The puke was sports drink pure and fresh. Jon retched it up all over her face. It did nothing to wash away the blood sticking to her hair. The killer wound was obvious, even to a squinting, unfocused stare, the right-side of her skull smashed open. Her blood red eyes still screaming the terror. Why here? Why now? Why Ann? Just seconds ago, Jon walking, a minute from home, a five mile run still fresh in his chest. His mind still emptied, at peace. He ran the Shropshire Hills, swam the pools and lakes. Always alone. A taste of something wild. His one taste now, now that Ann had told the truth and laughed their affair dead.
Her body lay planted. A den of trees gave cover. It was a place they had come for alfresco fun. It led from his garden out towards the hills. He felt no guilt. No blood on his hands. The eyes of the living told him little, confused and dazzled him. The eyes of the dead were an easier view, thoughtless, turned off with nothing to hide.
He was not the killer. But the panic he felt erupting inside was a scramble to save himself. A life shattered, his own, flashed before his eyes. The consequences of murder came piling down on him alone. Exposure threatened him.
He ran, a minute's sprint to get back home. An upstairs window - the den of trees concealed the stain on an otherwise idyllic view. Autumn strokes brushed pasture land. A single house crashed the scene.
Find a body, be a suspect, be investigated. Jon knew this. Vomit left the trail. Their history scraped the groove deeper into granite. He would have to call the police. Of course, he should.
Ann seduced him. They met inside the village shop, a typical Londis, but with an additional line in bulk animal feed. He was countryside newbie with four months credit. He came for shelter - the hills and the solitude. He had little wish to integrate; he didn't think he could.
The Londis was usually out of bounds. Emergency supplies only. The anonymous expanse of a Tesco Extra, a fifteen-mile drive into the nearest town, suited his needs better. He dabbled with Tesco online, but the primal thrill of driving his nearly new Volvo XC90, just six months old and still in its birth year of 2016, kept his grocery shopping real. He was the boss; he worked from home. He shopped early morning when the store had an exclusive air. A VIP in the first class lounge ushered away from the hordes.
The day they first met. He went to Londis for a bag of coffee. Over-dressed as usual, head-to-toe Canali, his favourite luxury Italian menswear brand. The apparel he shared that Tuesday mid-morning with the village folk: a rust coloured wool/cashmere peacoat, black shirt, cream lightweight chinos and a pair of blue suede driving moccasins.
Such style made him think he looked like an important somebody going somewhere important with an obvious need to hurry. Entering Londis, a conversation with the lady behind the counter rehearsed in his mind,
"I like your coat."
"Never heard of them."
"I know. They're not like Armani. You can't buy their cologne in Superdrug."
"I wish my hubby would dress like you."
"I annually visit the charity shop to drop-off the waste. I could let you have first dibs."
"He hasn't got your physique."
"Right. Well. Bye."
Changing in and out of his uniform took five times as long as getting to Londis and back. Once home, and back at work, he returned the Canali to its spacious closet then returned to the office wearing pyjamas or sometimes only pants.
What scared him about Londis was the village inquisition. Their file on him was incomplete. They knew his name, and the lie he'd told - he was a day trader of shares and currencies working for himself from home. Why lie? Why not? He earned a small living building and hosting websites for not very successful sole traders, a majority being driving instructors. He didn't learn to drive until he was twenty-nine, eight years ago, which up until the moment in time was his darkest most shameful secret. While studying for his driving test, he realised many independent driving instructors had no internet presence. It was a market he could exploit, which he did, ruthlessly. As he worked from home, his parent's house, his overheads were minimal. He stacked them high and sold them cheap, undercutting all competition. He had four website designs which he mixed and matched several hundred times to provide websites for clients from all over the country. His current annual profit was £27,800. He felt himself a professional success, a man who had forged his own independent way in the world. Winning a six-figure sum on the lottery also helped, as did his parents who both died well - cheaply, long before incurring the costs of a nursing home. The day trader lie was to accommodate the fruits of his secret good fortune.
Jon knew good luck had come his way, although this wasn't simply randomness with an outcome favouring him. He thought himself more deserving of positive randomness than anyone else. Jon couldn't believe in true randomness, even though he believed in nothing spiritual, the freak was somehow always preordained. The lottery win was his by some exceptional right, a reward or gift for some unknown quality behaviour perhaps to do with his sartorial promotions.
Jon slipped inside the Londis and sped towards the coffee, the route rehearsed and followed, his head down, the exact money required clenched in his fist, ready.
At the shelf, a label confirmed the price. His senses bristled. The store was busier than expected. A glance at the till revealed an opening. He took his chance and made his move.
Coffee scanned. Price announced. Correct. Money passed. A quick count. Bingo.
He turned to leave. The curtain fell, shattered. He stood exposed on the public stage, lost and unrehearsed, unable to improvise. Pam Croft: megaphone, truncheon, one-woman crowd control, self-appointed village headmistress, ranching pupils, all those caught within the village walls, and most considered special needs.
"Ah, you!" she boomed, victorious at having Jon trapped.
Jon blushed. Pam kept her contempt contained. She wanted Jon to volunteer. He had to, she said, as a newcomer to the village, he had to prove his mettle. Jon, startled by the suddenness, the unexpected barrage of scrambled communication, the prying eyes and judging stares. His mind went floppy. He couldn't read her face. The sound of her voice punished him, induced anxiety. He fell behind as she raced ahead but he remained trapped in the riot of her protest march. Slogans kept coming, pelted at him.
"Community action against speeding drivers." "A menace to the village!" "We must defend our borders!" "Children will die!"
She looked past Jon at a customer behind and recounted how the police had finally relented and agreed to lend her a handheld laser speed camera gun.
This pause gave Jon a moment to find his senses.
"We shall catch the speeding vermin. I have high-visibility vests for all my troops. We shall stand on the roadside proud and defiant. The new knights of the village!" Pam continued. Her focus returned to Jon.
"I'm told you work from home. Doing what?"
"I trade shares. Ethical investments," he managed to say, words from a well practised script.
"Yes. I've been told. So lucky us. You can man the rush hour shift. Take this leaflet. It has all the details you need."
Jon took the opportunity and gladly grabbed the leaflet that she offered in her hand.
"Right. Yes," he said, backing away. "But I do a lot for Christian Aid." He lied on auto-response.
