In the age of Serial and Making a Murderer, our obsession with true crime is climbing to new, more interactive heights. We no longer simply thrill at the cold cases, we think we can solve them on Reddit. This is the next natural step in that evolution. -the Eds
Tuesday’s murder is nothing special apart from the paperwork.
I’ve been up till four in the morning going through the application. Technically that isn’t my job, because interns aren’t supposed to deal with the council directly, but Tony thinks admin is for girls. When I come down, Mona is already up and making pancakes.
There’s coffee hot on the kitchen table. Technically it’s Mona’s kitchen table, because she’s the one on the lease, and the flat’s hardly big enough for one young professional, let alone two. We rub along reasonably well. I know she worries about me, which is why she tries to make sure I eat before I leave.
“It’s not even seven,” says Mona. “You can’t let him do this all the time. He doesn’t pay you.”
She’s annoyed, although she won’t say so. She rarely gets cross, which is a good thing in a flatmate. Still, she ought to be more understanding. After my last internship went so very wrong, she knows how much this one means to me.
“I just have to get the recording gear set up at the warehouse,” I say. “We have to get it off to the Standard before they go to press.”
“You can’t let him treat you like a kitchen appliance.”
Mona has decided to be busy and not look at me, which is as close to cross as she ever gets. She pushes the breakfast things to one side, fills the colander with dead frogs from the fridge and starts rinsing and patting them dry on kitchen towels.
I love Mona’s frogs. She mostly does smaller things these days, butterflies and moths and the occasional pigeon chick when they break their necks on the balcony in spring, but the frogs are what first made me realise that she has a gift. She paints the skin with a goopy glaze that makes it seem for all the world like they've just hopped out of the garden pond, slimed and skin-breathing.
Mona glances at the stains on my shirt, which I’ve been wearing for three days. She sees me see her looking.
"Look, there's nothing to be embarrassed about," she says. "It's just bodies. I’m worried you’re not taking care of yourself, that’s all."
I know Mona worries about me. I know. But then again, she’s got rich parents who can pay for her to do what she loves. It’s different for her.
Just bodies, just bodies, I tell myself as I wait for the bus.
I am embarrassed, though. And I'm cross with myself for being embarrassed, because really, I knew what I was signing on for when I took the gig. I should have been more prepared.
Still, I like to think that my boss and I have developed a rapport.
I'm good at getting people to like me. It comes naturally, not that Tony isn’t a special learning experience in social skills. When he's talking to you his eyes go a little bit wide but never quite meet yours; his attention darts about all over the room, and so does the rest of him, always pacing, restless, running his hands through his hair. Except when he’s working. He’s extremely still when he’s working.
He fidgets on camera, though which is why it takes ages to shoot Tuesday’s video.
“You will know fear,” he growls under the mask. “You will know pain. Before night falls I’ll kill again. And you don’t know my name -”
“Tony,” I say, leaning into the shot, “I’ve got no issue with the dodgy rhyming, but are you absolutely sure you want to do the growly voice?”
“People like the growly voice,” says Tony, pushing the rubber clown head halfway up his face. “It’s classic.”
“I know,” I say, “but we’re not supposed to be going for classic.”
It’s true. Since serial murder was first recognized as one of the English Fine Arts, the trick has always been to keep it original. Even though the fans like the old hammer horror motifs best. And there are fans by the swivel-eyed truckload out there, although these days Tony’s truck is more of a minivan.
“I just think it’s a little bit Jigsaw, the growling,” I say. “If you’re going to do homage, you should really keep it pre-1980.”
“Did you learn that in Media Studies?” Tony Sneered. “Growling’s classic for a reason. Roll again.”
It’s really not worth arguing with Tony. I can't decide if he's a deeply disturbed person pretending to be ordinary, or a deeply ordinary person pretending to be disturbed.
We get the video done and compiled and sent off to the Evening Standard, and then we have lunch, sausage rolls from the corner shop, a lemonade for Tony, and black coffee for me. I’m still tetchy from lack of sleep.
“Right,” says Tony, as I clear the plates away, “let’s go over tonight’s mark.”
