavy lids and the same lines around her mouth, pulled down into the same unhappy frown.
I flashed into a temper. “Why won’t you leave me alone?”
She swayed a little, staring at me. “I read about this,” she croaked, in that flat, dead whisper. “When you see yourself like this, it means you’re going to die.”
“Like hell it does,” I snapped. “I’m a police officer. You need to tell me what this is all about.”
She smiled, then. “I thought about joining the force, once.” Her eyes skittered past me, staring into the night. “I didn’t think I’d be assertive enough.”
I heard my own doubts about joining up parroted back at me, and my skin prickled as the blood drained from my face. I didn’t want to think about my double having a life independent of my own.
“What do you do?” I asked. “Why do you have my face?” I tried to swallow. “What’s your name?”
She blinked, returning my own stare to me. “Hayley,” she said. “My name is Hayley. Hayley Carter.”
To this day, I don’t remember picking up the brick. I don’t remember its rough, gritty weight in my hand. I don’t remember how my fingers closed over its edges, the size of it relative to my palm.
I do remember the sound it made when it hit the side of her skull.
I remember watching myself die.
I was sure no one had seen, or heard. No one was around. I dropped the brick and caught her before she hit the ground, but she was dead. I already knew she was dead. Her eyes rolled back in her head, the whites of them gleaming in the gloom, and fear froze my instincts, shut down my thoughts. I was in an alley holding a dead woman who looked exactly like me, wearing clothes I had bought, bearing my name. I’d met my own double, and I’d killed her.
I know no one had seen me.
Later that night I came back for the body, stashed behind the bin bags in a dark corner. No one saw me wrapping it up, dragging it down the alley and into my car. I weighed it down with the bricks from the broken wall – including the one I’d hit her with – and drove her out to Devil’s Drop. She fell like a stone down the cliffs, but I’d kicked her far enough that she missed bouncing down the sides and instead splashed directly into the sea.
So when she turned up bone-dry on the steps of the police station the very next morning, still dead, I knew this was the start of something, not the end.