The Babysitter

The Babysitter by Sheryl Browne

To my family, who offered their love and support unquestioningly when I needed it most.

To my little brother. I miss you.

To Drew. You are my inspiration. Without you, this book might have had one or two plot holes.

I love you all.



Oblivious to the slimy, wet mud oozing between her toes, Grace took a faltering step backwards, away from the house. Her huge cognac-coloured eyes illuminated by the light of the fire, she watched, mesmerised and helpless, as the flames licked hungrily at her parents’ bedroom curtains. She’d tried to tell them what happened to Ellie wasn’t her fault.

Constantly around her ankles, while their mum and husband number three had partied, her younger sister Ellie had been watching as she and her friends lit up their sparklers and drew their names against the dark blue ink of the sky. Ellie had wanted to do it, too. Later, Grace had promised her; anything to placate her and stop her ‘telling Mummy’ she’d been smoking, which would only add to Grace’s list of sins.

Ellie hadn’t forgotten. Still awake when Grace had crept up to bed, her sister had whinged until, urging her to be quiet, Grace had given in and tiptoed back downstairs to fetch a packet of leftover sparklers from the box in the kitchen.

Her eyes like big brown orbs, Ellie had watched in awe as Grace struck the match and lit the sparkler, igniting a thousand crackling slivers of light in their bedroom. She’d squealed like the foxes that scream in the night when her flesh had singed, despite how hard Grace tried to shush her. Grace hadn’t wanted to hurt her sister. But she knew nobody would believe her. They never did.

Grace took another step back, her heart skipping a beat as a figure appeared at the window, flames lashing at his flesh like hot vipers’ tongues. It wasn’t her fault. She’d tried to tell them. She’d told Ellie to hold the firework at arm’s length. They hadn’t been listening. Her mum’s eyes had been as wild as the fire. She’d still been wearing her lipstick, blood red, like an angry red slash for a mouth, as she’d cursed and spat, ‘You stupid creature. Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done!’

She’d been holding Ellie in her arms, clutching her plump little hand in her own and pointing it out towards Grace like an accusation. Ellie’s fingers had been blistered, her thigh, too, where the sparkler had landed.

Her stepdad had started after her as her mum swept past Grace to take Ellie to accident and emergency. ‘I’ll drive you,’ he’d offered, but he hadn’t wanted to. Grace could tell by the way his gaze drifted lewdly towards her that he hadn’t wanted to.

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ her mum had snapped angrily. ‘You’ve drunk your own body weight in beer. Just… deal with her,’ she’d added, causing ice-cold dread to pool in the pit of Grace’s stomach. She hadn’t wanted to be alone with him, to watch him draw the blinds and turn from the window, that liquid, faraway look in his eyes as he unfastened his waistband.

Hearing the wail of the sirens growing closer, Grace tore her gaze from the window. Panic twisting her stomach and thick, choking smoke gripping her throat, she backed towards the denser foliage at the bottom of the garden.

* * *

Pulling on the requisite hand and footwear protection, Mark sucked in a deep breath and braced himself to enter the premises. ‘DI Cain,’ he said, producing his ID and introducing himself to the uniformed officer in the hall, who was looking rather green around the gills. The guy was young – early twenties, Mark guessed, probably not long off probation. Mark had been about the same age, seven long years ago, when he’d encountered his first victim. He’d kept his breakfast down – just. This, though – a whole family incinerated, a young child included – was truly an initiation by fire. ‘DS Moyes?’ he asked.

‘Child’s bedroom. First left at the top,’ the officer answered, and swallowed hard on his Adam’s apple.

Mark nodded, glancing at him sympathetically. ‘Take a break,’ he suggested. ‘Grab some air.’ Not that the air out there was much less putrid than in here. As acrid as the smell of burned wood suffused with gunpowder was, it was doing little to hide the nauseatingly sweet stench of singed flesh. Like roast pork crackling on Sundays. Mark remembered well the times he’d looked forward to going to his gran’s as a kid, escaping the endless violent arguments at home. He hadn’t been able to go near a roast joint since he’d attended a road traffic accident where the unfortunate driver, entombed in his car, had gone up in flames.

‘I’m good, sir,’ the officer assured him stoically.

Mark was unconvinced. ‘Humour me,’ he said. ‘I’ve done my own fair share of contaminating evidence. Trust me, I know the signs.’

‘Sir,’ the officer said, his look now a mixture of embarrassment and relief as he turned for the front door.

Mark watched him go, and then, steeling himself, he climbed the stairs and headed directly for the child’s room. Lisa Moyes, his detective sergeant, was there, looking down at the small form in the bed. Detective Sergeant Cummings was also there, though Mark was buggered if he knew why. First responder, he wondered? Unlikely. The man was a lazy sod. More likely he’d been on his way back from some seedy liaison in the city and had stopped by out of idle curiosity.

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