Patrick frowned, but didn’t open his eyes. Instead he listened. Listened to the sound of the water. At first it was nothing more than a faint trickle, barely audible, like rain pattering against his bedroom window, but as he listened it seemed to grow louder and louder until it was thundering, pounding, a torrent rushing by just inches from his head.
He groaned, but still he didn’t open his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could even if he wanted to. He wasn’t tired, or at least he didn’t feel tired, but he was…groggy, drained, and the idea of movement, any movement, even something as simple as opening his eyes, seemed like too much effort. In spite of the noise he was sure he’d be able to drift back into a restful slumber easily…but then there was the cold.
He’d noticed it even before he’d woken, somehow registering the temperature in his still sleeping mind, incorporating it into the now almost-forgotten dream he’d been having. The nights were often cold where he lived, particularly if he’d forgotten to turn the heating on in the evening, but he had two thick blankets on his bed – a quilt and a dark blue fleece throw – between them more than enough to stave off the cold. But he could feel neither of them on his body, just the bitter winter air clawing at his flesh.
At first he wondered if perhaps Martha had stolen the covers, wrapped them around herself in a tight bundle as she was often prone to do, but it had been years since they’d last shared a bed. It was much more likely that he’d kicked the blankets off himself in his sleep, but he had neither the will nor the energy to search for them.
He could tolerate the cold and the noise. Perhaps the combination would cause his sleep to be fitful, result in a headache when he woke in the morning, but that seemed a much more attractive option than forcing himself to open his eyes, to move, to deal with these petty disturbances. He would suffer the discomfort if only he could drift back to sleep, rest his weary mind for an hour or two longer, but even as he resolved to endure the irritation he realised there was something more, something worse, something he could not ignore.
The moment he acknowledged it the pain seemed to grip his body, chasing any notion of sleep from his mind. His eyes bolted open as searing agony consumed his legs, his head, his abdomen, and before he knew it he was crying out, howling into the darkness that surrounded him. Even before his cry subsided he realised he wasn’t in his bed. He wasn’t even in his house.
He wasn’t quite sure where he was, but it was cold, dark, and somehow he knew he was alone. He was in a seated position, but not upright. He was upside-down, his head and arms dangling freely while something tight pinned him across his chest and something else, something sharp, something heavy, clamped around his legs. For an instant, no more than a second or two, he felt panic building within him like a swirling tempest, but quickly he subdued it, silenced it, breathing deeply as he gathered his thoughts.
Where the hell was he?
There wasn’t enough light, nowhere near enough for him to see where he was. He could see shapes, shadows, nameless forms in front of him, to his left, to his right, but recognised none of them. Taking a deep breath he moved his right arm, intending to feel around, perhaps gain some idea as to his location from touch alone, but as he moved a wave of fresh pain swept over him. He paused, waited, allowed it to pass, then clenched his teeth tightly and tried again.
This time he didn’t allow the stabbing sensation in his chest and shoulder to stop him. It was bad, worse than any pain he’d ever known, but still he persevered, moving slowly, carefully, but steadily. His fingers brushed against something above his head – a hard, fabric-covered surface, uneven, crumpled, savage shards of metal breaking through in places. There was something familiar about the fabric, but he couldn’t place it, couldn’t ascertain where he was from the feel of it alone.
Drawing in another deep breath he raised his arm, moving slowly but steadily as the pain in his body screamed at him to stop. Ignoring it he continued, emitting an audible sigh when his hand bumped against something hard. He paused for a moment, waited for the pain to subside, then continued, moving his hand carefully, cautiously, a faint smile forming on his lips as finally he found something he knew, something he recognised.
He brushed his fingers against the textured leather for a moment, just to make sure, slid his hand around the curved arc, flicked at the various levers that protruded from either side, his mind registering instantly the purpose of each and every one of them. Suddenly it all made sense. The cold, the dark, the position of his body, even the tight restraint across his chest that threatened to crush his ribs.
He was in his car.
He wasn’t sure how, or where, but he must have been in an accident. He’d rolled his car, and now…
He could remember. Not the accident, just flashes, vague images, foggy memories. He’d been at home, rushing about, gathering…things. He’d taken three bags out to the car. A suitcase and two holdalls. He’d been tired, breathing heavily, sweating, but there had been something he needed to do, something that couldn’t wait. He’d started the engine, turned on the headlights, started driving up the dirt track that led from his house to the road. He didn’t know where he’d been going, what he’d been doing, but at least he knew where he was, what had happened.
And what he needed to do now.
Clenching his teeth firmly, he moved his arm again, guiding his hand gradually towards his jacket. When he reached it, when his fingers touched the zipper, he paused, waited once again for the pain-induced fog to clear from his mind. The moment it did he slipped his hand inside his coat, fingers searching for his inside pocket, delving inside, searching until they found their goal.