To avoid having to negotiate a way past her impressive frame, he took the scenic route down two aisles towards the door. He bumbled along, a little unbalanced, too fast and too self-consciously, desperate to escape the stage. The narrow door induced a panic. To push or pull? To save some face or make complete the image of a weak, incompetent fool? Over-thinking. Numb with indecision. Wasn't the door automatic? Two seconds away, Jon racing on. A woman, Ann, calm and unhurried, glides inside his tunnel vision. She exits the store, door pushed open, her caressing hand holding it open. Jon followed, slowing to twist through the door ajar.
"Thank you," he mumbled without stopping or looking her way.
"No problem," Ann replied, walking with him side-by-side. "Shall I take that," she plucked the leaflet out of his hand. "I could put it with mine straight on the fire."
Her voice was soft and warm, calm and soothing, pure ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) and nearly gave Jon the tingles. He couldn't help but glance at her, she faced forward, her stare tilted towards the ground. Her long brown hair concealed her face.
"I'm Ann. We're on the same side, the sensitive souls."
Jon felt slightly wounded by that. He nearly replied, "I'm socially phobic in a variety of ways."
"That's your Volvo. How very impressive."
"Correct. Better," he thought.
"Handsome. Satisfying somehow. We should hop on in and speed through the village. Show Pam that souls like us refuse to live slow."
She laughed. Jon veered towards his XC90 parting from Ann who continued on her way.
"Bye, Jon," she said, without turning to look at him then waving the leaflet above her head. "And consider yourself free man, free of obligation."
All Jon wanted was to get inside his XC90 and shut the door on the outside world. He sat, sealed inside his mobile gated community, relief outweighing shame. Glad to feel himself again with his personal space restored.
They met again two days later. Jon, close to finishing a three-mile run, passed the driveway that led to Ann's land - and a five bedroom cottage with stables, paddock, and annexe that Jon could see from his back upstairs windows. He heard his name shouted, an urgent, primal call. Startled, he stopped and looked. Ann came sprinting towards him. As the sky was cloudless, Jon wore his Oakley Radar Path sunglasses. With his eyes concealed, his emotions hidden, he felt less raw, barely exposed.
Running the hills made him feel as much of a man as he ever could. He felt empowered, elevated, greater than his usual self. He ran solo. Appalled by the thought of joining a club. Alone and at one with nature, he would sometimes imagine himself to be a giant bounding over the hills, forged from rock and bone.
He stood, waiting. He couldn't look away. Currents trapped him. Ann was older than him but beautiful, glowing country fresh. She ran freely, unashamed, speed, not gait, her only concern. She too was flushed from exercise. Jodhpurs, riding boots, and a polo shirt skinned her as tightly as Lycra skinned him. Sunglasses kept the surface smooth and knowable, hidden depths plugged. In one hand she carried a mobile phone, in the other, a whip.She explained her urgent need,
"I need a man to drive me!"
Her frail mother had been taken ill. The care home had called just a minute ago advising her to come and visit as a matter of urgency. She couldn't drive herself. She was currently unable to do so. Please, could Jon be a hero and give her a lift?
Jon, flattered by the hero hype, and always willing to avoid conflict, agreed to her request.
"I'll go and get my car then come and pick you up," he said.
"No. It's only a few hundred metres. We'll run," she replied. "You lead! Take me!"
She held his hand. Dazzled by the moment, Jon felt no discomfort only the flow of adrenalin pumping between them.
"To the XC90!" he actually said it.
They set off, Jon the giant, cutting a path to safety. He steered them into a field of pasture that swept down towards the back of his house. Whenever their handheld bond got broken, it repaired to reunite them again. They passed through the den of trees. About to reach Jon's garden, Ann suddenly pulled away and answered her mobile phone. They both came to a stop. Jon watched as Ann spoke on her phone. He couldn't recall hearing it ring.
"What?...Oh. Right...She is?...Great...That's great...Tomorrow. Yes. Yes. Tomorrow."
Jon could only think it was good news from the care home. He glanced at his XC90, which he could just about see parked on the driveway, and felt a pang of disappointment, more for it than him, as he knew it craved a moment to test and prove itself.
Ann ended the call and looked at him, deflated.
"Emergency over. Oh, well, do I look a fool?"
Jon hoped her reddened face was blushing; it would help level the field and make her more touchable.
"I'm sorry," she continued.
"Not a problem. Anytime," said Jon.
"Deal. Thank you. But now, what now? Look at us so hot and breathless. And me with a whip. What will people think? Let them think anything. Anything. What concern is it to us?"
She laughed vaguely then stepped towards him coming in close.
"You'll have to excuse me, I'm somewhat giddy. It's all been so anti-climatic."
"The high of a ride flattened by the news of a mother in crisis. I had no hope. No way to reach her. But then, you. A hero? Maybe. Yes. A hero, you. We joined the race, but it led to where? To here. To only frustration. Our rush of adrenalin denied a climax, a satisfying completing release." She embraced him tightly. Jon felt like a giant.
"Isn't it terrible to see the aged so sad and decrepit?"
Her voice, almost a whisper, trickled into Jon's ear. He felt beguiled
"How long have we got to live as thrillingly as we can? To run, to ride, to feel whole, all the pleasures our bodies can offer?"
Jon could think of nothing to say, or do.
"Fuck me, Jon. Fuck me now."
"Uh? What. OK. But you start it though," he replied.
So she did, all the way to the finishing line.
Once done, she thanked him,
"Thank you. What a moment. Now, quickly, back to reality." She stood up, looking down on him. "And as you said, Jon, anytime." And with that she hurried away.
They met again two days later. Jon was at work building a website for a failed driving instructor whose new business venture was pet sitting - anything smaller than a cat that could be kept in a cage or tank. The doorbell rang, it had built-in CCTV. Jon had CCTV cameras guarding every inch of his property. He checked the colour video feed on his computer monitor and saw Ann standing by the door. He froze. Instinct's first call was to pretend to be out. Ann's presence shocked him. Home alone, sealed inside the bubble, thoughts of a third awkward encounter hadn't started to nag. Their al fresco adventure still played in his mind as a positive. It was one of the most successful encounters he had ever had with a woman. Could he perform as well again? The stars had aligned. He was a giant of a man. Here, now, he felt himself, a designer of shitty websites.