I consult the notes, although I hardly need to. I’ve been sorting through them for three days. Serial Murder as a Fine Art exists in a legal grey area distinguishing it from other violent crimes, and although dodging the law is part of the game, the Arts Council keep private files on every incident, and give grants in deserving cases. All of which means not just lots of paperwork, but confusing paperwork.
“There were a few pages missing from the start of the application,” I tell Tony. “I was up all night trying to find them, although the basic info is there, and the signature.”
“Let’s start with the basics, shall we?” Tony cracks open another lemonade.
“Anthony Harris, aged sixty-three, married, no kids, lives up in Walthamstow. So not too far. We can get there on the bus.”
“Why did he apply?”
“Usual reasons. Close to retirement. Depressed, meds not working, good luck getting treatment as an OAP on a state pension. Not a lot of family apart from the wife, and I don’t think she’s well.”
“Not a fan, then?”
“Oh no, definitely a fan. He asked for you specifically.” Actually, Harris had spelled Tony’s name wrong twice—two different wrong spellings—but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
“Well, we do our best for the fans, don’t we?” says Tony, preening a bit.
“I really think,” I say slowly, “that we ought to have the whole application before we get started on this one.”
“I’ll worry about that,” snapped Tony. “You’re not meant to worry about that. You’re meant to do what I tell you. Go and answer some emails, I need to get in the zone.”
I know when to drop it, so I open the laptop.
Dealing with emails is about half my job. There are always one or two enthusiastic wannabe accomplices, which is stupid, because everyone knows the Council runs the placement system and you can’t apply directly. But most of it’s fan mail. Tony generally answers one or two every day, which I think is overkill.
I feel a bit sorry for Tony. It's not that he's not a good serial killer, it's just that for various reasons things haven't worked out for him, and he hasn't achieved the sort of notoriety that someone with his skill set really deserves.
For instance: The last troubled, hard-drinking detective with unorthodox methods who Tony managed to hook into a daring cat-and-mouse game ended up in rehab for alcohol abuse, thus wasting months of painstaking antagonism. He's alright now, but part of his recovery program apparently involves no longer doing active police work, which pisses Tony off no end after the amount of time he put into the creepy post-crime scene flirtation they had going on.
The new inspector on the case just doesn't have the same sparkle. Sure, he breaks the rules now and then, but his colleagues generally like him and he's Tony says he doesn't have enough personality disorders to be interesting.
Personally, I think that's a bit rich coming from Tony.
It's not that Tony is boring, precisely. And it's not that he doesn't have any other interests, or things that he cares about with the sort of sick fervor you'd expect from people in his line of work. It's just that he cares about being a famous serial killer slightly more than anything else.
His anonymous fanfeed—which I run, using encryption Tony doesn't know how to operate—only has three hundred and eighty followers, and although it's nudging up all the time, I find him checking the tally on my computer when he thinks I'm not looking.
The real shame is that Tony actually has the raw talent. It's more than technique. A lot of people have given the serial killer thing a go just because they wanted to be famous and they thought that just because they could snap a neck or sever an artery they had it in them to be a star. They weren't professionals.
Tony’s a professional, but he can never quite settle on what sort of professional he wants to be. You really need one of those, something original, even if you’re going for classic, old-school motifs. Something about your work that marks you out. Instead it’s growly voice under the mask one week, pennies on the eyes the next, and all ripped off from some film he conveniently forgets he saw. It’s a real shame.
All of the administrivia is done by four-thirty, but there isn’t enough time to go all the way home to Ealing and then back out to Walthamstow, even if we could use normal public transport to get to evening jobs. I text Mona to let her know I won’t be in for dinner.
You have to quit this placement, she texts back, almost immediately. The guy clearly doesn’t value your talents. Find a job somewhere that treats you less like a maid and more like the strong, ambitious human predator you are.
Mr Anthony Harris, of number 27, Hatherley Mews, Walthamstow, seems surprised to see us when he opens the door. Which is odd, because we do have the paperwork, so we should have been expected.
"Of course, I'm a fan,' says Harris, nervously, not inviting us in as he ought to, "but I have a good few things to be getting on with in the next few weeks. Which, um, is why my application specifically said September, and not before."
Tony says nothing. He’s rummaging in his briefcase.