He gripped it tightly, withdrawing it from his pocket, muttering a quick prayer to a God he’d never truly believed in that it hadn’t been damaged in the accident. When it was finally free of his jacket he flipped it open, emitting an audible sigh of relief when an eerie blue light flooded the remnants of his crumpled car. There was no signal, at least not one he could use to call one of his friends, call Martha, but a tiny letter “E” in the top right corner told him that he could still get a call through to the emergency services, summon the help he knew he needed.
Drawing in a staggered breath, Patrick dialled as quickly as he was able, hitting the “9” key three times before pressing the button to connect the call. He groaned as he moved the phone to his ear, fighting the pain in his arm, in his abdomen, that begged him to release the phone and relax his body. Swallowing hard, he listened as the phone began to ring, a smile flickering across his lips as the clouds above him parted, allowing the moonlight to soak the rocks and tufts of grass beyond his shattered windscreen.
After three rings he heard a click, and woman’s tinny voice filled his right ear. “Emergency services,” she announced in a sombre tone. “Do you require police, fire or ambulance?”
Patrick opened his mouth to respond, ready to summon all three if need be, but as he began to speak his eyes caught sight of the reflection in the rear view mirror and his words caught in his throat.
“Hello?” the woman said, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.
Patrick froze, blinking a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t mistaken, that his eyes were not deceiving him.
“Is anyone there?” the woman asked.
Patrick closed his eyes, a lump building in his throat as his memory came rushing back. All of a sudden he knew where he’d been going. He knew what he’d been doing. He knew what he’d done. A frown furrowed his brow as he tried to convince himself it was a bad dream, a horrible delusion, but he couldn’t deny the evidence before his eyes.
“Hello?” the woman repeated. “Can I…”
“I’m sorry,” Patrick croaked into the phone. “There…there was a man. Outside my house. I thought it might have been a burglar.”
“Do you require the police, sir?” she asked him.
“N…no,” he said, unconsciously shaking his head, the movement summoning fresh pain from his battered body. “I’m sorry. It’s just my neighbour. I thought…I’m sorry.”
“Thank you, sir,” the woman sighed.
Patrick opened his mouth to respond, to wish the woman a goodnight, but before he could utter a word he heard a click on the other end, and then silence. For a moment longer he held the phone to his ear, his eyes fixed on the rear view mirror. He wanted so badly to call for help, to call for someone to free him from the wreckage of his car, to close his eyes and wake up in a nice warm hospital bed, but he couldn’t. He knew he couldn’t. Not without…
The price was too high.
Once again he felt the panic building within him, though this time he was only partially successful in controlling it. He swallowed hard, squeezed his eyes shut, struggled to clear his mind, to think, to analyse the situation, to find a solution. He’d rarely encountered a problem to which he hadn’t been able to find an answer, but this time…
“Damn it!” he growled, ignoring the pain the force of his words evoked.
There shouldn’t have been any problems. He’d been so careful. He’d spent weeks contemplating his plan, considering possible options, analysing every variable, even testing elements of it to make sure he could pull it off without a hitch. He’d done everything right, and yet here he was, upside down in a wrecked car, cold, in pain, bleeding, battered, and now there was no chance he was going to be able to see it through.
He’d been so confident, so eager, so happy when he’d arrived home earlier that night. He’d even felt a slight tingle as he turned onto the dirt track that led to the cottage, his home. For a few minutes he’d just sat there at the top of the track, his engine running, his headlights extinguished, staring at the white-painted two-storey structure, his eyes dancing from one darkened window to the next, searching for movement, for any sign of life.
Finding none he’d driven slowly, carefully, towards the house, using only the moonlight to keep him on the narrow track. As he’d neared the house he’d shut off the engine, allowing the natural slope of the road to carry him the rest of the way, easing his foot onto the brake when he was close to the front door. He’d been so quiet, so careful, as he’d climbed out of the car, as he’d slid his key into the lock.
He’d crept through the house silently, making his way down the hall to the stairs, climbing them slowly, barely breathing as he’d made his way up. There had been a moment, the briefest of moments, when he’d allowed his excitement to get the better of him, when he’d almost forgotten about the loose floorboard on the penultimate step, but he’d caught himself just in time, stepping over it and onto the landing.
He’d passed the bathroom first, then his own bedroom, making his way towards Martha’s room, pausing only when he reached her door. And there he’d waited, stood silently, his ears searching for sound, listening hard for any indication that his wife was awake, that she’d heard his return. He’d heard the ticking of that infernal grandfather clock in the hallway that Martha had insisted on buying, the wind gusting outside, his own heart pounding in his chest, but not a sound, not a single noise from inside his wife’s room.
He remembered how his hand had trembled as he’d reached for her door handle, how dry his mouth had felt when he turned it, how his heart had skipped a beat as the latch popped and the door eased open. She’d been out shopping the day he’d oiled the hinges on her bedroom door. It had never really creaked, never really made much of a sound at all, just the occasional whine, but he’d planned even for that. He’d taken no chances.