Ann pressed the doorbell a second time. Instinct held Jon firm. What did she want? A lift? Sex? To get to know him more, if not properly? He watched her. Her perfectly tailored clothes were chic and formal. It was a look Jon could only admire. Her posture was calm and relaxed, and her smile naturally formed. He wanted her, to help her. Did she want a lift? He owed her one, at least. Be a man. Level the score. Don't even charge her petrol money. And pretending to be out would be just as stressful.
He pressed a button on the keyboard to activate the doorbell's intercom.
"Hello," he said, not using her name to keep concealed his secret view. Ann unfazed at hearing his intercom voice,
"Jon? I hope that's you?"
"It's Ann. We've met twice before. I'm sure you recall." She laughed carefree. "Jon, could I possibly trouble you for a lift? Please say no if you must. I would hate to be a pain, but you did say to me, as I said to you, anytime, the need or fancy takes us."
He froze a second time. He could pretend to be ill, infectious.
"Jon? Just a lift. A one way trip just four to five miles."
Her voice, so calming.
"Oh. Right. Yes. I'll be a minute."
He whipped off his vest/pants combo and scrambled into his emergency Canali.
When Jon finally stepped outside, Ann was standing by the XC90. She glanced at him briefly and flashed a gentle wave. The distance between them and Ann's averted gaze gave Jon's nerves reprieve. He faced the front door pretending to check it was properly locked and secure. He needed a final secluded moment. Once psyched ready, he turned and scurried towards her acting out his 'man in a hurry' routine.
Ann stood waiting, looking into the distance. Quick-draw style, Jon whipped out the car key fob, aimed and fired. The car unlocked. Ann glanced at him and smiled a silent thank you. She opened the driver's side back door and climbed inside. Jon was elated, inadvertently releasing a fist-pump. It was the best seat she could have chosen. Closing the door, she disappeared behind the tinted privacy glass.
Jon joined her inside. Ann was out of sight sitting directly behind him. He couldn't even see her in the rear view mirror.
"Right. Ready to roll," he said, hurrying to secure the seatbelt and turn the engine on.
"Wonderful. To Brockton. To the care home where my mother resides," replied Ann, her voice soft and unhurried.
"Brockton. Oh, Brockton. Yes. I know Brockton. I won't even need to sat nav it."
A warning bong started to sound. Jon knew why but the explanation wouldn't leave his lips.
"Is that my bong or yours?" asked Ann.
"You're not wearing your seatbelt," said Jon.
"It is a Volvo. It's got certain standards. It will bong all the way."
"Then strap me in, Mr Volvo."
"I don't mind if you don't. It's your responsibility. You're over the age of fourteen."
"Lucky for you."
"Uh?" then getting her meaning. "Definitely." The bonging stopped. "Right. To Brockton. Just give me a minute to pull out safely. It's a big car for the narrow country lane."
Jon feigned intense concentration, and the silence that came with it, as he drove slowly out of his driveway onto a narrow single-track road. A warning bong began to sound. Jon glanced at the dash, Ann's seatbelt had been released. Her voice, her mouth just inches from his ear.
"Jon, please, don't think you have to talk to me. Don't worry about amusing me or keeping me entertained. This shouldn't be stressful for you. It should be a simple, easy pleasure. It will be for me every moment we share. We should agree to enjoy each other's strengths. Words are cheap and often false. What matters to me is the driving. The fact that you are actually doing something for me, helping me. That is what I rate and judge you on. Many women detest such silence, but let me assure you, I am not one of them. In fact, in many ways, as someone who can live inside their own imagination, I, like you, often find it preferable."
Ann sat back. The bonging stopped. Her voice remained inside Jon, making his body tingle. Nothing more was said until they reached the care home. Jon parked. Ann moved to get out.
"Thank you. Thank you very much. I will see you soon. No need to wait. I have it all under control."
Three days later, she called on Jon again. They talked via the intercom. She required a lift. Jon was a little reluctant but couldn't say no. Jon opened the front door expecting to see Ann waiting by the Volvo, but she loomed in large standing just outside.
"Jon, you're such a good man."
She stepped forward coming inside. Jon stepped back into the hall. She opened her full-length coat and let it fall to the floor leaving only a suspender belt and stockings to stun Jon rigid. As before, she started it. Jon was totally unprepared. Ann had to work hard to warm him out of his freeze, but animal instinct saved his day. The front door remained open. Jon feared exposure and noise pollution. Ann groaned and cooed but, thankfully, released no rapturous screams.
"All that porn saturating us. Thank god I've got you to make me feel so fucking real," she told him while riding him on top.
Initially shocked by this, and the smell of alcohol staining her breath at 12.15pm, he later concluded it was possibly the nicest thing a woman had ever said to him.
When finished, Ann had no time to hang around.
"That lift. Could you possibly run me home?" she asked.
Jon couldn't refuse. Once there, they exchanged phone numbers. From then on, when needing a lift, she would always call ahead and Jon would always pick her up.
Their affair lasted nearly four months. It was based on sex and chauffeuring. Jon drove Ann to a variety of places - the care home, a health club, a salon, a farm shop, the dentist, the hospital for a smear test, into Shrewsbury - sometimes dropping her off, other times waiting for her then driving her home.
The sex, which Ann always initiated, was never bedroom based. In terms of each other's houses, they never got passed the hallway. For Jon, this was perfect, his inner sanctum remained his own, unviolated.
At first, having sex in the Volvo felt wrong. But Jon forced himself to accommodate Ann's needs. So a blow job while parked-up at the care home became the routine.
Ann never threatened Jon's personal space. He never felt watched or judged. What conversation they shared was thin and direct. Like master and servant their eyes rarely met. She made him feel as comfortable as it was possible for him to feel. There were no emotional emergencies or crises of a personal kind that she brought to his door. She never sought his advice or asked how he was feeling. Her only demand was that they keep the affair secret, to which Jon readily agreed.
The XC90 performed brilliantly. A two week period saw a torrent of snow, but the XC90 would not bow down. It ploughed on through without missing a beat. Ann loved the car as much as Jon. "Yes, a four-by-four of this size driven exclusively in a town or city is a monstrosity. But out here, in the deepest wilds of Shropshire, such a car is an absolute essential bit of kit. You'd have to be desperate quite literally desperate to manage with anything less," she said on more than one occasion.
