‘I can’t do this.’
‘Yes, you can. You’ve got to.’ Jennifer pushed her through the front door and let it close firmly behind them.
Beth felt faint. An overpowering heat met her inside the door. It was hot; she had to gulp in a lungful of air. She felt the force of the heat burning as it hit the back of her throat. It was like being in the butterfly house of a stately home, or getting into a small car that had been parked in the sun too long on a scorching day.
They could smell him immediately. Out in the ventilated hall it wasn’t unbearable but the air was tight and musty. Not instantly recognisable as the aroma of meat left to putrefy for thirty hours, it was foisty, similar to the air around damp clothes left too long in the wash basket, or autumn leaves desiccated to the point of crumbling yet still retaining the tinge of the wet pulp they’d been. Above this musty smell Beth detected the whiff of blood. She could taste iron at the back of her throat. And on top of all these other scents was the distinct aroma of eggs, as though somebody had boiled some and mashed them while still warm and pungent.
‘You go and reacquaint yourself with my dear brother and I’ll go and find us something to wear. Don’t touch anything,’ said Jennifer.
‘Don’t leave me. I’m not going in there alone.’
Jennifer laughed. ‘No, I don’t suppose you will. Stay here then and I’ll be back in a sec.’ She rushed off in the direction of what appeared to be the kitchen and Beth heard a key rattling in a lock somewhere. She sat on the bottom stair and hugged her knees to her chest. She was terrified and her entire body trembled as she rocked on her tailbone.
True to her word, Jennifer came back quickly. She threw a pair of dark blue overalls towards her. ‘Here, put this on. It might be too big so there’s a belt there, too.’
Beth caught the overalls. They smelled of engine oil and grease. Normally it would have been a comforting, manly scent, but any aroma from this house was going to repulse her. ‘I can’t wear these. They belong to him. I can’t.’
‘Beth, in a minute you are going to be lifting his body down from that statue. It might be messy and we don’t want to risk being covered in incriminating evidence should the shit hit the fan at some point. I really think wearing a pair of his overalls is the least of your problems.’
‘I can’t touch him. I can’t. I can’t go in there.’
‘Okay,’ Jennifer walked towards the front door. ‘I can’t lift him by myself, so if you won’t help, well, you’re on your own, girl. Good luck.’
‘Wait,’ Beth screamed, ‘Don’t leave me. I’ll try.’
On taking charge of the situation, Jennifer seemed so much older than the devious child she had shown herself to be at Beth’s house. With her self-assurance came coldness in her demeanour. She turned around, smiling. What they were about to do didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Beth noticed that the set of overalls she was scrambling into fit her tiny frame perfectly. Jennifer saw Beth looking as she did up the last of the poppers.
‘He was interested in restoring classic cars. We both were,’ she said in explanation. For the first time, Beth thought she saw a fleeting glint of emotion pass across Jennifer’s face. ‘We do them up together. Come on.’ She donned a cheerful tone and expression. ‘Let’s get to work.’ She tapped Beth on the arm to chivvy her along and laughed merrily. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you.’
She stepped forward and flung open the doors to the lounge. Instantly, a force of additional heat blasted from the room blowing out into the hall and bringing with it a terrible foul odour, the same as before but increased in strength tenfold. The smell of eggs was stronger in here but they no longer smelled freshly shelled, the aroma was rotten and putrid. Beth gagged and covered her mouth with her hand, afraid that she was going to vomit.
‘Oh God, that’s a bit intoxicating,’ said Jennifer, behind a muffling hand. ‘I thought I’d lay on a little surprise for you so before I followed you the other night I turned the heating up full blast. Besides, I wanted to see how quickly he’d decompose. Don’t puke... They’ll get your DNA from it,’ she yelled. Jennifer crossed the threshold but Beth remained in the hall, unable to move.
‘C`mon. I want you to see this.’ Jennifer grabbed her arm and pulled her into the room. Beth made no attempt to dig her heels into the floor or hold back and allowed herself to be led. A human being can only sustain terror for two minutes before either going into shock or getting over it. Beth’s mind had removed the terror and replaced it with a cushion of shock. She was meek and compliant. Had this state evaded her she would surely have run from the house screaming and crying. Nothing could have prepared her for this image of grotesquery.
