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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Murder: my first attempt

A new short story. Let me know what you think!

Redistribution

Shadows around her, the mountain draped in a blanket; she knows she should hurry on through the lane. The last security guards, keen to catch late rush-hour trains out of the city, left hours before. She lurches when she hears rustling behind her, but releases the tension in her shoulders in an exhalation when she sees the homeless woman working her way through the garbage can.

She lowers the knitted cap over her ears and presses on but slacks off when she sees an albino squirrel darting across the path. Another hovers on an oak trunk, legs and tail spread wide, nose and whiskers twitching, tail flicking.

More rustling follows in the ivy ahead of her, approximately where the white squirrel had darted a moment ago. Forgetting the darkness pushing in on her like a narrowing tunnel, she leans over the flowerbed, parting the leaves with the hope of smoothing her hand over soft squirrel fur, but the cold, smooth surface, sturdy but rippling, jolts her and sets her running.

Beyond the war monument, on the dirt path leading to the shul, she notices two figures, one marginally shorter than the other. She hurries on past but glimpses the shorter figure trying to shove the other aside.

 

***

Linda licked her lips and tugged at her sweater, which had suddenly started feeling hot and restrictive around her neck. The surgical mask hung from her throat like a bib and she yanked at that too. She cradled the cold receiver against her cheek and flinched against the sharp metal pinching into the soft flesh behind her ear. She’d bought the cheapskate earrings after the robbery and now they were a sharp reminder.

Life clicked into place on the other side of the line. That gruff voice.

“Right. You know that snake you sent up from Gardens?” Pause. Irritating phone. Change sides. “Python, yes. Well.”

She licked her lips again and coughed.

“Really. I thought I’d seen it all, but I think you’d better come take a look at this.” Pause. “Well, you wanted us to find out what it’s been living on, right?”

As she talked, she twirled her hair around her finger but stopped, pulled her back straight and wiped her hand on her lab coat when she realised what she was doing.

“You saw the shape this thing was in, I mean, the shape …”

But police stations are busy places. No time for chit-chat. Click.

Linda pushed the phone across her desk, watching the tightly coiled cord curl and twist over itself. She shuddered. A dog, he’d said, of course it’s swallowed a dog. He didn’t really want anything to do with it. The only reason someone had called the police in the first place is because they have guns, and the logical conclusion when one sees a snake is that it has to be shot. Yet when they discovered just what it was, Nathan gave the bullet his blessing and Constable Twala potted the thing neatly in the head. Not even a lot of blood or anything, Nathan had told her, as if she didn’t have eyes herself.

Last Thursday’s paper was resting underneath three coffee mugs. She swept them away to open up to page five. On page two she glossed over a picture of an ex-lover who had taken part in some charity cycle race. Just the week before she’d bumped into him in Kloof Street Checkers. It irritated her about Cape Town that the place was so damn small, that you kept blundering into the same people over and over.

She hadn’t read the article properly on the day and was pleased for a change that she had a habit of not tossing out useless and expired things.

“City senior fined: Exotic python released in Company Gardens.” The article detailed how police had been alerted when a homeless woman was found shrieking in the vicinity of the Iziko museum after she saw a man releasing a large snake into a swathe of ivy groundcover. She had reported that the snake was “at least 30 foot long, just like the one that took Amos”, but the man, an avid birder, whose name was known to the paper, had told police that it was closer to fifteen foot, approximately four metres.

“Just like the one that took Amos.” The report suggested that the police regarded the woman a ranter, mentally ill, and no further mention was made of a potential missing person by that name.

Linda stroked her fingers as she read, another old habit, but flinched when she squeezed her left ring finger too hard. The negative space always still surprised her, but worse at the moment was the physical pain in the stump. It had been hot, that evening, a bit more than a year before; Linda had always been prone to swelling in the heat. The man had been carrying a knife. It was a big diamond.

She continued reading. Police spent a number of days looking for the snake, which the man confessed he had bought from a snake dealer to deal with what he called the “squirrel infestation of the Company Gardens.” Squirrels, he said, decimate birds’ nests and displace indigenous species. Police said that the man, initially reticent, had become increasingly talkative during questioning, and boasted that he had released another python in the gardens two years previously. “The police search continues.”

Not anymore. Linda turned her head to get another look at the creature laid out on its back on her stainless steel cutting table. Its tongue had fallen out of its mouth and its head was surprisingly, endearingly, diamond-shaped and sturdy, she found.