Although Jon had difficulties reading peoples' emotions and understanding their motives, he understood their affair and relationship was ninety percent sex, which he was convinced Ann not only enjoyed but craved. Yes, he drove her here-and-there, but this, for her, was little more than a perk that came for free with a lover like him. To prove his thesis, he started keeping a record - a sex to lift ratio.
He started to wonder if their affair could develop into something deeper like maybe they could risk renting a cottage in Wales for the weekend, Aberdovey would be nice and quiet. Having pondered the idea for a couple of weeks, Jon was ready to suggest it to Ann. But unfortunately her thirteen-month ban for drink-driving came to an end, and she dumped him.
Ann told him straight to his face, well, at times via the rear-view mirror. It was the last time she was ever to sit in the backseat of Jon's Volvo.
"It's over. I have to tell you. It has to come to an end," her voice was harsh, uncompromising.
"It doesn't matter. Don't look so humiliated. It makes you look pathetic, humiliated by such a trivial concern. I'm telling you straight and in person. We worked well together, all three of us. Let's leave it at that. Don't start whimpering or feeling sorry for yourself."
"If I look humiliated it's because you are telling me in person. I'd have been happier with a text."
"Well it's over. There won't be a next time."
"How will you get around?"
"I'll drive myself. I've got my license back. I've ordered a new XC90."
"Brand new? On this year's plate?"
"Bitch!" he said to himself.
"I could call it Jon," her voice was tinged with laughter.
"Don't! These cars are always female anyway."
"Fine. Well, just to make myself perfectly clear, don't dare make trouble for me, Jon. The quiet ones, are they the worst? A deep well of potential trouble? Well if they are, you don't scare me. Don't think I haven't got anything on you. Cause me trouble, trust me, I will leave a permanent look of humiliation fixed to your face. We had a mutually satisfying dalliance. Accept it and move on. Go out. Meet new people. There's plenty of tarts in the village to keep you entertained. But, be wise, don't you dare, ever, mention us."
"Trust me, I wouldn't want to."
Her voice softened. "I know. And I'll thank you for it. I'll say this too you're an excellent driver. You really would make a first rate chauffeur. The sex? Well, it was fun, but you run up hills I was expecting a lot more commitment, more stamina, power and thrust. If anything, it was more akin to running down hill, too fast, on the edge of control, expecting you to trip and fall at any moment."
"I can work on my fitness and improve my stamina. But you, there's not much you can do for your fading looks. You've been up and down that hill too many times. It won't be long before you're over it."
She laughed, pleased and surprised by his comeback.
"There's plenty I can do. It's amazing what surgeons can offer these days. Give them a call, they may be able to build you an average sized dick."
This did little to hurt Jon. He had Googled his measurements long ago with positive results returned.
When Jon got back home, he correlated the data he had recorded. The pie chart he produced powerfully visualized the truth: acts of chauffeuring, eight-one percent; acts of sex, nineteen percent.
So be it, he thought. At least it ended well - completely and permanently. A clean break with no splinters left flying through the air. She wouldn't talk about him and he wouldn't talk about her. Perfect. A moment of time sealed, gone.
Jon bolted from his window view. He rushed around the house pulling blinds and curtains shut. His thoughts dizzy, hyperventilating.
"Call the police, be a suspect! Call the police, and they'll call you, suspect number one. Be watched. Investigated. Interrogated. Pressed."
He tried to fight, to cling to reason.
"Call the police. Start the process. The sooner it begins, the sooner it ends. You've nothing to hide. Trust the police. Trust the public. Fuck no! Trust Ann? Ditto! 'Don't think I haven't got anything on you.' She said it. She made the threat. Created lies, to add to mine."
He felt threatened, exposed. Paranoia crept inside. Why was the body left so close to his house? A message? A set-up? On land nobody used, only him, and Ann, those times they....
What did the killer know? That Jon was ripe to stand accused, a perfect fit ready to catch the blame?
"I knew her. We had an affair. She ended it. She used me. Threatened to humiliate me."
He had to call the police. He had no other option. His vomit, his sweat, linked him to body and scene.
"I will be a suspect. Smoke and fire. Everything public. Dragged through the system. Falsely accused. Falsely convicted? Could they find me guilty? Sent to prison. Condemned to my worst nightmare. Confined to a space saturated with ugly, loud, stupid men."
Could the evidence be compromised? Could he wash it away? Would the weather do his bidding? Could the murderer have set the corpse alight? What time did Jon have? Who else could stumble upon the body? No one walks that land. Who could report Ann missing? She lived alone. A step-daughter, her only child, lived in the annexe. From what Jon knew, they didn't get on and rarely spoke. It could be several days before someone informed the police. Did this give him time? Not without risk. If the body was found, or if the police later discovered Jon delayed reporting his find, he would stink of guilt.
Fire is quick and devastating. But a corpse would still exist. The flames would be a beacon. A murder investigation would crawl close, if not all over him.
If only the body would vanish, the murder could, for now, be concealed. A temporary measure. A missing person left behind to give his investigation time to discover who and why. To give him time to save himself, to foil any plot against him. The dead aren't impatient. They demand no justice.
"Pigs. Hundreds of pigs. Free range, outdoor reared, organic pigs. All a short run away. Give each a nibble, a tasty morsel. A treat. A different fucking day! Remove the body and me, as much as I can, from the criminal equation. But could I?"
It would mean destroying valuable evidence. But if he promised, vowed, to do all in his power to investigate the crime and bring the murderer to justice then, could he? A selfish act, but one to bring balance. A brave act to stop an injustice, the one that threatened him.
Inform the police now or dispose of the body now.
"The logistics? Easy. Think the minute, the DNA. Keep everything clean, contained. The act? Driven by fear. Know the fear. Know the consequences of failure, of not completing the act. The risk, number one, bringing the body home. But just one short run out in the open from the den of trees to your own back garden. The cover of darkness? Too far away. One night to get the job done. The pigs must have a midnight feast."
Act now or call the police.
He picked up the phone. A panic attack surged through him. He slammed the phone back down then ran to the garage.
He had the tent, a two-man self-erector. A minute later, it stood on the floor ready to use. Unable to peg it, he used two bags of sand to weigh it down. He had the tools, a hand-held electric reciprocating saw with six-inch blade and a George wet and dry vacuum cleaner. He plugged them in and positioned them ready to use. Other tools he placed inside the tent included scissors, a boning knife and a pair of garden loppers.
