She felt faint and sick and lost all at the same time.
‘What are you talking about?’ she said quietly, in a voice sharp with terror. ‘I didn’t do anything last night. I watched telly, did my ironing.’ She thought back to the lie she’d told about falling over the cat after a few too many drinks. At least she’d only come across as a sad, lonely old lush.
‘Right, of course you did,’ said Jennifer, watching her closely.
‘Oh, by the way, Marc says hi.’ Jennifer grinned coldly.
Beth's legs buckled, she had two choices: to lower herself into the chair that she was clutching, or wilt to the floor because her legs had lost the ability to hold her. She sat down.
The last of the colour drained from her face. She stared at Jennifer.
‘Marc what, Beth? Marc’s dead? Is that what you were going to say?’
Beth didn't respond.
‘Of course he is. Silly me. You left him doing Swan Lake in water, didn’t you? Oops, I must have lied, then. Maybe he didn’t say hi, maybe he just had a glassy look in his big dead eyes.’
Beth thought that she might be sick. She wasn’t living her life; she was trapped in the corner of a warped mind. She owned a pair of blue, fluffy slippers, she shopped at Asda and she always donated to Banardos. All these horrible things couldn’t happen to a fluffy-slipper person.
‘It was an accident,’ she muttered.
‘Let the prosecution note that the defendant has admitted her plea of guilty, your honour.’ The sarcasm was plainly apparent in Jennifer's tone. ‘Some bloody accident. Christ, you really know how to make good use of the understatement, don’t you?’
‘How do you know?’
‘Never mind that, now. The question you should be asking, the question you need to ask, is what are we going to do about it?’
‘I’m waiting for the police,’ said Beth, quietly. ‘They should be here soon. I’m giving myself in.’
‘Have you called them?’ asked Jennifer.
‘Well then, they aren’t coming, are they?’
Beth looked up, not knowing if this was a positive statement or just something else to drag her deeper into the quagmire that she’d crawled into.
‘Somebody must have found him by now. They’ll be doing tests and things… Those forensic people, my fingerprints. They’ll be coming soon.’
‘No they won’t. People don’t tend to visit us very often. We aren’t the sort of neighbours who have the vicar to tea on a Saturday afternoon and you aren't the sort to have ever had your fingerprints taken. Trust me; he’s still dancing with Miss Bronzy Tits.’
This Grimm fairytale was moving and changing. It was morphing into something different and Beth was trying to get a grip on what Jennifer was saying. The girl used possessive words like ‘us’ and ‘we’. This was Beth’s nightmare; she thought that Jennifer had come into it
accidentally, by chance, but here she was staking her claim as a legitimate character. She had seen Marc’s body. She must have been at the house either after he was dead or during the accident. This made sense of the strange feeling when she had gone to the stairs to listen for Marc coming down. She hadn’t identified the sensation at the time, but now she knew that it was the sinister presence felt when you think that somebody's watching you. She remembered the door unlocking to let her out. How did Jennifer tie in to all of this?
She was terrified. ‘Who are you Jennifer?’ she asked.
Jennifer smiled. Calmly she threw three more of Beth’s Wade figures crashing to the floor. Beth didn’t care. They had always meant something to her but now they were just pieces of pot.
‘You really don’t learn, do you? For the last time, my chosen name is Phantom and I won’t answer to anything else. Now, will you remember the rules?’
The scale of Beth’s fear didn’t diminish. It stamped its mark at the uppermost point of her emotion-meter and then left, making way for anger to take its place at the same heightened level. She couldn’t take anymore, couldn’t play these stupid games with her.
‘Fuck your rules,’ she screamed. ‘And tell me what the hell’s going on. Now.’ Her voice cracked on the last word because she’d yelled it with such force. Her throat would be sore for days as her vocal chords stretched to unaccustomed levels. She reached behind her and grabbed the cushion at her back hurling it with all her force at Jennifer.