‘Ta-dah,’ said Jennifer, throwing her arms wide in revelation. ‘See, he’s not so scary now, is he?’ Beth’s mind wasn’t playing so she made no comment either way and merely stood, looking, her hands clasped together at the front of her belt.
‘Wow, this is interesting,’ said Jennifer, excitedly. ‘Normally it would take four to six days for a body to reach this level of decomposition. I read up on it on the Net. It said that in the tropics decomposition is greatly accelerated, so I thought it would be fun to bring a little Tropicana into our hum-drum existence. What do you think, Beth?’
‘Sick,’ mumbled Beth, but it wasn’t clear whether she meant that she was going to be sick or was expressing her opinion of Jennifer’s character.
‘See, now you were pretty damned creative positioning him like that. The fountain lights are so pretty, the overall effect is visual and clever but he was lacking something, don’t you think?’ She stepped back a couple of paces and pointed her forefinger to her chin in a pose of evaluation. ‘I hope you don’t mind my collaboration, but I felt that I could improve on the canvas.’ The tiara on his head sparkled under the canopy of ceiling lights. ‘The intense heat was a master stroke. We wouldn’t have seen it like this if we’d just left nature to take its course. You did good, but together we are amazing. Look at this, it’s just…perfect!’
Beth couldn’t help but look. Jennifer’s words were wasted on her; she didn’t hear any of them. One horror was as much as her brain could accommodate and her visual sense was overtaking the audible hands down.
His head was slumped forward. The tiara that Jennifer had placed there had slipped so that it fell over his left eye. She frowned and leaned over the fountain, arm outstretched. She repositioned it, stood back, squinted, and positioned it again before giving a nod, satisfied.
For the most part his upper body was pale. The higher blood vessels had emptied, causing the dried-putty appearance of his skin. Fluid from his lungs had emptied from his nose and mouth to crust and discolour on his lips and chin. The area around his eye sockets had blackened and where his chin rested a pool of blood had collected just below the epidermis. The area had bloated to form what looked like a lurid purple and black blister. The same had happened to his abdomen. The day before his stomach had been firm and toned; now he had the appearance of a five-month gestation pregnancy. At the lowest point of his stomach the blood had again collected and blackened. His penis was shrivelled and yet at the same time stiff, pointing out from his body, the head exposed and purple. His legs dangled but not loosely, rigor mortis had also claimed them.
Although impaled, the stiletto-sharp point of the dancer’s foot had not pierced clean through his body. There was no exit wound, her toe was buried somewhere inside Marc, tangled with decomposing offal, up hard against rack of rib and sternum.
‘Come on then, Daydreaming Dottie, let’s get on with it.’ Jennifer walked around to the back of the statue and looked at the body from behind. ‘Ugh, messy. You certainly mashed him up good.’ Jennifer sized up the body of her brother. ‘You know, Beth, you have never once asked me what we are going to do with him. You’re in this as well, you know. Have you given this any thought at all? No, I don’t suppose you have. You just think that you can stand there, looking pretty and that Phantom will make all of your problems go away. What would you do without me, eh?’
If she was expecting an answer, there was none forthcoming. Beth remained immobile with her eyes fixed on Marc and the statue. Somewhere in her mind she was elsewhere. She had the merest hint of a smile playing around the corners of her mouth, nothing definite or defined, but wherever she was, the sun was shining and little birds twittered gaily in the trees.
Jennifer continued talking. ‘We’re taking him back to your house, you see. He can sit on the sofa tonight and watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire with us.
The birds weren’t singing anymore. Ugly words seeped through the fog. Marc was coming home with them to watch the television. That couldn’t happen, she hadn’t vacuumed and there were still bits of broken pottery all over her living room. What would he think of her? But he was dead, wasn’t he? He wasn’t going to think anything. He was just going to prop stiffly on her sofa, stinking and rotting. Beth came out of the fugue and began to wail.
‘No, you can’t. He can’t. He mustn’t.’