He searched for a pair of overalls, but knew he owned none. It fuelled his panic until an idea propelled him away.
He ran upstairs. From a wardrobe, he pulled his wetsuit. Noticing his snorkel and diving mask, he grabbed them too.
Back in the garage, he stripped naked, putting all clothes into a refuse bag, then struggled into the wetsuit. While doing so, he psyched himself up.
"The person has gone. There is nothing there. You do not fear chicken bones. You chop up meat! You cut the guts out of trout!"
An idea flashed, listen to music, like he did when cooking. Create an atmosphere of normality, drift away into song. He ran into the kitchen to fetch his iPod. A laptop, he sometimes used to stream TV, was on the worktop. It gave him another idea, to manipulate his digital footprint, to create evidence of normal activity. He logged on to Netflix and started a stream, an episode of Top Gear. Safe and believable. Good, honest men having good, clean fun together. And all available episodes already watched several times so no trouble in recounting his alibi.
The garage set-up was complete. Jon stood, his thoughts racing, rehearsing the events about to unfold.
How to dispose of the soiled tent and clothes? Burn them. The pizza oven. The previous owner of the house had installed an outdoor wood-fired brick oven. Ann loved it, said her friends would adore the chance to use it to bake their sourdough loaves. With this in mind, Jon had fired it up and put in a loaf to bake. The fierce heat the oven produced destroyed the loaf. It came out a loosely compacted mound of jet black ash. Jon grabbed a bag of charcoal, ran it to the oven and launched it inside.
Back inside the house, using tongs, he pulled three flaming logs out of a wood burning stove putting them into a brass fire-side bucket. With the logs nestled inside the oven, the charcoal began to burn. Jon closed the iron door leaving the oven to build an incinerating heat.
All was set to go. Two energy drinks consumed, peak hydration reached. The route made clear. All doors and the back garden gate were open. Jon pulled on a black cagoule and raised the hood. Finally, he snapped on a pair of disposable rubber gloves.
He glanced at his mobile phone. Only fear spoke. The bottle smashed against the bow. There was no stopping now.
He ran a gentle jog. Observation, not speed, was his main priority on the journey down. He saw nothing untoward. What lay in the distance worried him most. There was ample light to mark him out. But what crime could be seen unaided?
Into the den of trees. The body seen, he stopped, looking all around, too quickly, too in thrall to panic. He wanted to shout, "Hey! Look! You! A body! I've found a body! Help me!" to flush out anyone near, or to speak, to tell, to ease a conscience. His silence remained. Fearing his own stillness, he ran forward, his stare unfocused, the body set in his peripheral vision, diminishing it.
He grabbed the lapels of the coat wrapping the body cold then pulled the body into a sitting position. The body complied, rigor mortis had yet to take hold. A bear hug raised the body to a standing position. A friendly tree propped it up. Jon squatted down. The body flopped forward draping itself over his shoulder and brushing the hood from his head. Bracing to take the weight, he stood up straight. His legs held firm. His only thought, the finishing line.
He felt no pain. Speed was now his only concern, a battlefield run to safety. Untapped reserves of the human spirit fuelled his frenzy. Beyond the den of trees, free to be tracked in the cross hairs, he felt a sense of winning.
Through the garden gate, into the house. The door kicked shut, locked. Finally, the garage, the body falling, thrown, into the tent. Jon dived in too, gasping for air, his every nerve firing. The murky, private, inners consoled him. He took a minute to calm and settle, his eyes closed throughout.
Still shaking, he took off the cagoule and stuffed it into a waiting refuse bag. He then pulled up the wetsuit's hood, which squeezed the iPod's earphones hard into his ears, put on the diving mask and attached the snorkel putting the mouthpiece between his teeth. He felt himself ease, pressed into a protective skin that would create distance between him and the butchery, and any offensive odours.
Taking a moment to get used to breathing through the snorkel, he pulled the iPod from a small pocket on the wetsuit and turned it on to shuffle - Fix You by Coldplay played, loud and all-embracing. Good, he thought, something light and inoffensive to set an appropriate mood.
With his eyes squinting to blur the view ahead, he removed from the body a pair of Toggi Country Boots and the socks he found below. For speed, he used the scissors to slice through the fastened, Armani angora/cashmere blend full-length coat and then the skirt and jumper below.
He felt the wrists and hands expecting to feel a watch and jewellery, but his hands felt nothing. The neck and earlobes were just as bare. He searched the coat.An inside pocket held an iPhone. The screen flashed on - a message unread. He peeped, freeing his squint he eavesdropped a conversation. No security measure limited his access. He had experienced this lack of tech acumen during their time together, which worried him, he thought it revealed her character to be reckless and weak.
The sender was a contact named J.
"I'm home alone."
The reply: "Walk the dog. Fresh air is good for you."
J: "15 mins"
No reply was sent. Then a final message from J,
Conflicting thoughts bombarded Jon. Was J the killer? Had he, Jon, acted in haste? With the body found, the message read, wouldn't the police have raced to find J? But who would leave such a blatant clue? No one without an alibi, without a stooge to blame. What did he know, enough to conspire? Jon lost his nerve; the phone turned toxic. He feared the time it would take to learn its truth. He feared the phone as a bug or tracker. He picked up the loppers and chopped it in three. It could aid his investigation, but his first concern was the threat it posed to him. He bagged the remains.
He picked up George's hose - the crevice nozzle attached to maximise the suction power. He reached outside the tent and switched the vacuum on.
Jon revved the electric saw. Usually, when using any power tool, he was the star of Health and Safety, but here, now, even in such a cramped, emotional environment, he squinted his eyes and prepared to let rip the haste.
With the crevice nozzle positioned to suck-up any blood, Jon set the six-inch blade on the right foot. It took little coercion to chop it clean off just below the ankle. Using the lopper, he chopped this first appendage into numerous smaller pieces then bagged them all into a bag he knew as, 'possibly too bony even for pigs.'
Next, he took the right calf off just below the knee. The bone was a tougher cut, so he finished it off with the loppers. Thinking the joint too large, he chopped it into three then put the pieces into a bag known to him as, 'quality pig feed.'
He cut the right thigh straight into three. More flesh meant more blood splatter, but not as much as Jon had envisioned. Without a pumping heart to create pressure, or to act against gravity, the blood, and other bodily fluids, were no match for the George which stemmed the flood with ease.