Jennifer laughed and ducked long before the soft cushion came anywhere near her. ‘Beth, is that all you’ve got? The temper’s good, mate. Bravo. It’s just the choice of missile that needs work. Here, let me show you how to do it properly.’
Jennifer picked up a heavy candle in a glass holder from the shelf behind her. She threw it against the wall to the left of Beth’s head. Beth screamed and ducked as glass shattered all around her.
‘See?’ said Jennifer. ‘That’s how you get a reaction. You need to make your temper work for you otherwise it’s just wasted energy. Did you know that you can run a car on cow shit?’
‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ Beth repeated, the temper finished and replaced with nothing. She had nothing left to feel. ‘This has gone on long enough. I’m putting an end to it now. I’m going to call the police.’ She went to the phone and picked up the handset. She didn’t know whether to ring 999, or to ask directory enquiries for the number of the local station. While she was pondering what to do, Jennifer pulled the cable from the wall and held it up in her hand.
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid. You’re not calling anyone. What do you think is going to happen? Do you think they’ll pat you on the head and say, “There, there, dear. It’s all right”? You’ll go to prison. A mental institution, maybe. How long do you think you’d last? You’re pathetic.’
‘It was self defence. It was just an accident. I’ll make them see.’ Suddenly an idea formed in her mind. She jumped up and grabbed Jennifer by the wrists, mania and terrorised euphoria lighting her eyes. ‘You were there, weren’t you?’ She was excited, she screeched out the accusation in a high pitched voice. Hope returned to her and she thrust at it greedily. ‘You can tell them. You can tell them that it was just an accident.’
Jennifer shook herself loose. ‘Hey, I’m not telling the cops anything, because you’re not going to ring them. We’re going to get rid of the body. We’ll go tonight, in a couple of hours when there aren’t so many people about.’
‘What? I can’t. I can’t go back into that house. I can’t touch…’
‘Oh, stop snivelling. You want help, don’t you? You want somebody to make it all right and make everything go away? Well, here I am, your fairy fucking Godmother come to grant you three wishes. I mean, we could leave it until tomorrow if you like, go in daylight, but I wouldn’t fancy your chances. Too many nosy neighbours around here. People carting dead bodies up and down the streets would tend to get noticed. And anyway, you really don’t want to leave it much longer. Do you know what happens to a piece of meat two days after it’s been slaughtered? It’s not going to be pretty, Beth. I’d go as soon as possible if I were you.’ Her voice was sickeningly conversational. Beth was disgusted more by her tone and attitude than by what she was saying. They could have been discussing the removal of a mouse from a mousetrap.
She had been clear in her mind about what she was going to do. Now, too many words were clouding her judgement and she was still groggy after the sleeping pills. ‘You were there, you know what happened. Why haven’t you called the police?’ Her voice held no tone of curiosity or interest, it was just more words to fill the empty space.
‘Oh, believe me, I have reasons of my own, but mainly, I suppose, it’s because I know what he was. I mean, okay, yes, he might have been my father… but that doesn’t make him good, does it?’
‘Your father,’ Beth was stunned. ‘But he can’t be your father. He would have told me, surely. He’s too young...’
‘Okay then, not my father, my brother, but he was like a father to me since my parents were killed in the Omagh bombing when they were on their second honeymoon.’
‘Stop it, stop lying to me. Please stop torturing me like this. Just tell me the truth. Your parents aren’t dead, they’re on a skiing holiday. You said so.’
‘Aw, come on Beth. Don’t be boring, I’m only playing with you. I tell lies. It’s what I do for fun. You have to work out which story is real and which is a lie. For instance, I watched a little girl burn to death, once. Do you believe me? She had long blonde hair and it caught fire along with her dress. In seconds, she was bald and I watched her melt. Do you believe me, Beth? Have you ever seen a person melt? She looked like goats cheese on toast. Your turn; go on, tell me a story and I’ll guess if it’s true or not. Go on.’
