"If ever there were an argument for strawberry blonde," my mother opined, "it would be you, my dear."
She was being kind. Unfortunately, we both knew that 'strawberry blonde' was just a white lie other parents told their kids. I was undeniably ginger, and therefore, in mortal danger.
When the first body was found in one of the fields between Telford and Bridgnorth, a young woman of twenty, the region had gone into shock. The papers called it a local tragedy, and everybody moved on with their lives. After a second body washed up on the banks of the Severn, a man this time, nobody dared voice their fears. But when a young couple walking their dog in the woods discovered the third red-haired corpse, word spread fast. Somebody was killing gingers.
Living in Shropshire, I'd never found myself in the path of a serial killer before. Part of me felt flattered. Of course, the rest of me just didn't want to die. If I'd been born in another time, they might have drowned me at birth for my hair colour, presumed me evil. Lucky then, one could say, that I had reached nineteen at all.
The three dead gingers - they'd had their throats cut. When it became apparent that somebody was targeting individuals of the auburn persuasion, the papers had a field day. Every combination of the words "red" and "dead" were used to the point of exhaustion.
I was the only ginger in my family, by the way. My mother was fair, my step-dad dark. My father, the out of the picture one, he'd been the one to pass on “the curse”. Every family photo made me look like the result of a fling with a flame-haired milkman.
“Stop thinking, darling,” my mother drawled whilst applying lipstick. “You'll get lines.”
“I can't help it,” I told her. “How am I to know I won't be next?”
A look of genuine concern flitted across my mother's usually impassive, impeccable countenance. Only for a second, mind. She'd just applied foundation.
“There must be hundreds of redheads in Shropshire,” she said after a moment's thought. “Thousands, even.”
“Your reassurance warms my chilled heart.”
“Oh, sweetie.” She looked up from her compact mirror and smiled. “What is it you want me to say? That everything is going to be just fine? I firmly believe that it will, but I've not been able to shut you up that easily since you were twelve.”
This was true. Compared to my older brother and sister, I was considered “difficult”.
“Where are you off to again?” I asked her.
“Theatre,” she said, lost in her mirror once again. “With the girls.”
“You mean he's going to be in all night?”
“Yes, your stepfather is going to be in the house all evening with you. Try not to think of it as a punishment, sweetie.”
I hated him. I couldn't even pretend any more that I didn't. And the feeling was deeply, irrevocably mutual. I kissed my mother on the cheek, wished her a pleasant evening, then sat down to simmer. If only there was some way I could get rid of him. When he first married my mother, I had tried all kinds of tricks to get him to leave. I'd told so many lies, pulled so many stunts, that nothing I attempted now would be credible.
No, I couldn't. Could I?
At that moment he came into the living room, walking past me on the way to the kitchen. His aftershave, something that would smell awful even on a man half his age, made my nose wrinkle.
“Alright, ginge?” He asked casually.
“I'm strawberry blonde,” I muttered under my breath. Then, even quieter: “Bastard.”
And I knew what I was going to do. But I'd have to plan it properly first. Get it all straight in my head before I acted. The devil, after all, was in the details.
From the front page of The Shropshire Star, Friday 27th May 2011:
RED KILLER DEAD
After a reign of terror that lasted four months, the identity of the slayer of three young people in the county of Shropshire has been discovered by the authorities. We can reveal that the killer, who can not yet be name publicly, died in a struggle with his intended prey. In a shocking twist, a source close to the West Mercia Police has informed us that the fourth would-be victim was, in fact, the killer's own stepchild. Although an official statement is pending, it is believed that they acted in self-defence and will not be penalised for their actions. Quite the opposite, in fact: this unnamed teen will likely meet with the support and gratitude of the community for bringing the killer of three to justice. Considering the tragedies through which the people of Shropshire have lived recently, a hero with red hair could not be more appropriate symbol of better times to come.