***

With the salty-bitter silt of another black coffee raking her throat, Linda snapped on a new pair of latex gloves, secured the mask and shoved the door open with her shoulder. Nathan (to her, Inspector Venter to other people) had phoned back, tipped off to the whereabouts of a suspected kidnapper. He wouldn’t be attending any snake viewings that afternoon.

Of course she’d taken some pictures, but what’s a picture, compared to real life? You’d have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the swollen, distorted form, and that tremendous lump, right there, and the width of it, as wide as … well, not a dog.

Her colleagues had been bemused, but not altogether interested. They were into observing and conserving local fauna, not investigating exotic species, although Linda argued that dissection would reveal its eating habits, and therefore the impact it had on its foreign environment. They wished her well, but returned to their western leopard toads and dwarf chameleons. She was surprised nobody was taken aback by the size and shape of the creature, until one of them reminded her that a month or two earlier a five-foot Burmese python had been killed in Florida with eighty-seven, eighty-seven, he said, eggs inside. And they weren’t gecko eggs. So she shrugged and got on with it.

The smell slapped her, worse than she remembered. And it wasn’t the snake, or its light pink flesh, but what lay inside. Not eggs. Not that stomach dissections are ever pleasant, but this was something on a grander scale than she’d ever experienced.

She blocked her nose to sigh and picked up the scalpel, setting off from where she’d left. She’d stopped the incision a metre from where she’d started, at the throat, when she discovered it. A shoe. That’s when she’d called Nathan. Now she slid the scalpel further down the belly, and the sudden release of pressure made the body pop out so that she jumped back, clutching at her chest with her left hand to leave a bloody glove print on her white coat.

Knowing what she’d find, after the shock of that shoe (firmly and definitely attached to flesh) hadn’t prepared her for the moment. While she believed she’d steadied her nerves with breathing, coffee and a non-starter phone call, she’d only just lulled herself into temporary numbness.

The man, or what seemed like man (hard to tell, with his head still covered) was short and compact. His skin was bloated and bleached white. The closest reference Linda had was skin that had spent several days under a plaster. She stood back from the table, trying to steady her breath, when she saw it. She felt lightheaded. Her jaw began to ache and her heart fluttered around her collarbones. On his right pinkie finger, unaffected by mucus or gastric juices, was a diamond ring. One that she knew very well.

***

Elaine dropped behind the steering wheel when she saw the curtain flicker, but it was just the wind. She sat up and pushed her sunglasses higher on the bridge of her nose. Another glance told her the bitch was still firmly ensconced in the flat. That little love-nest of theirs. She lit a cigarette, always good for passing the time, but it didn’t keep her mind from whirring so she took out her cellphone to see what was new online.

She tipped her ash out of the window and scrolled. The little button irritated her, sitting between screen and keyboard. It made reading hard work. Seeing the Facebook icon she sucked through her teeth. She had a fake profile on there, but hadn’t had cause to use it since Harry had gone. Nevertheless she opened it and went through the newsfeed, absorbing the baby pics, inspirational messages and jokes normal people could post. She didn’t have babies, she snorted at the idea of her inspiring anyone, and she didn’t have anything to laugh about either.

The second-floor door opened, and there she was, straight, dark hair down her back, good legs, great. No tits, though, Elaine was pleased to observe. She arched an eyebrow. The woman was moulded into a bright floral Spandex dress. She walked up straight and tossed her hair. Her phone rang, she answered, smiled, laughed, paused, scowled, shook her head and rolled her eyes, paused, laughed again. She was in no way behaving like a woman who had headed for a tryst in a park only to find her lover with a hole in the head.

She thought of him again, lying there like a drowned rat, those little hands of his drawn up and curled like a rodent’s, the thick, matted hair on his head and neck, and back, if you’d cared to lift his shirt. It was raining hard by the time she fired the shot. She wanted to blast a whole round on him, but the rain had pissed on those plans. The first shot, however, did the job. And she could thank the rain for clearing away the blood. Any that might have remained would have looked like the result of a late-night brawl, nothing more. He’d fallen right into the ivy, which drained the blood into a hard-to-spot area in any case.

It had taken her a long time, after all, to work up the nerve to pull the trigger. All the while they’d argued, as the gardens emptied of walkers, commuters, security guards and, it seemed, even homeless people. He slapped her when she screamed at him that she knew about his bitch in Myrtle Street. The ring had swivelled so that the stone was on his palm side and it cut her face. It made her laugh. There she was, angry at being double-crossed by this man, a full head shorter than her, his bald patch covered in the remarkably thick mat that still grew on the sides, and lately dyed black. Small fingers he had, like a woman, and then he insisted on wearing that ring. It drew looks, always, but he liked that, and whenever he saw question marks in people’s eyes he’d guffaw and slap her on the arse with that bejewelled hand. That always made people look away.