He proceeded with the next leg as he had with the first. He then took off the arms and moved on to the head. With the song, Set Fire To The Rain by Adele fuelling the drama of his own self-preservation, and a towel covering the face, he didn't even pause. He sawed and lopped it off then bagged it separately and whole, wrapped in the towel.
With the George losing suction, he turned to the tent door and very carefully checked the waste liquid compartment of the George which was just outside the tent. It was beyond the maximum mark and close to over-flowing. Having just prevented evidence contaminating his garage, he felt a sense of winning.
Using a measuring jug, he transferred the nine litres of pinkish slop into a waiting plastic storage box.
Back inside the tent, only the torso remained. Jon wondered if a field of pigs would devour it whole, bone and all. With tempting, messy, offal inside, he was prepared to take the chance, so he cleaned it up with the George then bagged it ready to go.
Using a clean towel, a pile of which he had left on the garage floor in easy reach of the tent, he made sure the exterior of each bag was clean before placing them outside the tent.
He wiped himself down with a towel then using the round brush attachment vacuumed himself clean. Once done, he turned the George off then crawled out of the tent.
Carrying the bag of clothes, which he had tightened into a pellet using gaffer tape, he left the garage through a side door that took him out into the garden.
The brick oven radiated a fierce heat. Jon opened the door and threw the pellet of clothes in. The charcoal glowed white-hot. He opened the chimney to let the fumes escape.
He turned on the garden hose and washed himself down. Dusk had darkened the sky. Could he feed the head to pigs? If smashed, pulverised, would the heat of the oven reduce the bone to ash?
Back in the garage, he used a clean towel to dry himself, which he then discarded into the tent. He put the bagged head into another bag and then again into another. He searched the garage and found a sledgehammer and a lump hammer which, like most of the tools to be found in there, were once a part of his father's considerable collection. He had a tool for every occasion, to stop decay and the wilds of nature taking over home and garden.
Jon wrapped the triple-bagged head in a strip of thick plastic sheeting, rolling it several layers deep. To protect the sheeting from the hammer, he laid a piece of carpet, an off-cut left over from the shag-pile now covering his living room floor, over the sheet and head.
With sledgehammer in hand, he paused waiting for the final bars of the song, Candy by Paolo Nutini to finish. As soon as the song, (I Wanna) Testify by The Parliaments started to play, he rained the sledgehammer down. It took several blows to flatten the lump.
Kneeling on the floor, he used the lump hammer to pulverise the pieces ever smaller. The going was chain gang hard. He couldn't help but visualise the brain liquefying with each and every blow. His own brain rebelled throbbing with stabs of pain.
Once content he could reduce the fragments of bone no further, and hopeful that once baked in the oven they would at least become more brittle and breakable, he took the plastic wrap to the oven and stuffed it into the inferno using a Dutch hoe to bury it amongst the charcoal.
Back in the garage, he picked up the storage box and carried it outside taking care not to spill a drop of evidence. In the garden, he removed a drain cover then poured the slop away, slowly almost trickling it in. Small pieces of flesh remained at the bottom. He tipped these into a small wooden box, used to store clothes pegs, then threw it in the oven.
What little slop the George contained also went down the drain.
He filled the George and storage box with bleach and water placing the hose, attachments and measuring jug inside to soak.
He turned on the garden hose and washed himself down. He then stuffed the nozzle into the drain and left the jet of water on to chase the slop away.
In the garage, he removed the snorkel, mask, wetsuit and gloves placing them all, except the gloves which he threw into the tent, into a refuse bag, along with the loppers, saw and Toggi boots.
He carried the bag to a bathroom and put it and the contents into a bath he had already filled with water, bleach and various other household cleaners.
He dressed for the cold and the night time run about to start. A headlamp would light his way.
In the garden, he turned off the hose. The smell of burning plastic stained the air. He threw a bucket of coal into the oven then used the door to fan the flames. He dared not look inside. He blocked out the sound of spitting fat.
Jon knew the way to the pigs. Darkness was no obstacle. The headlamp was adequate; his experience of the terrain considerable. He left the iPod behind; he needed his senses free and primed. A rucksack on his back held the torso. He tried to resist mental flashes, he as Luke, Yoda strapped to his back.
He went cross-country as much as possible. The fear of exposure drove him on. When running the narrow roads, headlights warned of approaching vehicles, always allowing time to hide behind a hedge or tree.
He had seen beds of straw outside the shelters. It was where he planned to deposit the food, on absorbent, regularly changed straw.
He feared attack, being knocked down and eaten, while, he bet to himself, still alive. He made no attempt to proceed quietly; he thought the pigs would smell him coming.
He thought he heard a grunt. He slipped off the rucksack and held it ready, to be weapon or distraction as required.
The shelters appeared out of the darkness. The moon moved free of cloud and helped illuminate the view. The stench of the pigs and their muck was caustic. Jon worried, would the food be lost, its aroma smothered? His own stink had so far failed to rouse the pigs. He was all that moved, the only sound disturbing the peace. He could only hope the pigs were fast asleep snuggled inside the shelters.
He took the bag that held the torso out of the rucksack.
"Here piggy, piggies. Come piggy, piggies," he called to them. "What the fuck am I doing?" he wondered aloud.
He held his breath and closed his eyes then tipped the torso out onto a bed of straw. From inside the nearest shelter, he heard muted grunts and rustling.
He reached into the rucksack and took out a kitchen waste caddy bin liner which was full of organic matter, including waste meat which he always threw in, and several additional chicken thighs he had taken from the fridge. This pig swill, he thought, might tempt the pigs into eating it and more. He lobbed a few handfuls into a shelter while kicking its steel wall and whistling as if calling a dog.
Moving back to the torso, he set a trail of pig swill. The grunts got louder, closer. He looked. A gang of pigs, bloody big ones, he thought, swarmed towards him. Startled, he stumbled, treading on the torso. Instinctively, he apologised, but then kicked the torso shunting it towards the oncoming pigs. The pigs set about it with a thoughtless, automatic greed. Jon watched the devouring listening for the sound of crunching of bones.