‘Don’t worry, only joking. Gave you a scare though, didn’t it? That woke you up a bit. Ha, ha, you should see your face. So, now that I’ve got your attention, try and stay with me, eh? I need you to help me. I can’t do it all on my own and the sooner you get your act together, the sooner we can get this done and get out of here. There’s a room upstairs, a vault, a sort of panic room thing. Marc’s paranoid as hell. Well, he was. Always reckoned that somebody might come and kill him in his own home,’ she laughed raucously, ‘If only he knew. He built the vault for his protection and safety, but he didn’t recon on you popping up, did he? We can take him there. It’s hidden. Nobody would ever find it, even if they came looking for him.’
Beth was still horribly pale but her eyes were focussed and she dried the tears that had started to fall. ‘Okay,’ she said meekly. ‘What do I have to do?’
‘I’ve dragged a tarpaulin in from the garage. It’s just by the interconnecting door. Go and get that for starters. We can roll him in it and use it as a stretcher to get him up the stairs.’
Beth nodded her head to show that she understood the instruction. She even grinned bravely at Jennifer, glad of the opportunity to get out of the room. Fetching and carrying she could do. Anything rather than touching the body. Getting a tarpaulin was easy work. Having to come back in afterwards was not going to be so easy.
Despite her conviction, getting the tarp was not easy work. It weighed more than Beth did and just getting it into the lounge was a huge effort, she grudgingly admitted to herself that Jennifer, was one tough little cookie, though she seriously doubted that they would be able to move it with the added weight of Marc’s body inside. When she returned, Jennifer was standing in the fountain. The water had a film of crud on the top and where her feet had disturbed it an oily slick, thick with blood, pooled around her ankles. Where the water level had risen, a ring of scum mottled the basin.
‘Bring the tarp over and spread it out along the base of the fountain. We need to make sure that nothing gets spilt on the floor. He’s going to be heavy so it’ll take both of us to get him down. Are you up for it?’ She smiled encouragingly at Beth.
She sounded almost kind. It was the first time that she’d shown any concern at all for Beth’s state of mind.
‘Yes, I think so.’ Beth made sure that there was good coverage of the tarpaulin on the floor. She stood at the rim of the fountain and tried to lean over; making sure that her hands would connect with statue, and not with Marc’s body. She screwed her face up in distaste, hating what she was about to do and hating what she had already done.
‘That’s no good, Beth. I’m going to need you closer so that you can help me take the weight when we get him down. You’re going to have to get your feet wet. Just imagine you are at Bardsea beach, only difference is there’s no ice-cream vendor.’
Beth didn’t want to step into the blood-thickened water. She didn’t want to feel the weight of Marc’s body against her again. She felt her gorge rising. ‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ she said.
‘No you’re not. Come on, take some deep breaths and just go for it.’
It seemed sound advice. She drew in and expelled foetid air, trying not to taste dead-body sweat in her mouth. She didn’t look down as she stepped into the water, keeping her eyes level with a metal fold in the dancer’s tutu. The smooth surface of the fountain base had never been intended for footwear and the marble bottom was coated in a film of blood. With one foot in the fountain, Beth’s Adidas trainer squelched and shifted in the silt. She lifted her left leg before her position was stable and her right foot slipped from under her. Her body slewed forwards and she slid like a figure skater along the base of the fountain.
She was falling.
Her head was going to sink into the smutty water. She opened her mouth to scream and put out her hands straight in front of her to save herself. Her left hand grabbed onto the smooth bronze finish of the dancer’s dress. There was nothing to hold and again she felt herself falling. Her right hand reached out, clutching at the flesh of Marc’s chest, piercing his clammy skin with her nails. Her fingers curled into his chest hair, clutching and snatching in an attempt to stay upright. She felt Jennifer’s arm under her elbow, steadying her.
Her relief at not falling into the mire of Marc’s fluids staved her revulsion. When the moment of contact with the body had come, it hadn’t been so bad really. He felt unnaturally cold. He was hard and unyielding, like a mannequin, but her fingers had not pierced the blackened flesh of his necrotic blisters, only his bloodless chest-flesh. She was thankful for that, it could have been a lot worse.
When she was steady she turned to Jennifer and mumbled, ‘Thanks.’
‘S’okay. I considered letting you swim, but at least now you’ve got over the thing about touching him. Let’s get him out of here.’