And then he’d been inside her room, making his way towards her bed, moving soundlessly across the thick carpet. As he’d reached her bed he recalled how he’d silently thanked her for being such a neat freak. If there had been anything lying on her bedroom floor, any obstacle in his path, he might have stumbled, woken her, but instead he’d made it to her side without making a single sound, and there he’d stood for what felt like an eternity, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom until he could see her sleeping face peeking out from above her thick duvet.
He’d gazed at her for a few moments, searching for any trace of the love he’d once felt for her, for the passion that had once consumed him whenever he was in her presence. He remembered thinking how beautiful she still was, how gracefully she’d aged over the fourteen years they’d been married, the eighteen years they’d been together, and for a moment he’d felt a tinge of sadness.
And then he’d remembered.
He’d remembered how her once soft voice had become so hard, so sharp. He’d remembered her disapproving words, her scornful remarks, the whine in her voice whenever she spoke to him. But it wasn’t her words or her tone that he’d remembered most as he’d stood there looking at her. It was the way she looked at him. He wasn’t even sure there was a word to describe it. Somehow it was beyond indifference, as though he was nothing, as though he wasn’t a man, wasn’t even a human being. There had been a time before the indifference when he’d seen hatred in her eyes. He’d been able to handle that, for at least then he knew she still had some feelings for him, still saw him as an object worthy of her attention, but the indifference…
He’d considered leaving her many times, divorcing her, but he’d worked hard all his life, struggled to earn every penny. It was with his money that they’d bought the cottage, and to him it was more than just a house. It had been his childhood home, the place he’d lived for the first fifteen years of his life until his father had died and his mother had been forced to sell it. Ten years of work and a hefty mortgage had allowed him to buy it back, but if he divorced her it would all be for nothing. She would take half of everything he owned, and that would mean selling the cottage or worse – abandoning it to her.
He’d actually felt joy as he’d reached over her sleeping form, as his hand clasped around the pillow on the far side of the bed. He’d held it over her for a few seconds, savouring the moment, tasting freedom, and then he’d pressed it down, grasping it firmly with both hands as he covered her face, her nose, her mouth. He’d expected more of a struggle, more resistance, but at first she’d simply lain there, unmoving, possibly even still sleeping. And when finally she had moved, when her dainty hands had reached up to clutch his wrists, it was as though there was no strength in them.
Perhaps the surge of adrenaline that rushed through his veins had made her seem weaker, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it seemed to take no real physical effort to hold the pillow over her face, to suffocate her. He’d kept it there for a good ten minutes, held it in place until he was certain she was dead, and then he’d checked her pulse, listened for any sign that she was drawing breath, even pressed his ear to her chest to hear if her heart was still beating.
And when he was satisfied that she was dead, he’d sat down on the bed beside her, taken a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, and smoked it.
He’d taken his time with the rest of it. He’d taken a suitcase and holdall from her closet and packed her clothes, her jewellery, her photograph album, everything he was sure she would take with her if ever she decided to leave him. He’d folded it all neatly, packed it all carefully, before zipping up the bags and carrying them downstairs. After that he’d gone to his room, to his closet, taking the already packed bag he’d prepared the previous morning, a bag containing all the tools he would need to dispose of her body. Plastic sheets, a hatchet, a saw, a big hunting knife, lighter fluid, matches…everything he could possibly require to get the job done.
He’d placed his bag beside hers, before returning to her room. Had he lived in the city, in a town, within any real distance of his nearest neighbours he might have wrapped her body in a sheet before carrying it downstairs, but he knew no one would see him as he carried her to his car. He’d dumped her casually in the boot before returning to the house, collecting her coat and draping it over her corpse, covering it just in case he happened to be pulled over by the police, just in case they wanted to look in the boot of his car. It was a remote possibility, highly improbable, but it was just one of the many variables he’d considered.
Back in the house one last time, he’d plucked a note from his pocket, setting it down on the table next to the phone in the hallway. He’d spent weeks crafting the letter, wording it carefully, making sure it sounded as though it had been written by her. It talked of a man she’d met a year ago, of an affair they’d had in their home whenever he’d been away on business, of this mythical man’s desire to save her from her loveless marriage, to show her a better life.
It offered no indication of where she might have met him, said nothing of where they might be going together, just stated that she was leaving, that she’d taken her things, cleared out her bank account, disappeared and would not be returning. He’d typed it on her laptop, printed it on her printer, used the paper she kept on her desk; paper he knew had her fingerprints on it. And then he’d forged her handwriting, written her name with one of her pens, hidden it away until the time was right, until he was ready to make his move.
After posing the note he’d taken the bags to the car, piled hers on top of her body, placed his on the front seat beside him, and set out to dispose of her corpse.
The plan had been to take her to an area of woodland some twenty miles north of their house, a remote area rarely visited by either tourists or locals. It seemed like the perfect place to rid himself of her once and for all, for it was walking in those woods that he’d first conceived of his plan. He’d found the fissure while climbing on some rocks in a clearing. It was narrow, dark, deep, the perfect place to dispose of a body. He would start by cutting up her corpse. He would slice off her fingers, smash her teeth with a hammer, and then burn the rest of her body to ensure it could not be easily identified, just in case it was ever found. And then he would drop each part in turn down the fissure, all except her fingers.
