It was a perfect night for a murder. Not that murder was on my mind, but if it had been, then that moon behind the clouds and that sky without a star would have set the scene beautifully. It was as if the moon was hiding from something, peeking through occasionally to see if the coast was clear - only to creep away again, behind the shroud.
I still don’t understand why anyone wanted to commit a murder on that particular night. It annoys me. In books everyone always knows who did what, and why ‘the colour of the toothpaste’ was important, right from the start. Indeed, by the end of the story, you don’t even think of the poor murdered soul as a person anymore - after all, if they hadn’t been murdered then the story would have fallen flat, wouldn’t it?
But this was personal. I was walking home with Jackie. We’d fallen out at work and I suppose it was my fault. But even the best of friends would fall out if they were stuck in the same office 9 to 5 and shared the same flat for every other hour of the day. Still, I’d snapped at her and I wanted to make up. We needed each other too much to fall out. Of course, she was going to marry Andrew next month and that was going to change everything, but I refused even to think about that. So we’d been out for dinner. It was a stupid thing to do. Neither of us could afford to eat out - not after Mrs Danning had put the rent up - but it certainly gave us something to talk about over dinner.
“Can you imagine being able to eat like this all the time, never cooking again?” Jackie had said, with a wistful look.
I smiled and said, “You wouldn’t like it, Jackie. Think about what they might have done to it in the kitchen, you know, before giving it to you. You never know, do you?”
Jackie grimaced. That was the Jackie I knew.
“Don’t! Oh, that’s awful. You’ve put me right off my lasagne!”
We were friends again! That kick under the table had confirmed it, only I wish Jackie hadn’t been wearing boots.
The dinner went too quickly. We ate slowly, lingering over every mouthful in the hope that we could stay just a little longer and delay the inevitable return to the dingy little flat. Mrs Danning would be round for the rent tonight and not find us in. That was her problem - we always paid on time, always received a frown in return, and always went to bed with that “why do we bother?” feeling. So tonight, we weren’t going to bother. We were slinking our way from main course to dessert.
It was at this point that I noticed the couple in the corner. They’d arrived after us, but they’d finished their meal and were leaving. Would anyone else have noticed how long we’d been sitting there? Jackie certainly hadn’t. Now we were talking again, she was intent on doing nothing else. We had catching up to do!
“I can’t wait till Andrew’s back! He’s going to see his parents before coming up here, and they’ll probably keep him as long as possible, but he’ll at least be in the same country as me!” she rattled on.
I paused. “Is that thing sorted out? The foreign guy he was following?”
Jackie nodded. “Yeh, he said that they would catch him soon. They almost had him. Well, they did have him and then he got away. But that wasn’t Andrew’s fault. He shouldn’t have been left to watch him on his own! And the man took Andrew’s wallet. But Andrew wrote - he’s missing me so much.” I was used to this kind of talk from Jackie and let it go. Tonight, she was enjoying herself - even without precious Andrew.
“But do you know what he said?” Jackie was looking at me with that you’ll-never-guess-what-he’s-done-now look.
“What?” I asked, with perhaps too much feigned interest.
Oblivious to all but dessert and her Andrew she said, “His boss is going to make sure he doesn’t have to go abroad, once we’re married. He asked him if this was possible. He doesn’t like these smuggling cases anyway...”
I burst out laughing and Jackie looked highly bemused.
“I’m sorry, Jack, only you said smuggling cases and ... sorry, go on.”
It seemed funny at the time, but you’re probably with Jackie on this one. Anyway, she ignored me and went on.
“So he’ll be at the station in town, doing local patrols and stuff like that.”
“Good,” I said. I’d never liked Andrew and he’d never liked me. What really hurt him most was that his favourite picture of Jackie was of her standing next to me. He’d wanted to rip me off, but Jackie would never have forgiven him. So he had to carry my photo too, wherever he went! Well, I found it funny.
All good things come to an end and we had to leave the restaurant. It was darker than I’d imagined it should be, but then I checked my watch. Could we really have been in there that long?! No wonder the waiter had looked so relieved when we said we’d pay.
The streets aren’t exactly well-lit around town. But we made it back to the flat. I suppose that if someone else told this story then they’d add in about a shifty-looking character with a limp, and the drunk who walked into Jackie and even some tumbleweed for good measure. But I’m telling the story and it’s like it is in real life: mountains and valleys, but never just the Alps.