Jennifer moved around to the front of the body. If she had expected to be able to fling his arms over her shoulders she hadn’t reckoned on the stiffness of his limbs. Rigor mortis had given the body the density and immovability of somebody frozen. She inched towards his chest and tried to pull him from the spiked foot of the sculpture but she hadn’t the strength to move him.
They worked together to release him. When he came away from the statue, it was sudden. His body popped free of the ballerina’s foot and the unexpected sound made Beth scream.
As he fell on top of her, stiff with rigor, Jennifer staggered backwards. Marc had weighed fourteen stone; dead, he felt heavier. Jennifer was slight. Her knees caught at the back of the fountain base and she stumbled out with Marc heavy on top of her. Beth was taken along with the rush of movement. She was still hanging onto Marc’s disgusting body but having his bloated penis against her abdomen was better than her face penetrating the contaminated water. Nothing on earth could have been worse.
Gasses had built in Marc’s body after his death. It was this escaping methane that had caused the unbearable rotten egg smell. As he fell on top of Jennifer, the remainder of the methane was forced rapidly up his airways and came out of his mouth with a loud ughhhhh sound. The expulsion of gas smothered Jennifer’s face and, winded by his weight on top of her, she inhaled and gulped it in. To this point she had shown no concern or emotion at the demise of her brother. Her only reaction had been a morbid and disturbing fascination in his death and decomposition. Now, Beth felt no sympathy as she watched the girl’s mounting panic. Jennifer struggled violently beneath the dead weight on top of her, fighting to get out.
Beth had fallen to her knees in the fountain. She stood gingerly, conscious of the slippery basin, and carefully climbed out of the water onto an uncontaminated corner of the tarpaulin. She stood, watching Jennifer’s struggles to free herself, making no move to help the girl. Jennifer was grunting. It had taken only seconds from Marc flying free of the statue, to Jennifer crawling out from underneath him, but it seemed like longer. Beth felt malicious satisfaction as the tables turned.
Still on her knees, Jennifer crawled to the side of the fountain. She was grunting and heaving and she flung the top half of her body fully over the rim and vomited loudly into the water. It splashed back into her face and she wretched again, emptying herself into the pool.
‘Ah, ah, ah. DNA, remember,’ said Beth, cruelly.
Jennifer threw up a third time and then wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her overall. ‘Fuck off,’ she replied, before resting her back against the wall of the fountain, drawing her knees into her chest and lowering her head onto them.
Marc was lying on his side, one arm sticking stiffly up at an unnatural angle. Beth lowered herself to the floor with her back towards the body and took a moment of rest, too.
‘So much for throwing your weight around; all you’ve thrown is your supper.’
Jennifer was petulant and shot back in a sulky tone, ‘I’ll throw you back in the fountain in a minute. You’re going to be sorry for that.’ She leaned round and spat in the water. Beth watched her body relax. As Jennifer slowly turned to her, she had a sly smile on her face. ‘Oh yes. You’re going to be sorry for that.’
‘Oh, get over yourself,’ she muttered. ‘Anyway, surely the worst is over now.’
‘Don’t you believe it. We’ve got to carry him up two flights of stairs yet.’
Beth shuddered as she looked at Marc’s extended arm, would they have to break it to make it lie flat in the tarp? A new horror caused her bile to rise anew as she noticed for the first time that his index finger on that hand was missing. There were no jagged edges; the finger appeared to have been chopped through cleanly. The stump, close to the main knuckles of the hand, was bloodless but blackened.
‘Oh my God, his finger,’ she muttered.
‘His finger?’ Parroted Jennifer, ‘What about it?’
‘It must have dropped off.’
‘Don’t be so bloody ridiculous, it can’t just drop off. Where is it? Jesus where is it? It must be in the fountain somewhere, we’ve got to find it.’ Beth felt her hysteria rising again. Every time she felt a glimmer of hope for her future, something came along to hinder it.
‘Chill,’ said Jennifer. Her nose was wrinkled and she wiped at her front with a pulled down sleeve to remove a blot of vomit. ‘It’s not in there. Don’t worry; I’ve got it somewhere nice and safe.’