Those he would take with him back to the hotel he was supposed to be staying at, a delightful place some three hours south of the cottage, situated on the coast. He would return to his bedroom and sleep late into the morning, take a leisurely lunch at the hotel restaurant, then walk up to the cliffs just a mile away and toss her fingers into the ocean below. Then he would return, spend another night at the hotel, and check out the following day, ready to return home to find the note he’d planted telling him that his wife had left him for another man.
The plan wasn’t perfect. He knew there would be questions, not least from Martha’s sister, her only living relative, but even if the police were called, even if he was questioned about his wife’s disappearance, he would have the note, her words telling him she was leaving. Perhaps some people might suspect him of murder, perhaps even the police would believe he’d killed her, but with no body, no evidence of a crime, there would be no arrest, no trial, no prison sentence.
He’d planned it all so carefully, so perfectly, considering every variable save one – the possibility that he might crash his car.
“Shit!” Patrick muttered, his hands clenching into tight, angry fists.
The crash changed everything.
If it had happened after he'd disposed of his wife's body it would have been different. He could have explained his presence in the area, concocted some reason why he'd left his hotel in the middle of the night and travelled home leaving his overnight bag, his clothes, his toothbrush, his razor and his laptop behind. Perhaps he could have claimed he'd heard something in Martha's voice when they'd spoken earlier that evening, something that led him to believe there was something wrong, led him to suspect that she might be intending to leave him. He'd gone home hoping to allay his fears, but instead found a note waiting for him, a note that told him the woman he loved was leaving him for another man. Crazed, desperate to stop her, to talk to her, to try and save his marriage, he'd set out, heading towards town in the futile hope of finding her, but in his distressed state he'd become distracted and crashed.
It was a plausible story.
Perhaps even good enough to elicit a modicum of sympathy.
Except he hadn't disposed of his wife's body. He could remember nothing after loading up the car, starting up the driveway, but he didn't need to remember. He knew. He'd seen it for himself. As the emergency operator answered his call for help he'd spotted her. Martha. Her pale corpse lay just a few feet to the rear of the car, out in the open, exposed, plainly visible to anyone who came to his aid.
And for her presence, for the state of her body, he could conceive no reasonable explanation, no story that would save him from being arrested, from being tried for her murder, from being sent to jail for more years than he cared to lose.
Patrick closed his eyes, his brow furrowing as he struggled to come up with a solution.
There were explanations, stories he could tell, but none of them would work. He could explain the manner in which his wife died, the reason why she was in the car clad only in a flimsy nightdress on a winter's night. He could picture the scenario. He'd been away on business. He'd called Martha to check on her and during the course of their conversation she'd expressed concern about a man she'd spotted lurking outside the house. She'd become panicked, terrified, and so he'd fled his hotel room in the middle of the night, abandoning his possessions, racing home, but he'd arrived to find her dead. Suffocated.
He'd carried her to the car. He'd known she was dead, but he wasn't thinking clearly. He'd put her in the back seat and set out towards town determined to get her to the hospital, perhaps believing that there was something the doctors might be able to do for her, but along the way he'd crashed, rolled his car, and her body had been thrown out.
It was a good story, but he knew it wouldn't work. There were too many questions he couldn't answer. Why was there a suitcase and holdall filled with her possessions in the car? Why was there a note from his wife sitting next to the phone in his house announcing that she was leaving him? Why was there no sign of a break in at the house if some mysterious stranger had murdered his wife? Why didn't he call the police if he was concerned rather than driving home in the middle of the night?
And those were just the questions that would be asked before the police spoke to Martha's friends and learned of the animosity that had existed between them.
The police wouldn't even need to scratch the surface to find the holes if he presented them with that story, but then there was no story, no fiction that could satisfactorily explain his wife's death, his behaviour, the contents of his car. There was nothing that he could say that would...
Unless there was no body.
Patrick swallowed hard, breathing faster as a vague idea, an empty notion, began to build in his mind, growing, developing as he answered questions, as the elements of a plan began to form in his mind.
He had been away on business and he had called Martha to check on her and he had become concerned, but it was not because of some mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows, not because his wife had expressed concern for her safety. No. It was because he'd heard a man's voice in the background, a fleeting word, a momentary utterance that gave away his presence, alerting Patrick to the possibility that his wife was having an affair.
He wouldn't try to hide the animosity between them. He would use it. He would tell the police that he'd suspected Martha of having an affair for a while, and when he heard a noise in the background, a man's voice, he'd felt certain he would finally catch her in the act. He'd fled the hotel, raced home only to find her packing. The man, her lover, had left the house, gone to town for some reason – Patrick neither knew nor cared what the reason was – all he knew was that when he arrived home his wife was alone and she was gathering her belongings.
