From here he could see all the way past the cabin down to the church in the valley. Once, he had wondered what it would be like to be able to wander these mountains without a care in the world; and now at last he was up here, and wondering when the manhunt would begin.
Somewhere down in the valley, a dog barked. He could see it now, so far off it was but a tiny dot, but the morning air was so still that he could hear it clearly. He wondered if it was the dog he’d seen so often out by her house – the big black and white creature which would greet him with a canine grin and then rear up to plonk its forepaws on his shoulders and lick his face.
But that was absurd. Her house was far off, at the bottom of the valley, too far off to see from here. This was why he’d come up this way, rather than flee down towards the towns of the plains, the way they’d expect him to go. With a little luck they’d never look for him up in the mountains.
Even now, he still felt the shock of finding her dead, and like that. He’d hated her, of course, to the extent of literally praying for her death, but he’d never expected her to die – and still less to be killed in that peculiarly grisly fashion.
Stunned, he’d stared down at her corpse, and then, automatically, he’d crouched on the floor and touched her. Her eyes were still open, her face still beautiful, the lips parted slightly to reveal her flawless white teeth. It was only below the neck that the perfect body she’d been so proud of had been damaged.
So he had crouched by her, and touched her face, her eyelids, her hair. She hadn’t even been cold yet, and her blood was sticky on the floor. He had suddenly grown aware of what he was doing when he’s discovered that he’d left fingerprints in blood on her forehead and her cheek.
He’d panicked then. Thinking back, after a gap of several hours, it was easy to realise what he should have done – call the police and explain everything – and though they might doubt his story, they couldn’t prove a thing. And after all he’d been innocent. But he’d made no secret of his hate for her, she’d obviously been very recently killed, and his bloody fingerprints were all over her face – and he’d panicked.
Well, it was already too late for regrets.
For the first time since he’d run from her house, not pausing even to close the front door behind him, he wondered what he’d do for food and shelter. It was still late summer and the nights were fairly warm, but he had only a thin shirt and corduroy trousers, and he hadn’t eaten since the previous afternoon. Also, as a townsman born and bred, he hadn’t the faintest idea how to survive alone in the forest.
And who knew how long he would have to hide? Until they caught the real culprit? But why should they even try looking for one, when he’d left such clear signs of his own presence, and underlined his guilt by running off? And then there were the phone records, as well.
She’d wanted to meet him, she’d said, when she’d called the previous evening. She was afraid. Of what, she wouldn’t say, but she’d wanted him to be with her. And, like a fool, of course he’d come.
God, he’d been such a fool!
But hadn’t he been a fool all along? A fool to take up with her in the first place, enthralled by her beauty, as perfect as that of a photographic model, something she had been in her younger days? A fool, when she’d cared to glance his way a moment, to grovel at her feet with love? A fool to stick to her, through the years, to give her all she’d wanted until she’d tired of him and cast him aside? A fool to keep going back and back, even when his mind roiled with hatred for her, humiliating himself for the sake of being with her again?
Yes, he’d been a fool. But that was all he had been guilty of, foolishness. He wasn’t, and never had been, a murderer. Not that that little fact would help him now.
Suddenly he realised that he was wasting time standing here looking down at the town. If they hadn’t found her by now, they soon would. And once they’d begun looking, it was only a matter of time before somebody found the bicycle. Then they’d know which way he’d come, and they’d bring on the sniffer dogs, and he couldn’t run far enough or fast enough to get away from them.
There was only one thing he could do, and he steeled himself to the realisation: he’d have to go back down to the town and find her killer for himself.
There was, he thought, only one person it could be – someone who had reason to hate her, as much as he did; someone, moreover, who had no love for him, either, and wouldn’t mind seeing him pay for the crime.
And then what? What if when he’d found the killer, always assuming it was the person he thought it was – would he be able to force a confession? What if the killer only laughed in his face? What would he do then?
He didn’t know. But he would find out. In any case, he didn’t have a choice.
Slowly, he walked back down past the old cabin and to the fallen tree. He’d wedged the bicycle below the trunk, concealing it as best he could under the dead branches, and now he realised just how pitifully inadequate the hiding place had been. Not that it mattered any longer, of course, but it displeased him to realise that he wasn’t successful even at that.
As he wheeled the bicycle down the path to the point where he could mount it again, he drew in a deep breath and looked round at the country. The new sun had just broached the eastern horizon to his back, and the tops of the trees, the upper reaches of the mountains, and even the white church spire down in the valley were painted with gold. A large crow flapped by overhead, and he could almost feel the wind in the bird’s feathers, and feel it thrill in its freedom.
He felt suddenly immensely reluctant to leave all this and go down again into the town – within this short time, he felt as though he’d come home at last here. Once he went back, would he ever come up to the mountains again? Would he be allowed to? What if his only memories of them were from inside the confined space of a prison cell?
But he had to go back down. He had no choice.
The streets were still almost empty when he pedalled down into the town again. It was a Saturday, and most people would still be in their beds at this early hour. A couple of joggers, a late-prowling cat or two, a young woman learning to drive – these were the only signs of life he saw. Even the church was closed, at this hour, and the shadow of its spire lay dark and chill across his path.
The road was all downhill from the church into the town, and it was only half an hour later that he reached the turning that led to her home. He’d expected to find the street full of police already, and had been prepared to move on quickly, but there was nothing. The street lay silent and slumbering in the early morning. Even his friend the big dog wasn’t around.