Pigs, late to the feast and too weak to barge their snouts to the front of the trough, came running after Jon. He panicked, backing away. Remembering he had brought a hand to test the pigs' appetite for the more bonier cuts, he reached into the rucksack. One bag remained. He grabbed it. It grabbed him back, the feel of something all too human. He pulled his hand out desperately trying to shake it free. The severed hand shot out of the bag. A lucky pig claimed it, fake fingernails and all. Many others, in demand of food, came running after him. He turned and sprinted away.
With the rucksack replenished, and the oven fed coal, Jon started his second, final run. Two fields shared the lot. The pigs in each were happy to oblige his crime.
Alone, running, Jon would often think of nothing or drift vaguely through a daydream, but tonight his thoughts were wild. To conquer them, he went through the plan, obsessing every detail over and over again.
The tent and all it contained, the rucksack and his running clothes he destroyed inside the oven. The discoloured wetsuit, snorkel and mask he cut into pieces then put into a refuse bag, as he did the loppers, saw and boots. He hammered a chisel into the top of the George damaging the electrics beyond repair. He cut the hose in half then bagged it with the attachments and measuring jug. He bagged the iPhone then smashed it into a thousand pieces. He took the bags and George to the XC90 and loaded them into the boot. His hands wore gloves throughout to prevent fingerprint contamination. Finally, he showered, scrubbing himself raw.
Why were no house keys found on the body? Jon had witnessed Ann leave her house without locking the door, propelled by a spontaneous, carefree spirit. However, in Jon's experience, only when she was set for a swift return. Had she gone to meet J and left the house unlocked? If so, would signs in the house point to this - lights, heating, a radio left on, even food in the oven or a stone cold loaf in the bread maker. Evidence that suggested a quick return, but which now told of something wrong - a vanishing, a need for immediate concern and action.
Jon wanted to pause the crime, to have no urgent alarms raised. He wanted a period of calm, time to think and investigate.
He ran to Ann's house - took the road, wearing slippers. The time was well past midnight. He felt completely alone and content to be so. He had always felt braver when on his own, no one to observe his weakness or sense of humiliation.
The house was in darkness. Jon walked towards the back door, the one Ann would usually use. A security light fired. He darted away beyond its glare. Gravel pressed through the thin soles of his slippers.
The back door was unlocked. Jon pushed it open and stepped inside into the kitchen. The house was cold. He felt unwelcome, small inside a great emptiness. He stood and listened. Convinced the silence was real, he kicked off his slippers and prowled inside. Using a small pocket torch, he checked the kitchen for unwanted signs. The fridge held several in the form of leftover food: a few slices of smoked salmon left in the packet, a bowl of olive and roast red pepper couscous, two cooked skinless chicken breasts, a salad and some hummus.
At last a good problem, evidence he could eat. He pulled a carrier bag out of his pocket and took everything he thought it inappropriate to leave in a fridge when having a long weekend away. He didn't consider it theft. He was doing the world a favour; he wasn't wasting food.
He also took a chunk of Stilton cheese, which, he knew, strictly speaking, was unnecessary, as the use by date had two weeks to run; however, who would miss it? Not even the lawyers dealing with her estate. With this in mind, he also took the Brie.
Five opened bottles of wine, of varying fullness, were also stored in the fridge. Jon thought about taking them. But, he concluded, given Ann's love of alcohol, a fridge full of booze would look correct.
With the fruit bowl and bread bin emptied, the only loose end that suggested a quick return was the unlocked door.
He found the key in the lock, bunched together with several others. It was the set she had given him to let himself in when charged with feeding Ruby, her pet cat, while she had spent a weekend at a health spa.
He wanted to probe deeper into the house, but the silence and emptiness suddenly became overwhelming. He felt a haunting, the killer's breath. The darkness hid him. But who, what, else? He felt too close to a killer unleashed, a presence unseen, prowling the dark unheard. He put his slippers on and left, locking the door behind him.
He hurried away, feeling out of his depth he raced to the shallows. The keys he hid beneath a cast iron antique boot scrapper that stood to the side of the front door. If found, he thought they would be considered an emergency set deliberately hidden.
He threw the slippers into the pizza oven. The coals were dying down. The clothes and towels had vanished into ash. He would have to wait to check for bones.
He ate the food, all of it.
Several hours of darkness remained. Jon knew he had to try and sleep. He needed to rise with the morning sun. Wrapped up in bed he watched several ASMR videos on his tablet computer, while regularly checking the feeds from the CCTV cameras that guarded his land. He told himself he was winning, that everything was going to plan. Finally, an ASMR video in which a female ASMR artist gave a soft-spoken commentary as she ironed some clothes, induced him to drift off into sleep.
Three hours sleep took Jon to daybreak. The alarm sounded at 4.45 a.m. His waking was instant, straight into the panic of reality. He knew without thinking, yesterday was not a dream, and nor was it over.
The pizza oven's exterior was still hot to the touch. He left open the door to help dissipate the heat.
Two double espressos and a homemade high energy smoothie fuelled his run. A 5 a.m. run was not his normal routine, but he thought it the path of least suspicion - a hill runner, dressed accordingly, running across fields, even if those fields held pigs, was more of a natural sight than a man dressed in jeans, walking the fields having driven there.
He wore a rucksack. It carried two empty Tupperware tubs - to store any leftovers he found.
The pigs were awake and active. For Jon's own peace of mind, he had to perform at least a quick, running, search of the field. In the sky and the treetops, he noticed a large number of crows. Good, he thought, scavenger birds, for once a positive omen.
As sure as he could be that no one was watching, he jumped the fence and entered the field. He jogged as slowly as he dared, his stare scanning the ground. He jumped the electric fence. He wanted to touch it and feel the boost of an electric shock, but thought, if someone was watching him, he would look like a weirdo.
A dozen pigs began trotting towards him and quickly closed him down. Their playful, curious ways prevented him taking a direct route across the field, and so helped him conduct the search. To avoid their enquiries, he had to twist and turn and circle round, which gave him more time to scan the ground. A patch of red staining on straw was the only point of concern. The weather forecast predicted rain. Would the stain be washed away? Would the farmer even care to notice?
The two other fields played out the same - some staining but no other visible signs of concern, at least none that Jon had detected.
He ran home, taking a route that took him through the den of trees. Once there, he scoured the scene for clues - anything incriminating him, the murderer too. He found none.