They'd argued. Fought. Screamed abuse at one another. Made threats. She'd slapped him and he'd very nearly hit her back, but then he'd heard a car outside, seen headlights approaching the house. Martha had run out, raced towards the approaching car, towards her lover, and before Patrick was able to get past the front door they were backing up the driveway, heading for the main road.
That's when he'd found the note. The cold, venomous note announcing that she was leaving him, that she'd found another man, that she wouldn't be back. He'd tell the police that as angry as he was, as hurt as he was, he'd also felt relieved as he'd read that note, and he'd known beyond any doubt that their marriage was over, that she was gone for good. And so he'd done the only thing he felt able to do. He'd gathered her bags, the bags she'd packed herself, and he'd loaded them into his car. He'd set out, intending to drive to the home of one of her friends in town, to drop her bags off there so that she might collect them without returning to the house, so that he would never have to see her face again, but on the way he'd lost control of his car. He wasn't sure exactly what had happened, but he'd woken up in the upturned vehicle cut, battered, bruised.
It just wasn't his lucky night.
It was a plausible story. He wouldn't play the role of the distraught husband or the innocent victim of a cheating spouse. Instead he would admit that they had a bad marriage, show his contempt for Martha, tell them enough to eradicate any chance that they might feel sympathy for him whilst ensuring that they would not regard him as being anything more than a crappy husband. Certainly not a murderer.
The note, the bags, his departure from the hotel in the middle of the night, his presence in the vicinity of his home, all would be adequately explained. As for the third bag, the bag containing all the tools he'd gathered to dispose of his wife's body, if they asked about it he would simply tell them that he'd gathered all the bags he'd found packed in the hallway and loaded them into his car without checking them. Perhaps it would raise a few eyebrows, but probably not suspicions.
He nodded, his smile growing as he went over the plan once more in his mind. It wasn't perfect, certainly not what he'd spent so long preparing for, but it was a solution. Adequate and not overly complicated. It could even work.
But first he needed to deal with Martha's body.
That was the only element that didn't fit. If her corpse was discovered then nothing he said or did would matter. Nothing. He would protest his innocence, of course, but he knew it wouldn't take much work to build a strong case against him. But only if they found her. If he could somehow conceal her body, hide it from view until he was able to return, retrieve her and dispose of her properly...
But that meant he needed to free himself from the car, get to her body, find somewhere to hide it and get back to the car with enough blood in his veins and strength in his body to call for help and stay alive while he waited for it to arrive. A tall order, but given that his only other option was a prison sentence...
His teeth clenched, his muscles tensing, Patrick reached for the latch to release the seatbelt that held him suspended upside down in the remnants of his car. As his fingers found the button he braced himself, drawing in a long, deep breath, his right arm outstretched above him, ready to temper his fall. A pained cry already rising in his throat, he pressed the button, a wave of relief washing over him as he felt the seatbelt release replaced almost instantly by blinding agony as his body plummeted while his legs remained trapped beneath the steering column.
He reached out instinctively, his left hand clasping the steering wheel while his right arm crumpled beneath his weight. Grunting, he landed in a twisted, semi-foetal position, his legs suspended above him, his right shoulder blade, neck and head pressed against the mangled ceiling. He held himself motionless, his breath catching in his throat as he fought to remain conscious, refusing to surrender to the myriad fires that seemed to ignite within his body.
The already darkened world around him seemed to grow dimmer, and for a moment, just a moment, Patrick was no longer in the car. Instead he was in a park, back in Edinburgh, walking in the sunshine, basking in the warmth. His right hand was not empty, but rather it was held by another; a gentle, soothing touch. As he turned towards her he smiled, a genuine smile, a loving smile, a smile that was met by another of equal warmth and depth upon a face of immeasurable beauty.
It wasn't the Martha he knew, but rather the Martha he had known, the tender, graceful angel with whom he’d so easily fallen in love. On his less generous days he’d often wondered if that woman had been real, if perhaps he’d been blinded by lust or fooled by a cunning actress, but in his heart he knew that it had been no illusion. That was the person she’d been, and somehow something had changed her over the years, extinguishing the warmth, ravaging the beauty, leaving behind a cruel and joyless bitch.
As the image faded and he returned to the frigid wreckage of his car, he knew that he had played a role in her transformation. He had said and done many things that had helped change her into the woman he so despised. But at the same time he knew that it was not his doing alone, that there was something else, something within her, that had played a crucial role.
He glanced towards the back of the car, through the rear window, scouring the darkness for her form, but she was bathed in shadows, hidden from his view. To his surprise he felt a tinge of disappointment, though whether that was because he’d wanted to simply see her or because he felt the need to see her dead he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that suddenly disposing of her body so that he could call for help wasn’t his only reason for wanting to escape the car.
With new found determination he reached up with his right hand, stretching past the steering wheel, wrenching his body to feel for his legs, to find what it was that held them in place. He ignored the pain that surged within him as he clawed at his legs, running his hand first up the left, then the right, finding easily the obstacle that stood between him and freedom. He couldn’t identify it by touch alone, but it was metallic, sharp, thick, wedged tightly in place, trapping his right foot at the ankle and his left leg at the shin.