‘You’re mad. A man is dead and you’re playing stupid games. What the hell is wrong with you? Give me the phone. I want to ring Maggie, she’ll come and get rid of you and then we’ll go to the police.’
‘Now, that would be really stupid. You think that Saint Maggie can help you now? With varicose veins like hers, you’d think she’d do something to help herself. Wrong. The only person that can get you out of this mess is me. You need me, and that’s why I’m still here. If you seriously wanted me out you’d have screamed for help or something stupid. See, you’re playing the “doing the right thing” game, but that’s all you’re doing, you’re just playing at it. If you had any intention of ringing the police, or telling Maggie about your nasty little secret, you’d have done it immediately. You need me to go back to the house with you and help you to get rid of the body. When you’ve done that, it all goes away, doesn’t it? You can go back to normal and pretend like it never happened. You’d like that wouldn’t you? I’m the only one who can help you now. I’m all you need, Beth.’
‘Give me the phone.’
Jennifer bent down to the wall and connected the telephone. She held out the receiver. Beth’s hand trembled as she reached out to take it. Jennifer smiled, her face was strong and her arm steady. Beth let her hand fall in defeat. ‘Dear God, help me.’ She sat down and began to cry.
‘Let me tell you something, Beth, I’m a compulsive liar. Do you know what that means? It means that I’m also the most truthful person that you’ll ever meet. You see, when I tell the truth, I tell it straight. I don’t wrap it up with excuses and transparencies. What is it people say in these circumstances? “But it wasn’t my fault”, “But I was provoked”, “But they made me do it.” There is no but in the truth, Beth. I don’t wrap the truth up in convenient little escape routes. So let me tell you some truths now. Feel free to put me right if I’m wrong but the way I see it is this: One, you have no intention of going to the police. Two, you don’t want to do what’s right. You want to get your arse out of trouble. Three, you’ll do whatever it takes to get through this. Am I right?’
Beth looked up, her face was tearstained but her eyes were hard. ‘Yes.’
‘That’s more like it, but not yet. It’s too early. We need to wait until people have settled for the night. And anyway, there’s something that I need from you first. My services don’t come free, you know. What’s in this for me? I mean, sure if you want to go to the police now, bring it on, we can do that. I can feel myself tearing up now. Oh the trauma, the way you’ve made me suffer. You’ve ruined my life, Bethie. I had my loving brother, my guardian. Now I have nothing. I’m all for going to the police. But if we do I won’t be protecting you. Why would I? You killed my only family.’
‘You can’t do that. You know what happened. You know the truth.’
‘I know what I saw Beth. I know that I saw you lose the plot and kill my dear, sweet brother in cold blood. I’ll tell them how you ranted when Marc said he didn’t want to see you again. You know what they say about a woman scorned. When I’ve finished with you, sweetheart, there won’t be a dry eye in the courtroom and you’ll be spending the next twenty years professing your innocence to your lesbian cellmate.’
‘No, wait. You have to believe me, it wasn’t like that. Please help me. I can’t go to prison.’
‘Which brings us full circle. I ask you again, what’s in it for me?’
‘Blackmail? Is that what this is all about? I don’t have any money.’
Jennifer laughed. ‘I don’t want money. I want assurances. You haven’t been very friendly to me so far. I want to help you, but once we step out of that door, we’re in this together. I need to know that you are going to stick by me. This is going to be a big secret to keep. I’ll do everything I can to help you, but I’ve got a loose mouth, Beth. We’ve got to trust each other. I need an incentive to keep my mouth shut. I need to know that after all this is over you aren’t going to shaft me. Are you my friend, Beth?’
She looked up at the girl’s earnest face and gave a little laugh. ‘Of course we’re friends. If you can help me through this, we’ll be friends forever.’ Beth didn’t think about the words. She just spouted what the crazy bitch wanted to hear. Jennifer had offered her a way out, if there was a way to get through this and save her skin she was going to take it.
‘Promise?’ She spat into the palm of her hand and offered the spit-shake to Beth. ‘Will you be my forever friend, Beth?’