The earth which had lain beneath the body, to his eyes, looked undisturbed. But would an expert's eye find it rich with information? If the rain held off, he planned to return. His cordless leaf blower would, he thought, disturb the scene with a natural air.
With the oven door shut, he soaked the oven's exterior with water from the garden hose cooling it down inside and out. He swept the cremated remains out into a wheelbarrow. It was mostly ash, although some solid lumps remained. If they were coal or charcoal, they smashed to ash easily with a hammer, not so if they were teeth or bone. He found a dozen or so fragments of blackened bone and several complete and broken teeth all of which he placed in a Tupperware tub. The metal zips, press studs and buckles that had survived the inferno, he put into a carrier bag. The remaining ash, he scooped into a refuse bag. Having destroyed his mask and snorkel, he wore a DIY dust mask and safety goggles. The final scoop of ash he swept from the dustpan into the Tupperware tub.
He hosed down the wheelbarrow and the inside of the oven then closed the door for good.
Wanting to create a digital footprint that gave the impression of a normal day's digital activity, he quickly completed a new website, uploaded it the internet then emailed the client to tell him the website was live.
His Facebook and Twitter accounts were essentially fake. The professionally created cartoon-style profile photo he used for both showed only a slight similarity to the real thing. Obviously, it was more youthful, with an impressive quiff haircut and a short stubble beard. It was hipster light, enough to suggest digital design competence without looking like a dick.
Some of his posts were genuine - to announce a new website he had built or to link to driving instructor industry news - but most were not. He rarely lied about himself, in fact, other than exaggerating his running, he rarely said anything about himself at all. However, he would regularly plagiarize clever and witty posts passing them off as his own. His favourite source was a man whose profile stated he worked for Saatchi and Saatchi in London and Beirut. It was a ruse Jon thought perfectly safe, that would never lead to exposure, for the chances of driving instructors encountering these cool examples of the hipsterati were miniscule. Recent posts included:
'I'm so good at communicating with my neighbours. Just changed my WIFI name to YOUR MUSIC IS SHIT.'
'My phone reception is so dead I can contact the spirit world.'
'A plane crashing into a cemetery would seriously confuse the rescue team picking up the bodies.'
'I could never DM a picture of my penis. It's more than 140 characters long.'
'Sushi is so healthy! Even the food is on a treadmill.'
'My annoying neighbour called me at 4 am. Luckily, I was still up playing my trumpet.'
'All flowers are self-raising.'
'Weird, I have never seen an ugly mirror.'
'I'm not drinking and driving because I have no idea where my car is.'
'Some people should cure their dangerous addiction to oxygen.'
'Have to tweet. The universe won't expand itself into nothingness on its own.'
'When vain men get old they dye many times.'
'20 things to do before I die: 1- Shout for help. 2 to 20- Wait.'
He fired off a original post detailing his early morning run and his encounter with a field of pigs.
'Pig virginity lost! Ran loads of fields full of cows or sheep. First one today full of pigs! All very friendly. I'll be back 2nite for more.'
With the bag of ash, the metal remains and the Tupperware tub stashed in the boot, Jon started the XC90 and pulled away. He glanced at the nine-inch centre display. It told him his mobile phone had connected to the car. He pulled his Galaxy S7 out of a coat pocket and switched it off for fear it would leave a record of the journey he was about to take.
He drove high into the Shropshire Hills, thirty miles from his home. On an exposed, open, road he pulled into a small layby and waited to feel alone.
He stepped out of the car. No humanity marred the view. A solid breeze blew. Rain drizzled down. He opened the boot, grabbed the bag of ash and fed the contents carefully into the wind. The ash quickly thinned into nothing. When empty, he tore the bag into a dozen pieces then cast them out too.
The bone and teeth he deposited into the River Severn, dropped in from bridges or thrown from the river bank as he walked the Severn's loop around Shrewsbury's town centre. One piece at a time as the opportunity arose, sufficiently alone to pull a piece out of the bag inside his coat pocket and to drop or throw it as required. The rain eased his passage - it thinned the crowds, made him and the people he passed bland and anonymous excusing his hurried speed and the umbrella that hid his face.
He still felt exposed and scared. The route he took led him from the pristine parkland of Shrewsbury Quarry where the Empire continued alive into the grimier, darker sections of town or so his imagination told. From the centre, he ventured to where the workers toiled. He could taste the Victorian filth. With cobbles beneath his feet, he passed under the Shrewsbury Railway Bridge - an inelegant, squat, brick and iron construction that made him think of prison. Enclosed and with multiple lanes, it darkened the day around him. Echoes filled the space - dripping water, pigeons cooing and dropping shit. The musty smell and black, oil filmed water in which he saw eels and slime entwine disgusted him. He felt himself a Fagin or a body-snatcher clutching his prize.
From B&Q, he bought a George vacuum cleaner, a navy blue coverall (to fool the police if they searched his house as such workwear would have surely been used by a man chopping up a corpse) and two bottles of drain cleaner; from Tesco, a cheap pay-as-you-go LG mobile phone, and two bottles of bleach. Using the self-service checkouts each time, he paid cash for it all.
The Recycling Centre was busy, just how he wanted, to get lost amongst the crowd. He threw the loppers, and the metal remains into the scrap metal bay. The snorkel, mask, boots, measuring jug, vacuum cleaner accessories and the remains of the mobile phone, he threw into the non-recyclable bay along with the wetsuit, which he left in the refuse bag. The George and the reciprocating saw he dumped in the bay for unwanted electrical items. To prevent fingerprint contamination, he wore a pair of disposable gloves taken from a box he kept in the XC90 to wear when filling up with fuel.
Only the ash in the Tupperware tub remained. Jon had been unsure what to do with it, but now he knew. He drove home and once again went running.
By a stream, swelled by the rain, and concealed inside woodland, Jon sprinkled the ash onto the water. The fast flowing current took it, rushed a life away. He felt his own life, hooked, taken too. One threat had gone, but more would come. He could see no end, a constant rush. A strong urge to follow piled through him, to sprint the length of the stream out into the river, the sea, the world. But instead, he turned and ran away back to where he had come from.
At home, Jon locked himself away. He checked his mobile phone. There were no missed calls or messages. If there had been, he'd have dealt with them immediately, to lay the digital tracks that would tell of a normal day spent working. Before the night came, he took his iPad to bed, just for the CCTV, ASMR was not required to persuade him into sleep.