Mixing business with pleasure, that had been her mistake. Although looking at him like that, she was alarmed that she’d ever found pleasure there. Yet she hadn’t been the first, and obviously not the last. It had stung when she’d pieced together the late-night texts, cryptic emails, long black hairs on her pillow. But what had smarted most of all was realising that once again, it was a business-and-pleasure mix, and the thought of being replaced on two fronts was what made a bubbling tide of red wash up inside her mind, clouding over her vision.

Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she thought about that ring again. They’d acquired it together. He never would have gotten hold of that woman by himself. She remembered how skittish she’d been when she saw Harry. She’d picked up her pace across the parking lot. But women always trusted Elaine, especially when she pretended to be lost in the dark. She’d screamed so, that woman. She promised him anything if he’d just spare her the ring. It was her mother’s, she’d cried. Anything, he cackled with rising intonation. No, no, she squirmed and sobbed. It took him a long time to get that ring off, but he did, and when he heard campus security coming, he yanked at the chain on her neck, snapping one of the links, but gold is gold and anything can be sold. That’s what he always said.

But the ring. Elaine looked down at her naked ring finger. She played with it sometimes. She’d never seen such a big diamond in real life. It wasn’t an Elizabeth Taylor piece or anything, but it was unusual, and the way it glimmered mesmerised her like nothing else in this world could anymore. And he’d promised her. He’d always said it would be hers, he’d slip it on for her one day and she’d be his, but first she just had to do this, had to do that. The date kept moving. And then this other woman appeared.

As she marched down the stairs in her floral dress, Elaine ducked under the steering wheel again, bumping into the phone and bringing it to life. The news site drew her attention and when she read the headline she felt the prickling of sweat in her armpits and the jolt of blood to her head.

***

She hadn’t thought things through as well as she thought she had. Yes, that woman of Harry’s was supposed to find him there, they’d set up a meeting after all, but then what?  Once the job was done, Elaine panicked. She wanted to grab the ring, but the thudding of her own blood in her ears confused her. She was struggling, suddenly, to balance, and then she heard sirens, or thought she heard sirens. Blue light swept across the grass, and she ran.

***

“Hell, you could blind a person with that thing.”

Nathan whistled. Linda felt a rash of heat rising up her neck but smiled as she rested her hand on the ring where it hung against her breastbone from a cheap silver chain.

“You entertaining offers from some other guy?” he asked.

She swatted the air with a limp wrist and clicked her tongue.

“Don’t be ridiculous, man.”

But he kept looking at her. She had to say something.

“It reminded me of my mother’s one, OK?”

She hoped that by putting a question mark in the air, she’d put an end to his queries, and it worked. He shrugged and went to stand behind the table at the photographer’s request.

The snake, opened up from head to tip, was still on its back, but now minus its gruesome last meal. Linda joined Nathan. She screwed her eyes shut against the flash.

“OK. Let’s see if it works,” Nathan said as the photographer zipped up his camera bag. Linda swallowed.

“So, still, nobody’s come forward? How can someone just be lying dead inside a snake without being reported missing?”

“Exactly. Anyway, between your estimate and the pathologist’s findings, at least we can feed the papers a murder date. And sometimes people start remembering things they’ve heard or seen, when they suddenly have a date.”

After he left, she washed her hands three times in a row, all the while looking at herself in the mirror and wondering why she felt guilty wearing something that had been hers all along.

 

***

Piles of dirty plates, takeaway containers and clean, dry but un-ironed clothing littered Elaine’s flat, in which she’d been pacing like a caged tiger for two days. She slammed her arms over her ears to block out the rattle of the train rushing past, but once it had gone she picked up the TV remote. She didn’t mind what was on, as long as it wasn’t silence.

She walked over to the kitchen. Still not hungry, but the idea of coffee was appealing, and she grabbed the tin of Frisco from the cupboard. But when she opened the fridge, she found the milk bottle empty between two furry tomatoes, a carton of eggs and a tub of margarine. She slammed the door shut and turned her head from the yellowed paper attached with magnets. The shaky wax-crayon lines formed the outline of what looked like a pink rhino. “Unicorn”, a teacher had written below it. In the right-hand corner the child had written her own name. “Shelley (5)”. Elaine pressed her fingers to the writing for the thousandth time and closed her eyes.