‘You chopped his finger off?’ Beth couldn’t keep the revulsion from her voice. ‘How could you do that? Why.’
Jennifer snapped her head towards Beth suddenly, ‘Do you know what it feels like to have somebody’s finger hurting you…there,’ she motioned downwards, ‘I was just twelve years old? He raped me. Do you know what it’s like to be a scared little girl waiting for your bedroom door to open in the night? No, of course you don’t, ‘cause you had the charmed life, didn’t you? I remember him inside me, hurting me. I had no use for his dick, but his finger is very valuable to me. And anyway, I made sure that that finger is never going to do any girl-caving again, not in this life, or the next. But I had other reasons, too’ she frowned, ‘big ones, over half a million of them.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing,’ her face had set hard and standing, she busied herself trying to cover Marc’s body with the tarp,’ We’re going to have to break this arm,’ she said, confirming the nightmare premonition that Beth had already had.
They discussed their next steps. Beth was still very shaky but Jennifer was quickly regaining her composure. ‘Don’t know what the hell that was all about,’ she said, harking back to the vomit-fest of minutes before in an attempt to regain the upper hand. ‘The food at yours must have been dodgy.’
Getting Marc into the vault was going to be difficult. The tarpaulin was enormous, made of heavy canvas, and that, added to the weight of the body, meant that they would have to lug almost twenty-stone up to the top of the house. Jennifer had broken Marc’s arm with a hammer to make it lie flat while Beth had hidden her face. She would never forget that sound though, she was sure it would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life. Jennifer suggested using the tarpaulin like a large blanket, keeping it open and dragging Marc up by each of them holding two corners. Beth said that it would be impossible to do it like that. They finally decided to wrap him up in the canvas, Persian carpet style.
Jennifer left Beth alone with the body while she went in search of rope or a thick twine to bind the ends. Surprisingly, Beth didn’t fly into hysterics. She had now dehumanised Marc and thought of him only as a body. She was still terrified, but her concerns were all for self preservation. She had to see this through so that she wouldn’t be held accountable for his death. As much as she detested Jennifer, she had to admit that without her none of this would have been possible. Jennifer terrified her. She seemed so cold and emotionless. She had already proven herself to be cruel and manipulative, all those veiled threats and insinuations. Yet she had still gone to great lengths to help Beth. Why? What were her motives? Beth had killed her brother. Instead of wanting vengeance and the hand of justice to crush her, she was putting herself out on a limb to keep her from being answerable. None of this made any sense and Beth wanted time to sit and think things through clearly. She had questions that Jennifer must answer, but this was not the time. Now, she cleared her mind.
She had to function rather than think. There would be plenty of time to worry and work out where she went from here when they had concealed Marc’s body.
When Jennifer returned she brought with her two steaming mugs of strong tea and had a nylon washing line draped around her neck. ‘A is for apple, tea is for trauma. That’s what Marc always said.’ She offered one of the mugs to Beth.
Beth shook her head and turned in disgust. She couldn’t face the thought of drinking anything.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Jennifer, pulling a chocolate digestive out of her pocket and picking the fluff from it. ‘But it’s going to be thirsty work.’ Somewhere a pipe gurgled as it cooled and Beth was glad that while she was out of the room Jennifer had also turned off the heating.
Wrapping Marc in the tarpaulin and binding the ends took almost half an hour. They were sweating and he looked like a Christmas cracker by the time they had finished.
‘Won’t we be leaving a trail of evidence in our wake if we carry him up the stairs?’ asked Beth.
‘Well, what do you suggest, Einstein? Flying him up there?’
‘The tarps dirty, what if it leaves oil stains on the stairs? What if he bleeds through it?’
‘There shouldn’t be any blood now,’ said Jennifer, knowledgeably, ‘Once the heart stops circulating the blood it can’t flow, can it? As for the rest, we’ll just have to clean up thoroughly after us. We’re going to have to empty and re-fill the fountain anyway. Moving him is just the first stage of the operation.’
‘But what about forensics? Just cleaning the floor isn’t going to be enough, is it? They’ll find fibres and oil stains and they’ll have ultra violet detectors to identify blood and stuff, won’t they?’ Beth’s voice had risen as a feeling of overwhelming panic rose in her once more.