We managed to find a key for the main-door of the flats. Keys always end up at the bottom of your bag, no matter where they started out. But the main-door was already open - someone must have left it unlatched. Most likely it was that man on the floor above us, who plays his violin far too loud, but at least has the virtue of trying to make Mrs Danning’s life a misery. What a darling she is! I’ve said as much to Jackie, but she doesn’t understand sarcasm and probably thinks I’m devoted to our irascible landlady.
Of course Mrs Danning was there to greet us. She sprang upon us as we tried to tiptoe passed her room. The rent. Jackie had her purse in her bag. Why she carried that amount of money always troubled me. I said that I’d have to get mine from our flat. Mrs Danning wasn’t pleased, she’d “waited so long already”. Such an unreasonable woman! Anyway, Jackie took charge and set about sweet-talking Mrs Danning into forgiving us. Jackie was good at that kind of thing but Mrs Danning looked more difficult than ever tonight.
I climbed up the stairs. I was sleepy! Such a long day. And there was another one tomorrow! The landing light had been switched onto ‘eerie gloom’, just to make the horrid pink wallpaper look even more blotchy than it did in daylight. Mrs Danning had no idea! I had the room-key ready, but the door was only pushed to. I knew what had happened: Mrs Danning, knocking and receiving no answer, would have generously assumed that we were trying to lie low - suspicious woman. So she must have gone in to check, found that we weren’t there and, in her fury, forgotten to lock it. She wasn’t as efficient about locks and wallpaper as she was about rent-collecting.
I went into the room with a yawn on my lips. I switched the light on very reluctantly. I was about ready to drop into bed and the thought of waking myself up for an encounter with Mrs Danning was not a pleasant one. I threw my bag onto the bed, keeping my face away from the light while my eyes adjusted. I stood in front of Jackie’s long mirror. I looked a fright! My long winter coat hung heavy on my shoulders and I dropped it off onto the floor wearily.
Something in the mirror caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed before. But I noticed now. There was a man, gun poised. Was I dreaming? Had I fallen asleep before I reached the mirror. But somehow I couldn’t move. What would happen if I didn’t move? Perhaps he hadn’t seen me?! Of course he’d seen me - he was pointing a gun at me!
I don’t know what made me break my statue pose, but I turned to face him. In books, people scream, or break down, or go into hysterics. But believe me, when you are standing with a gun pointing at you, you tend to think otherwise. I just looked at him. He looked through me. He must have been foreign. But I was no detective, or even amateur detective. All I could tell was that he had a gun pointed at me, and at that moment, that was all I needed to know.
“You Jackie?” he said in a deep accent. His face didn’t change, like he was wearing a mask.
I thought very quickly. A foreign man - Jackie - a foreign man - Jackie. Jackie - Andrew - Andrew is abroad. It occurred to me in one of those flashes of intelligence that I seemed to get occasionally that this might be Andrew’s smuggler. Andrew! My hero! I hated him now more than ever! But Jackie, I didn’t hate Jackie.
“Are police after you? You smuggler?” I asked. I don’t know why I spoke in his broken English, but he seemed to understand and smiled. The mask was breaking a little, but the shutter came down and he looked through me again.
So this was Andrew’s smuggler. He’d come for Jackie. Revenge? What else could it be? But I wasn’t going to ask.
Silly little Jackie! Fancy falling for Andrew in the first place. But she had fallen for him. She loved him so much and was going to be quite the prettiest bride. It would be a long time before I was a bride, if ever, that is. I thought of Jackie. I couldn’t imagine her dead. She had always been so very alive, making the most of things. At least we’d made up. But Andrew would ... well he was likely to do anything if Jackie was killed. He’d get himself in a lot of trouble. Did I care about Andrew? Perhaps, but Jackie certainly did. They had so much ahead of them. I hadn’t time to think any of this, but it was floating somewhere in the back of my mind.
The man came closer and pressed the gun against my head.
“Is Andrew alive?”
He released the pressure against my head just slightly and nodded.
“You Jackie?” he asked again.
This time I nodded and he pulled the trigger.
Copyright © 2009 Abigail J. Fox