Cautiously, he pedalled down the street towards her house. The door, which he had left open when he’d left, was still open. The path down to the pavement was as he’d walked up it the previous night, after he’d got her phone call and bicycled up all the way.
He leaned the bicycle against the rose bush which grew in the exact centre of the tiny patch of front garden and walked into the house. The front room was in its usual state of disorder, a women’s magazine open face down on the carpet, the ashes from an incense stick holder spilling over on the table. He couldn’t tell if anything had been disturbed or not.
It was time to stop being a fool.
He waited a moment before going into the bedroom. That’s where it had happened, where he’d found her, and he had to fight down a moment of complete instinctive fear. But if he had to clear himself, he’d have to go in there, and see if he could find what he was looking for – the proof that might help to save him.
Slowly, forcing himself each moment, he pushed his head round the door.
The body was gone. That was the first thing he noticed. The dark patch of congealing blood was still on the floor beside the bed, where she’d been lying, but the body was gone.
For a moment he reeled with shock, wondering if he’d been mistaken, if she’d been alive after all, just desperately wounded, and if she’d got up afterwards and gone to the hospital. Or perhaps it had been a joke – she’d only pretended to be dead to scare him. But even as he thought this, he knew it wasn’t true. He could see her still sprawled naked on the floor with her chest hacked apart. Nobody could have survived that.
But then where was the body? If the police had taken her to the morgue, why weren’t they here now?
The noise of the car engine turning on behind the house galvanised him into motion. He ran back out and into the path, just in time to reach in through the window and twist the steering wheel over to the right, hard. The car slammed into the side of the house and the engine quit.
The girl behind the wheel looked up at him, her eyes brilliant with hate. “What did you do that for?”
“Get out,” he said quietly. “I won’t ask you again.”
“And if I don’t?” But she got out, on the other side, the car between him and her. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He answered her with a question of his own. “Where did you put her?”
“Put whom?” Her eyes were wary now, calculating her chances of running past him. “I don’t know whom you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. Your sister. You killed her last night.”
“You’re crazy. I didn’t touch her. I wasn’t even here.” But her eyes went instinctively towards the back of the car, and he knew what he’d find in the boot.
“What were you planning on doing with her?” he asked. “Drop her at my place?” He paused a second. “That was it, wasn’t it? You thought you’d drop her body at my home so the police couldn’t have any doubt at all who’d killed her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She was getting ready to run, the muscles tightening under her thin T shirt. He moved to the front of the car quickly, to cut her off. “Let me go,” she said, and tried to push past.
“Not so fast,” he said, almost pleasantly. “Just tell me this – why did you wait so long before taking her to my place? Were you scared off? That’s it, right? You’d just killed her and were maybe in the bathroom, washing off the blood, and I turned up. You heard me – you didn’t know who I was – so you maybe thought it was someone who’d call the police. You probably ran off, and only worked up the courage to come back this morning.”
“Well, prove it, that’s what I say. Prove any of it.”
He stared at her a moment. “Let’s go inside,” he said at last, “and talk it over.
“She phoned me, you know,” he said when they were inside. “She was scared, but didn’t tell me of what. Did you talk to her yesterday? Threaten to kill her, perhaps?”
“I didn’t talk to her at all.”
“I think you did. The police should be able to prove it, too, if they check your phone records. And they will, once they become suspicious of you.
“It won’t be that difficult, you know. After all, it could only be you or I who’d killed her. If you’d left her there, they’d have suspected me – you didn’t know, of course, that I’d come and run away. But once you decided to move the body, you pretty much cooked your own goose.”
“How do you mean?” She was watching him like a mongoose watching a snake. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh, please. She’ll be stiff by now. By the time you get her to my place, she’ll be pretty much impossible to get out of the car boot without leaving marks on her. And then when you put her there, the police will know for sure that she was left there, won’t they?”
She swallowed, her eyes darting away towards the bedroom door and back again.
Suddenly unable to sit any longer, he began pacing around the room. “Why did you kill her, exactly?”
“What do you care?” Her voice was filled with bitterness. “You thought she was a plaster goddess. She could do no wrong, could she? I’ve seen how you looked at her, full of devotion. You don’t have the faintest idea what she was like.”
“Actually,” he said, “I do. Believe it or not, she was as cruel to me as she was to you. I hated her, even though I couldn’t let go of her – and she knew it too, because it amused her to keep me on a chain. So, did you come here to kill her?”
“No. I came here to ask her for some money. She knew I needed it very badly, to pay my rent, but she laughed at me and told me to sell my wares, you know, to get it. So I lost my temper. I shouted at her and told her I’d come and get it out of her if I had to choke her. But when I came here, she still wasn’t going to give it to me. When I got a little insistent – she took out a knife and began waving it in my face. I thought she was going to slash me.”
“And, being bigger and stronger, you took it from her and let your temper take over.”
“As you say. And you know the rest.”
There was a moment of silence, while they looked at each other.
“So what do you intend to do?” she asked. “Turn me in?”
“I was thinking of it, but no.” He turned at the bedroom door and looked at her. “We’re going to have to move fast,” he said. “We’ll clean up the bedroom first, and then drive up to the hills. There’s a place I know – near an old abandoned cabin, practically falling to pieces – where we can bury her. And then we can swear we don’t know where she is. By the time they find her, the police won’t be able to prove a thing.”
“Why?” she asked. “You know I tried to pin it on you, so why are you going out of your way to make it easy on me?”
He looked at her a long moment before walking into the bedroom.
“Because you set me free,” he said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011