"So if you could just come back after next Friday or possibly Saturday, I'll be more than pleased to see you,' gabbles Harris, 'but right now I've got to get the attic door fixed, rehome the budgie, transfer my pension to the wife—she’s sick, you know, early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lots of odds and ends still to sort out."
There’s panic in his voice, and he’s flapping his flabby hands like plucked hens trying to fly as he backs along the hall.
Tony still says nothing. He takes out a pink card out of the briefcase and hands it to Harris. 'This is the official complaint number,” he says.
Then Tony takes his taser from his belt and shoots Anthony Harris in the chest at close range.
It isn’t a lot of bother, maneuvering Harris' bulk onto the plastic sheeting so Tony can get out the gloves and piano wire and finish things off. It’s rather a lot more bother scrubbing down the hall floor after the inevitable evacuations have taken place.
I do all that myself, and Tony, whose job it apparently isn't, stands over me and points out bits I've missed. Harris pissed himself when Tony laid him out and straddled him, taser in both hands, the meat bucking and shaking and leaking and drooling and making little muffled squeaks like someone screaming into a paper bag far away.
The only word I made out was "please."
"It's not my problem if the department fucked up the paperwork," says Tony, inspecting his fingernails as I scrub.
I try not to look at Harris' purpling features as I grind the stains out of the carpet. Not because I can't handle it. It just isn't respectful.
It was a clean kill, and he'd requested it, after all, although it was a shame about us getting the day wrong. There's always a certain organic element of surprise that's lost, though, when the subject is too ready. The department do their best to sift out the perverts and weirdoes, but a few months into this placement, one elderly couple were sitting in their front room with tea and biscuits laid out for Tony when we arrived.
I took a cup of tea in order not to seem rude while they explained that they had heard he was an efficient, hardworking young man, a lot like their son, who would not now have to sell his house to afford their care. I pocketed some biscuits for later, as I was oddly nauseous that day and couldn't manage a bite, and Tony was already opening his briefcase.
The cleaning up takes a while. By the time we leave Harris' house, closing the back door quietly, it’s gone midnight. The tubes have stopped running, so I have to take a cab home.
I just think the system ought to work better.
On Friday, Mona murders a butterfly at the breakfast table. It’s a Red Admiral, which five years ago would have been nothing special, but there have been fewer and fewer in the city over the past few summers. This one was hanging around the buddleia by the kitchen window. Mona caught it in her poison jar. It was flopping about in there like it knew what was coming, crashing crazily against the glass.
I’m making coffee in the pour-over device I got from mum for Christmas. Actual, proper coffee is one of my few indulgences, which is the way you get through being young and poor in London: you save like hell, buy value pasta and scratchy toilet roll, and then you choose one or two things you’re going to spend your money on no matter what, things that make the rest bearable. Mona has her poison jar. Mine is coffee, and semi-regular manicures from the Vietnamese place up the road. There’s a woman there who doesn’t balk at what’s under my fingernails.
"Look," says Mona, beckoning me over as she slides the little ball of cotton wool soaked in nail polish remover into the bottom of the jar.
The coffee gets cold.
I really can’t explain how good it feels to watch something die, knowing you could make it stop. Either it makes sense to you, or it doesn’t. That’s what Mona and me have in common. She only kills animals for her taxidermy, but even for that, you’ve got to have a particular constitution. It’s not just the joy and it’s not just the power. You have to keep those things separate, or you’ll never be good.
Like bodies. You can’t just see the meat. You have to know where to cut to let the soul out.
Either you have it or you don’t, that knack. The rest is just craft practice.
We’re quiet for a long time as the Red Admiral judders and goes stiff. In the sunlight, its wings are bloody jewels, almost transparent.
“Now,” says Mona in the moment. The Red Admiral freezes, becomes another sort of still. “It’s now.”
Our faces are very close together over the killing jar.
And suddenly, that’s enough.
“Right,” I say, “I’ve got to get to work.”"
“I don’t understand why it wasn’t on the front page,” says Tony, through a mouthful of pastry. The cornershop was out of sausage rolls, so we’re lunching on curry turnovers.
“It might just be," Tony, I say, carefully. “And it’s not like you’re killing anyone interesting. Or hot young women. That generally makes the news.”