He couldn’t be sure, but it felt as though his right leg was merely trapped, while whatever pinned that leg was cutting into the left one, burrowing deep beyond mere flesh, slicing into the bone. If he was right then he was certain he would be unable to free himself easily, unable to pry his legs free, but he refused to give in, refused to relent, refused to surrender.
Gritting his teeth, he slowly, cautiously, attempted to move his right leg. At first he felt no movement, just pain, but as he persevered he felt his foot shift, just a little. Breathing deeply he attempted to brace himself, ready himself for the merciless onslaught, and then he jerked his leg, wrenched it to the right, forced it to move. He heard a crack, though whether it was a bone or the car he wasn’t sure, but his leg moved, twisted. He could feel something cutting into his flesh, slicing through skin and muscle as pain thundered through his body, but before it could get the better of him he heard a crunching sound and his right leg was free.
He rested for a couple of minutes, panting hard, his heart thundering in his chest, as countless invisible nails tore through every nerve in his body. The world around him began to swim, and for a moment he considered just allowing himself to drift into unconsciousness, barely caring whether he was able to wake up before he was discovered, but as the desire started to take hold he turned his eyes towards the back of the car, towards the spot where he knew his wife’s body lay.
“Hold it together,” he muttered to himself.
There would be plenty of time to rest once he’d accomplished his goal, once he’d dealt with Martha’s body, once help had arrived, once he’d assured his rescuers that there was no one else in the car with him so they wouldn’t search the area for any other victims. Then he could sleep safe in the knowledge that he was in good hands, wake in hospital when his injuries had been tended to, when his body had been pumped full of painkillers. There would be plenty of time to sleep then without the prospect of an extended prison sentence hanging over him.
Bracing himself once more, both hands grasping the steering wheel, he attempted to shift his left leg, to free it so he could get out of the car and do what needed to be done. Searing pain flooded his body as he tried to move the leg, but he ignored it, clenched his teeth, screwed his eyes shut, tugging at his leg until he could bear it no more.
It was no use.
He could feel it. The leg wasn’t just trapped; it was held tight, metal slicing through his flesh, his muscle, his bone, preventing him from freeing himself. Even if he had something with which to pry at whatever it was that was holding him he knew, just knew, that it would do no good. He struggled against it, resisted the knowledge that was creeping into his mind, denying the growing certainty that he had just two options, clinging to the delusion that if he pulled his leg hard enough he would be able to work it loose.
He felt something inside his mind screaming, pleading, begging him to just call for help, to accept his failure, to face his future in prison, and for a moment he considered it. Such a fate seemed intolerable to him, almost worse than death, but his options were few and the alternative, the only other thing he could think to do, seemed almost inconceivable. And yet he wasn’t willing to concede defeat.
It wasn’t just that he didn’t like to be beaten, though that was certainly a factor, but more than he didn’t want to be beaten by her. Not again. For years he had tolerated her endless orchestra of abuse, given in to her demands, relented to her desires, allowed himself to be emasculated by her, but no more. She was dead. He had killed her. He had endured her petty victories in life but not in death. Not in death.
Before he’d really considered what he was about to do his hands were reaching towards the other side of the car, searching, probing, scouring the wreckage. His heart skipped a beat when he felt the cool leathery handle of the bag he’d carried beside him when he’d left the house, his fingers wrapping around it, pulling it towards him. Without even thinking about it he wrenched at the zip as soon as it was close enough and then his hand was inside, searching once more, touching the various items within until he found what he was looking for.
He didn’t allow himself to stop, to hesitate, to think, for he knew that if he did he would never be able to go through with it. Instead he simply withdrew the hatchet from the bag, placed it on his chest and manoeuvred his body into position, shuffling around until he was as close as he was able to get to a clear shot at his target. Taking the hatchet in his right hand he lifted it, raised it, pressed the blade against the shin of his left leg just above where it was pinned.
He felt tears swell in his eyes as he readied himself, as he withdrew the hatchet. Only when he was in position did he pause, and only then to brace himself again, hold his breath, tense his muscles, steady his hand. And then he struck, driving the hatchet forward with all the strength his battered body could muster.
Over and over.
The last thing Patrick heard before his body slumped, before his mind surrendered to the darkness, was an ungodly shriek, a penetrating scream that filled the black silence around him.
* * *
Patrick slowly opened his eyes. The pain in his body had dulled to a constant but bearable throb, numbed perhaps by the icy air that surrounded him. He lifted his head, gazing down his body at the savage, bloody stump where once the lower half of his left leg had been, the wound wrapped tightly in one of the plastic sheets he’d brought with him. Blood pooled in the sheet and more still poured from the wound. How much he had lost he wasn’t sure, but his head felt light, his body weak.
He smiled; a smile that gradually grew into a low, guttural laugh, laughter filled with bitterness as he savoured his brutal victory.
He was free.