The interruption of her vigil in Myrtle Street had left her with a time vacuum. Clueless idiot, she thought of the woman in her tight little dress as she sat on her couch, shaking her knees at a rate of about three beats a second. She gathered her thick red curls behind her head and let out a devoiced scream. She picked up her phone again, looked at the new picture.

Then she whispered the words to herself: the same words she’d been repeating for two days. The words that had been floating through her brain for at least a year before, without coagulating into a concrete thought until now. It was mine, mine all along, I helped to get it, I deserved it over and over, it was promised to me. It belongs to me.

 

***

Elaine sat in the Tazz with her sunglasses on her head, in the dark spot midway between two streetlamps, thinking of the picture she’d seen in the paper, with Linda, and the name of the university printed clear as anything. That thing, glittering at her throat.

She couldn’t remember when last she’d been to the southern suburbs. She listened to the sibilant hiss of a sprinkler system coming to life; the verge was covered in lawn, for crying out loud. She thought back to a time long ago when instead of stalking people and staking out their houses, waiting for something to crack or become crackable, she’d sat in her car in front of schools, just waiting for a bell to ring. She floated away on the thought of a sunny afternoon for a moment, but opening her eyes to the dark street ahead of her, noticing the silhouette of a tricycle lying on its side on the grass, it just solidified her reality; justified her cause.

The wall was rough under her hands, but the texture gave her grip under her sneakers. She waited until she heard the sound of a motorcycle passing on the next block before she dropped into the flowerbed.

The lights were off, as she knew they’d be. Since Elaine had followed Linda home from campus three nights before, she’d been observing her routine. During the day she’d snooped around the house. She knew where to get in. But more importantly, she knew to look for a glass cabinet on the central island in the kitchen.

The sound of that sprinkler, she thought, was what was really turning her palms sweaty. It was louder here, at the back door, an insistent sibilant staccato. The job itself didn’t worry her much, there where she stood with screwdriver in hand. Harry had taught her well. Picking locks, fiddling alarms. It was her job. She was good at it.

Yet there’d always be something unexpected to make your blood turn to ice, and this time it was the creak of a door in need of oil. Always something unknown, unaccounted for. Elaine bit her lip and dug her nails into the wood. Four breaths, five breaths, nothing. She hadn’t woken her. She let her shoulders drop.

And then she saw it, where she knew it was, but also, bizarrely, there was a spotlight shining onto a corner of it. Elaine snuck up to the glass panel. Her sneakers squeaked ever so slightly on the linoleum, but she didn’t stop. The cabinet, she realised, had a heavy glass top, but it was unlocked. She put her face against the glass, feeling the cool of it on her forehead, watching the it fog up and clear under her nostrils, fog up and clear. The spotlight blinded her. It obscured much of what was in the cabinet, but it did light up the one thing she was looking for, and it was shining, brilliant as ever. It was still attached to the chain, and hung from a twig in the cabinet.

As she lifted the cover, with difficulty, because of the weight and because she couldn’t afford to have it crashing to pieces on the floor, Elaine realised the twig was more than some kind of nature display. There were a number of plants in the glass box, and soil, and rocks. She stuck in her hand to reach for the ring and drew her breath in sharply when she felt the chain, but it was just too far, and instead of grabbing it, she knocked it off and it slithered to the soil, where it landed with a light metallic “crink”. She took a deep breath and reached in further. It wasn’t as easy as just diving in with the other arm. There were plants in the way, she couldn’t see, and all the time she needed to keep an eye on the passage and the stairs beyond. She kept reaching, her fingers stretching, seeking, searching.

And there, she had it, she’d slipped it onto her finger, no less. Her heart lifted. But as she drew her hand back, she felt a prick, short and sharp. She gasped, an inward shriek, as her circulation turned on her and washed the icy blood up her arm across her heart and pulsed through her head.

Something crashed when she staggered backwards, and as she fell onto the floor with a drumbeat in her ears, she thought she heard the muffled slithering over glass of something less domestic than a sprinkler system.

 

Recent comments:

  • LeighCann
    LeighCann
    February 6th, 2013 @13:26 #
     
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    Loved it! Very freaky, but great descriptions.

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  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    February 6th, 2013 @13:28 #
     
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    Awesome. Thanks Leigh! Freaky is good ...

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