‘Calm down, for Christ sake, you’re making me jittery. This is Ulverston, arse-end of nowhere. The police are going to be in-bred Neanderthals. They won’t have all that high tech equipment and stuff here. Relax, it’ll be okay.’
‘What if they bring people in? Won’t they call in Scotland Yard, or a big murder squad, or something? We’re going to get caught, I know we are.’
‘Listen, I’m telling you. It’ll be all right. My brother and I led a pretty secluded life. We have no friends as such. His work was all freelance. Nobody will even miss him. Listen to me carefully. Nobody is even going to come looking for him. That’s the way he designed his life.’
Beth would like to have taken a moment to fathom out the deep and meaningful of this last statement. She’d also have liked time to try and weed the fact from the lies; Jennifer had already proven herself to be a skilfully adept liar. She was small and pixie-like but her vocabulary and manner of taking charge seemed to exceed that of most fifteen year olds.
Thoughts and conflicting questions were flying around Beth’s head but time was against them. They had to get things done before night turned into day, and after the removal business was done the cleaning of floors and returning things to order had to begin.
It took the two of them a long time to get Marc’s body up the first flight of stairs, turn the corner at the stained glass window and then haul him up a second, even longer flight and along an endless corridor to the full length mirror that hid the secret vault. Several times, one or other of them let go and precious space was lost as the tarpaulin-covered body bounced back down a few stairs with a sickening thud. Beth ached all over. She felt that the smell of the house had permeated not only her clothing but also her skin. She had never craved a bath so much in her entire life. And never before had she felt the urge to empty full bottles of thick bleach into the water before getting in.
It was with some pomp that Jennifer fiddled with the hidden mechanism that sent the mirror trundling along rails set into the floor revealing an inner door with an electronic keypad lock and a small retinal scanner. Jennifer enjoyed showing off with childish exuberance as she tapped the security code into the keypad. As she did this she explained that the inner room was twelve feet smaller than the space it occupied because of the three-foot thickness of the reinforced steel and concrete walls. The keypad bleeped and a red light flashed on the scanner. It had obviously been put in place for Marc, as Jennifer had to stretch up on her tiptoes to align her left eye with the sensor.
‘It’s a dual purpose room,’ Jennifer went on to explain, ‘acting as both a vault for our valuables and secrets, and a panic room for the family. When you’re outside, unless you’re coded into the scanner, it’s impossible to get in, and when you’re inside, unless I activate the release button, it’s impossible to get out.’
When the retinal scanner had analysed her eye, there was another beep and the sound of a lock releasing.
‘Air circulates in the vault through special one-way filters. It’s fitted with its own generator in case the electricity is cut, an independent phone line, emergency rations enough for two people for six months, and an extensive first aid kit to cover all eventualities.’
Jennifer pushed the heavy steel door open with a single finger and said, ‘Welcome to my vision.’
‘Can we just get on with it now?’ Beth asked.
They hefted the body for the last time, pulling it into the centre of the room, and then straightening up to ease out the kinks in their backs. Beth looked around, noting the rows of blank wall-to-wall monitors, the boxes and crates marked ‘Provisions’, and a bed along one wall. The room scared her. It was only a room and she couldn’t understand why she was so nervous of it.
‘In short,’ Jennifer finished, ‘it would make the perfect prison.’
Beth realised why she was on edge. She looked up at Jennifer and saw immediately the familiar cruel glint in her eye.
‘Three times this evening, at your house, you have called me Jennifer. And then we had your little display of cockiness when I got sick. I’ve asked you so politely not to call me that. I’ve told you my preferred name, yet still you choose to ignore my wishes. You know there’s always going to be consequences, Beth, don’t you? But still you flout the rules.’ Beth had backed into the room with the body ahead of Jennifer. In order to get out again she had to get past her.
Jennifer was already over the threshold before Beth realised what was happening. She had pushed a button to close the door and it was moving quickly on its tracks.
‘Remember, Beth. There’s no way out.’
Beth made a lunge for the gap in the closing door, not caring that she trampled all over Marc’s body to get there. ‘Jennifer!’ she screamed, but it was too late. The door finished its movement and came to a perfect and silent close.