Rolling over onto his belly, he reached out, feeling for the driver’s side window, clawing at the remnants of the glass that once covered the upper part of the door, pulling the remaining shards away and tossing them into the darkness. When he was sure it was safe he began to move, crawling, clawing his way out of the car, dragging his legs behind him. It was a tight squeeze, but he made it through, clambering out into the night.
The clouds had cleared while he’d been unconscious and silver moonlight flooded the land around him. He glanced about, his eyes surveying his surroundings, and once more a smile arched his lips. It was perfect. Of all the places he could have crashed, all the places along the desolate stretch of road, there was nowhere better, no place that could have been more perfect.
He knew it well. When he and Martha had first moved to the cottage they’d stopped at the bridge many times, sat on the stone wall over the narrow, fast moving burn, tossed twigs and leaves into the water as they’d sat and talked, chatted, laughed. When first their marriage had begun to crumble it was to Knock’s Bridge they had come to sit and discuss their differences, attempt to come to some accord, to resolve their issues.
But it wasn’t for sentimental reasons that he rejoiced at the location. Sure, there was sufficient irony to bring a smile to his face, but better than that, much better, he knew it was the perfect place in which to hide Martha’s body.
Once, one summer’s afternoon, they’d been sitting on the bridge basking in the sunlight, enjoying each other’s company. They’d talked for hours, and throughout their conversation he’d watched as Martha absent-mindedly fiddled with her engagement ring, twisting it on her finger, pulling it off, sliding it back into place. They’d been about ready to go when she’d dropped it. They’d both watched as it fell, both heard the light ping as it struck the side of the bridge, both seen it drop into the water below.
She’d been frantic, her eyes filled with tears, words trapped in her throat as she gazed into the water, her hand outstretched as though she were willing the ring to rise up and return to her finger. Back then he’d loved her. Adored her. And he’d hated to see her in such pain. Without really thinking about it he’d run to the far side of the bridge, clambered down the bank, almost tumbling face first into the water in the process.
He’d heard her calling after him, pleading with him to be careful, telling him to let the ring go and return to her, but he’d ignored her words. All that had mattered to him that day was retrieving her ring so that he could wipe the tears from her eyes and see her smile once more. It had taken a good hour of searching before he’d found it. The current had carried it nearly twenty feet downstream before it embedded itself between two pebbles on the shallow river bed. But he’d found it. He’d found it and he’d climbed the riverbank victorious, his eyes fixed on her beautiful smile as he’d slid the ring back onto her finger.
It was a pretty memory, one he’d once cherished, but there was something else he remembered about that day, something far more important. While he was down there he’d glanced beneath the bridge and seen two concrete plinths on either side. They supported the pillars that held the bridge up, kept it from collapsing beneath the weight of the traffic that passed over it, and they were wide, wider than the pillars, wide enough to hold Martha’s body until he could return, until he could retrieve it and dispose of it properly.
He was fairly sure the body wouldn’t be discovered down there. Once in a while he saw people standing on the bridge, but rarely did anyone venture down into the water. The bank either side of the bridge was steep, rocky, so if anyone did want to get to the stream they generally walked some considerable distance from the bridge to where the bank meandered gradually towards the water.
Not that he believed anyone would be foolish enough to venture into the water in winter. Most cars avoided the road when the weather was cold, opting to use the main route to town instead, a longer road, but one that was frequently gritted in the winter, making it safer and frequently faster. Even in the spring he rarely saw anyone out of their car along the narrow track. In the summer, if her body was still there, then perhaps there was a chance it would be discovered, but if he wasn’t dead he would be back by then, and there would be no body to find.
It would be hard getting down there, hard getting her down there, harder still getting back up to the car, but the idea of hardship no longer bothered him. He’d cut off his own foot, severed a limb in order to accomplish his goal, so a little climb, a little heavy lifting, seemed like no problem at all.
His spirits lifted, Patrick clawed his way towards the back of the car, pondering how he would carry her to the bank. Once there it would be no real trouble at all. He would simply let her body fall and fish it out of the water once he was down there. It was neither deep enough nor the current strong enough to carry her body anywhere, so all he’d have to do was get down there, drag her onto the bank, get her beneath the bridge and onto the plinth, then climb back to the car and call for help.
Fortunately, while the years had not been kind to her face she had kept her body trim, her frame small, and he knew that even in his weakened state he would be able to lift her. Carrying her would be hard, but if necessary he would drag her by her ankles, move himself with his elbows, and…
He’d rounded the back of the car, reached the spot where he was sure he’d seen her lying, but her body was gone. He’d glanced around, his eyes wide, frantic, searching for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. For a moment he wondered if perhaps someone had come along while he’d been unconscious, found her lying behind the car, realised what had happened – the truth, that he’d murdered her – and taken her, carried her body away.
But it made no sense. If someone had found her they would have left her where she lay, called the police, and already he would hear sirens in the distance.
He shook his head. He was sure he’d seen her lying there. He could still see her in his mind, still see the position in which she lay, the fabric of her pale blue nightdress, her auburn hair cascading over her shoulders. He could see it so clearly, and yet she was gone.