Tony knows that social media is important, but that's the limit of what he knows. It's not enough anymore just to have a website and shove up a couple of videos. You’ve got to know your market. You’ve got to have an edge. The true-crime craze more or less drove the business we're in: The hunger for more and more murder stories to follow in realtime. The networks needed it. The people needed it. TV drama wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was inevitable that they’d find a way to make it a semi-official line of work. It came out of America, but Britain was a pioneer in finding the legal loopholes that would allow for serial murder as a one of the Fine English Arts. That was where the De Quincey Ruling came in.
The catch is this: You've got to be creative. You can't just be an everyday butcher. You've got to be a star. Legally, that's the whole point. You can't, for example, just bludgeon your flatmate to death with an egg-poaching pan because she happened to leave the fridge door open overnight and then claim you're a misunderstood genius. Crimes of passion and convenience are still illegal. No, you've got to make an artistic case for your work, develop a portfolio and find Arts council funding, private funding from donors or—more usually—a combination of both. Council grants are like gall bladders: Hard to find, especially when you're already up to your elbows in gore.
And it's getting harder. Today, every idiot thinks he can put up a crowdfunding call with a couple of scary videos with accidentally-on-purpose shaky camerawork blatantly copied from Paranormal and bingo, he's a serial killer. It's getting harder to make a name for yourself because it's not enough to just be good, not anymore. You've got to sell yourself. You’ve got to be an entrepreneur. That’s what’s so frustrating about Tony. It’d be alright for him to be old-school if he owned it, made it his unique selling point. But he doesn’t seem to get that that’s what his fans like about him. He doesn’t work it enough. Instead he just gets pissy and growls at me when I make suggestions.
“Hot young girls don’t sign up for the programme.” Tony is snappy this morning. He always gets like this when he has too much sugar.
“Firstly,” I say, “Killing people who actually want to die is, by its nature, less exciting. Secondly, I’m not sure you’ve got any idea what hot young girls want.”
“Tell me, then,” said Tony. “You’ve got two tits and the youth angle. Why don’t hot young girls want to die?”
“Because not all of them are working for you.”
Tony throws the rest of his sausage roll at my head, but I’m already ducking. He’s got reflexes like a cat, but mine are faster.
People rate serial murderers by the number and brutality of the kills, but anyone can shoot up a classroom or blow up a train carriage. Quantity does of course have a quality all its own, but it is a quality of crassness.
In terms of headcount, I reckon the easiest way to achieve mass murderer on an epic scale is to run for government. Sign one piece of paper and a million people go hungry. Cut the funding for one domestic violence refuge and hundreds more have nowhere to run. How much death can you deal on the basis of one decision? How many years will be worn by worry and lack of care from those who remain?
A cumulative understanding of murder. That's what I'd like to see.
So many of the people who volunteer for Tony are out of work and depressed. people who have spent so long being told that they're good for nothing that they believe it. Half of Tony's job has been done for him when he shows up with his holdall. I think that’s cheating.
There are only two ways of achieving a perfect kill. The first is to destroy the subject utterly, to destroy them psychologically as well as physically. The Ripper was the first true artist because he or she spread such a panic amongst and about the prostitutes of East London that they were reduced to the way the rest of the world already imagined them, to frightened beasts, to variations on a type, half-human, unhuman. And what a performer. ‘The Juwes Are The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing.’ Those strange words scrawled on a whitechapel wall streets away from where Annie Chapman lay oozing and eviscerated in a mean little backyard. What does that even mean?
It means art doesn’t have to make sense.
Tony will not be blamed for nothing either, although as far as I know he is not at all religious- actually he spends quite a lot of time hanging out on atheist forums monstering people with Richard Dawkins quotes in a way that I find both predictable and irritating. He’s terrible at covering his search history.
It must be funny, having an intern. Someone you’re in charge of and can boss around who also actively wants your job and probably thinks they could do it better, too, given the chance.
I find myself eyeing Tony up, imagining him under his clothes, the weight and meat of him - not in a dirty way, just idly wondering if I could lift him by myself when he was out cold, or whether I’d need some sort of winch. A hundred and fifty pounds, give or take. That’s not much more than me, but I’m shorter, and there’s leverage to consider.
Just professional daydreaming.