He glanced at the boot, wondering if perhaps he’d imagined her, if maybe she was still inside, but it was open, empty, even the spare tyre missing. There was no way, no possibility that she was in there, no chance that…
Then maybe he was wrong. If he had imagined seeing her, if it had been an illusion, a fabrication concocted by his mind, then perhaps the accident had happened later than he’d thought. Perhaps he had disposed of her body after all. If that was the case then he’d severed his own foot for nothing, put himself through hell for no reason, but he would scold himself for that later. Right now he needed to know for sure.
How could he…
If he’d disposed of her body then he would have burned her clothes, dumped the suitcase and holdall, discarded everything down that fissure, her eternal grave. He’d assumed that because he’d seen her body that the bags were still in the back of the car, but he hadn’t seen them. Not once when he’d looked around, when he’d been looking at her or for her, when he’d been searching the car, had he seen them. If they were gone…
If they were then he’d been heading back home when the accident happened, heading back to dump the back containing the hatchet, the sheeting, the knife, returning to the cottage to deposit them in his closet before he departed for the hotel. If that were the case then all he needed to do was pick up the phone, dial for help and then wait safe in the knowledge that his crime would never be discovered.
He turned, twisted his body, desperate to get back to the car, to see inside, to know if the bags were gone, to put an end to this nightmare. He rolled, acknowledging the pain that filled his body with just a grunt, a moan, a clench of his teeth, and then he was clawing his way back, rounding the vehicle once more.
Once again he froze, his eyes widening.
Bare feet attached to bare legs. Standing. Standing in front of him. Standing between him and the rear passenger door. A cry stifling in his throat, he allowed his eyes to travel upwards to the knees, to the hem of a pale blue nightdress, a nightdress the clung to slender if slightly aged body, that pressed against a flat stomach, embracing a pair of soft, round breasts, hanging from narrow shoulders, and atop it all a head, a face.
His breath caught in his throat as he stared at her, as she stared down at him, her eyes cold, harsh, filled with unbridled rage. For a moment he wondered if he was still unconscious in the car, if it was a delusion brought about by loss of blood, if he was dreaming. It couldn’t be her. She couldn’t be alive. He’d suffocated her, held that pillow over her face long after she’d ceased her struggle. He’d checked her pulse, listened for her heartbeat, watched her body as he’d smoked a cigarette while sitting beside her corpse.
And yet she was stood in front of him. Looking at him. Staring at him.
She took a step towards him. A small step, but it was enough to cause him to flinch, to attempt to shuffle backwards, to move away from her. He raised his arms, covered his head, certain that she would strike him down, kill him as he had attempted to kill her, but instead she merely crouched beside him. He whimpered as he felt a hand press against his shoulder, pushing his body, rolling him onto his back, and then he felt her reach into his pocket, her hand sliding into his jacket and when it emerged once more it held in its grasp his mobile phone.
And then she stood.
She stared down at him and for a moment he thought he saw something other than indifference in her eyes, some emotion, though exactly it was he couldn’t tell. It was something he hadn’t seen before. Not anger. Not rage. Not hatred or contempt. Not pity. Something warmer, yet far from love. As their eyes met she shook her head slowly, and turned away, moving towards the car.
His eyes followed her, his brow creasing as he watched her shrink to her knees, as he saw her reach inside the car. He felt his head begin to swim as he watched her pull her suitcase from the vehicle and the reach back inside, taking out the holdall. He opened his mouth to speak, to say something, as she opened each of the bags in turn, retrieving a pair of jogging trousers, sliding them up her legs, fetching a thick coat and draping it over her shoulders, slipping his phone into the pocket, grasping a pair of running shoes and slipping them onto her feet. He struggled to find the words to plead for help as she zipped up the bags and lifted them, carrying them over the road, one in each hand.
Once there she turned, glanced back at him, and again their eyes met. He mouthed her name, and though he lacked the strength to give it voice he knew she heard him, for she nodded, smiled, and then slowly turned away. He watched as she walked towards the bridge, Knock’s Bridge, treading carefully to avoid slipping on the icy road. As she reached the bridge she paused, set down the suitcase, reached out, her hand brushing the snow from the stone wall, her eyes gazing over the side at the water running beneath.
She seemed to sigh, raised her head towards the heavens, and then the case in her hand once more and she was making her way across the bridge, walking slowly back towards home.
Patrick watched as she walked away, the light dimming around him as his consciousness began to fade, but he didn’t take his eyes off her, didn’t shift his gaze. He couldn’t. He didn’t even want to, for in his heart he felt something he hadn’t in a long while. She was magnificent, a striding, graceful figure marching into the moonlight, elegant, sensuous, and just before he slipped into his final, lasting sleep he realised he wasn’t seeing the woman he’d known for so many years, but rather the woman he’d met so long ago, the woman who had captured his heart.
Special thanks to my gorgeous wife Alicia for editing this story...and for encouraging me to finish it.
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