The lines of Tony’s skull are fine, knobs of bone visible under the thinning hair. It’s pretty easy, if you have the eye, to work out where you’d apply force to make sure he stayed down.
Tony sees me looking.
He tells me to get to the depot for some new knives and a length of twine and also some cigarettes and a can of lemonade.
“Stupid cow,” he says when I get back. “I said the sugar-free lemonade.”
He absolutely didn’t say sugar-free. If Tony went on a diet you’d start to see his spine through his stomach.
He’s also never been that directly mean to me before.
They don't exactly say that girls don't have the gift for this work. They talk around it, but that's what they mean, their words sliding and setting around the shape of what is left unsaid until its hollow form is clear: there is no genius in women. When there is, she can't really be a woman, not truly, she must be a freak or a mutilated man. Girls don't burn with that hunger. Girls don't know those dirty preteen passions.
The director of the Arts Council prize for English Murder actually said that, when they gave out the first awards, before the feminist Twittersphere got uppity about it. Girls, he said, haven't been planning their kills since they were eight years old. You can't go back in time and expose young women to hours and hours of murderous misogynist pornography. They don't have the programming; it's too late. They might make it as mediocre artists in the field, but that’s all.
I go back out and get the lemonade. We work the rest of the day in silence.
But when Tony gets up to go to the loos, I start looking through the files again.
It’s amazing what some people will just leave open on their desktop.
‘You know why the Americans are better at this, don’t you?” says Tony, as we wait in an alley for our 6pm appointment. Louisa Kettering, aged 35, another Arts Council worker, the third this month.
“I don’t know, Tony,” I say, “why?” It’s raining, and I’m trying to keep the kit-bag from getting soaked on the ground.
“Americans are more entrepreneurial,” says Tony. “They have to be. No welfare state, no healthcare. It incentivises them to work harder. “
Tony has been reading Ayn Rand again. It’s going to be one of those weeks. Although he could be on to something. There are at least ten times as many serial killers in North America as there are in the whole of Europe, which is probably why the Council wants us to catch up.
Just then, Louisa Kettering comes out of her house across the street to put out her recycling.. Her dark hair is windswept and she looks harried—still in her office clothes, with a pair of house-slippers on her feet, waddling over to the green wheelie-bins. I notice the way she’s walking before I see the bump, and catch my breath.
Louisa Kettering is at least six months pregnant.
That wasn’t on the application.
This is going to be interesting.
“Does that count as two?” Tony asks, even though he should know that it does, at least officially. As far as the papers are concerned, it counts far more than that. This one will definitely make the front of the Evening Standard.
We very almost never get applications from pregnant people, the lives of unborn children being outside the Arts Council’s area of expertise. We can kill as many women as we want as long as we don’t damage any blobs of flesh that might conceivably grow up to be taxpayers. There are rules. So Louisa Kettering is unusual.
I watch Tony think it over. Tony’s thinking-it-over face reminds me of one of Mona’s less successful early taxidermy projects, which she christened “the constipated gibbon.”
“Are we going to get in trouble for this?” I ask.
“No,” says Tony, slowly. “No, the paperwork’s all there. It’s on the Arts Council to sort it out—twice over, since she’s their employee.”
We watch Louisa Kettering struggling to manoeuvre the rubbish bags around her bump, which is straining at her t-shirt like a giant access about to explode. Grotesque. I don’t know why anyone puts themselves through that.
“Selfish, anyway,” says Tony. “Trying to balance full-time work with motherhood. Too many women doing it. What kind of life would that kid have had?”
He’s using the past tense. He’s decided.
He makes me do the death-knock. I’m a lost student asking to use the phone because my mobile has died. I ring the bell and pinch myself hard on the hips and face to bring on the watery eyes as Louisa Kettering waddles to the door.
“Of course,” she says, squinting out at the darkness. “Come inside.”
That’s all we need, vampires that we are. Tony is three feet behind me with the piano wire.
She never saw it coming. I guess that’s a mercy.
“Ever think about having kids?” says Tony, as he watches me saw off a couple of fingers. Proof of purchase, as it were.
“No,” I say, “I’m really not the type.”
“You say that now,” says Tony, “But by the time you hit thirty, you’ll be baby-crazy, just like the rest of them. You can’t balance full-time murder with popping out kids. It just makes you a bad mother and a worse killer and besides, your boss will have to stump up for your maternity pay out of taxpayers’ money.”
Why is Tony thinking about this right now? He almost never asks me about my life.
“All I’m saying is you should think about work-life balance. It’s important. I read about it in the paper the other day.”
“Thanks, Tony,” I say, “But I’m leaning into my career.”
“You should think about it, that’s all.”
I’m definitely thinking about it. I think about it all the way home on the bus, with Louisa Kettering’s blood still under my fingernails. Something doesn’t add up.
Tuesday morning. It’s my birthday. I’m twenty-three.
There’s a soft rustlng in the air, something weird and elemental on the edge of sound.
I look up over the blankets.
My walls aren’t white anymore.
At first, I think it’s some sort of fabric, rustling in the wind. Then, blinking sleep from my eyes, I see them.
Butterflies. Hundreds of them.
They’ve been pinned to the walls carefully, still alive, struggling slowly, suffocating in the morning sunlight. Every kind of butterfly I know, and some I don’t, in wriggling diorama. There are Cabbage Whites and Tortoiseshells and Holly Blues. Most of all, there are Red Admirals, the red splotches on their wingtips fluttering like drops of blood.
That’s when I know for sure.
I don’t mean that I know Mona loves me. I know that already. I’m not an idiot. It’s just difficult when you value your working relationship with a person and really need them to carry on sharing the rent.
I mean, I know what needs to be done.
I’m not sure I’m ready. But here’s Mona telling me the best way she can that, in the most important sense, I’ve been ready for a while now.
I watch the wallpaper of trembling wings, paper-thin and translucent in the dawnlight, and the next step becomes clear.
I let my head fall back on the pillow, luxuriating in those tiny deaths, those hasty insect lives stuttering still all around me. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever felt. Like an orgasm shattered into razor shards.
Then I get dressed and go out before the shops shut. There are specific items I need to locate.
Tony doesn’t seem surprised to see me at the door. He takes in the coverall and the breathmask. He doesn’t even to run. There’s no back door to the basement, anyway, and he knows I know that.
“It’s nothing personal, Tony, ” I say, holding up the taser, even though it definitely is. I feel like I ought to be a bit generous to him at this stage.
I back him along the hall, into the office, and it’s like we’re dancing together, me leading, him following.
“I found the files on Harris,” I said, “And the letter from the Council. You know, Tony, I expected better of you.”
When I told Mona what had happened, she agreed that it was the right thing. The Arts Council needs to cut costs, of course, every department does.
But not by nudging off retired employees and pregnant workers on C-list killers. That’s low.
We’re supposed to be artists. Our work is creative, respectful. We do not participate in culling excess stock.
There are standards.
I hold out the taser, and get the gutting knife out with my other hand.
Tony has grabbed an open can of lemonade from the side of the sofa and started to sip at it. I’m surprised to see that his hands are shaking, the whole of him is shaking, like something poorly-rendered on a broken screen.
“This means you’re ready now,” he says, looking over my shoulder. He hasn’t got a weapon.
“Ready for what?”
“I’ve been training you for this moment all along,” he says, setting down the can. “This moment. The moment when you’d come to kill me and take my place.”
And that’s when I almost lose it.
“No, you haven’t, Tony,” I say. “You really haven’t, Tony, that’s clichéd nonsense and I’m sick of it from you,” I say, and I shoot him twice in the neck.
I was planning to get him on his knees and do a little speech or something, but in the end I just get the rag out and stuff it between his teeth without further comment. Chloroform, properly old-school. Easy enough to buy online if you use the right proxy. You can even, Mona informs me, make it in the bath at home, although not our bath obviously, because we need to wash in that.
Mona comes in behind me, shuffling a bit in her coverall, which is too long for her in the legs. She prefers it a bit more clinical, I understand, but I needed help. We hoist Tony up on the gurney. Then Mona gets to work.
We make a good team.
What’s left at the end is amazingly lifelike. Mona really does have a gift. And I’ve already thought of what our unique selling point is going to be.
I actually found it a bit emotional, clearing up the mess.
I'm going to have to work on that.