Squinting against the morning sun, James returned home in his car. The road cut through rolling farmland and green fields dotted with black and white cows. There was no traffic at this time of the morning and he felt like he had the world to himself. It usually made him feel serene.
The one thing he didn’t enjoy about his drive home was the roadkill. He eased his car around the ruined body of a badger. It had been knocked down a week ago and with every morning, he saw its carcass diminish. He flexed the tension from his fingers and hoped his wife Katie was still asleep when he got home. It would make it easier when he disappeared from her life.
As he rounded a bend, there was a warm streak of blood in the road; it was fresh. His mouth opened in surprise. Whatever had left that mark was more than just a injured animal.
He parked carefully and climbed from his car, following the blood trail to a ditch overgrown with weeds. Lying on its side was the body of a man dressed in a tracksuit. His neck was snapped, his head hanging at an unnatural angle like a rag doll. James looked into his dead eyes. There was something familiar about him, though he was sure they’d never met.
“James? Is that you? Oh my God.”
His neighbour Valerie ran toward him. She was dressed in a dark suit, her long auburn hair tied neatly into a ponytail. He could see she’d been crying.
“Val? What are you doing here?” he asked.
She placed a hand on his shoulder to steady herself.
“God, James. It’s so awful. I just didn’t see him.”
He glanced at the yellow tracksuit. He’d clearly worn it to be visible.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I finally got a job interview. Everything was going to be alright and- “
Valerie started to cry and James felt awkward. He wanted to help, but didn’t know how. His wife always complained he was emotionally distant and here was the evidence.
He winced as he put his arms around Valerie and she cried into his chest. The awkwardness didn’t leave. He stiffened when he smelled alcohol.
“Have you been drinking, Val?”
She looked up at him and flushed with guilt.
“It was a really big interview. I was nervous. You know how much it would have meant to me.”
He knew. Valerie was about to lose her home. She had been made redundant eighteen months ago from the same dairy that employed James and hadn’t been able to find work since. One wine soaked night, she confessed everything; her debts, her drinking, her loneliness, her despair. James felt sorry for her, but it didn’t excuse her from drinking and driving.
“Jesus, Val. You were drunk behind the wheel of a car and you killed someone.”
She began to cry again. James cursed himself for being so blunt.
“What am I going to do?” she asked.
“We have to call someone.”
“We can’t. I’ll go to prison. I’ll lose everything, James.”
“We can’t just leave him here.”
Valerie wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffed back her sobs.
“Can’t we?” she asked.
His eyes widened and his heart thudded at the mere suggestion.
“Of course, we can’t. It’s a crime.”
“A crime worse than killing someone?” Valerie asked. “You’re always talking about how animals die in the fields around here and they’re never found. It’s the same thing.”
“It’s not the same thing. It’s nowhere near the same thing.”
James took his car keys from his pocket and walked back to his car.
“I can’t have anything to do with this Valerie. You need to call the Police. I’m going home.”
“Going home?” she asked. “To your wife?”
He stopped, his keys sitting heavily in his hand. Valerie had asked the exact same question the night they slept together. It was a one off. They were drunk. He’d had another fight with Katie and Val had just lost her job. When it was over, Valerie lay in bed while he dressed. The same accusatory look was in her eyes now.
“You can’t bring that up now,” he said.
“I didn’t bring anything up.”
James walked back to her.
“For your information, I’m leaving her. Today.”
“Does she know? Or are you just going to disappear into the wilderness like all your precious animals?”
He had an answer, but it was too shameful to admit. The closest he’d got to telling his wife was writing a note four months ago. He’d thrown it in the bin when the gravity of his decision overwhelmed him. Katie had known he was a coward when she married him. It was something she liked to bring up whenever she had too much to drink. The worst of it was she was right, but he had finally had enough. Because he worked nights, Katie was always around, following him, making sure he didn’t do anything she disapproved of, but last night he’d managed to stash an empty suitcase in the back of the wardrobe. She was rarely awake this early. It would take ten minutes to pack and he’d be gone in fifteen.
“I’m going home,” he said again.
“Wait, James. Please.”
Valerie raced to his side as he reached his car. The sun was higher in the sky, its light catching the yellow of the dead man’s tracksuit and distracting James. He had seen the man recently. He just couldn’t place where.
“You can help me,” Valerie said.
“You’re leaving, right? All we need to do is put the body in the back of your car and you can hide it wherever you end up. You know lots of secret places out in the country.”
She saw the look of alarm on his face and shook her head.
“You’re right. You shouldn’t be involved. We’ll put him in mine. I’ll drive you home. You can pick up your things and I’ll drive you back to your car. No-one will ever know. I’ll take care of everything once you’re gone.”
“What about Katie?”
“We had a few drinks while you were at work. She’ll sleep till noon.”
It was still early and the road was quiet, but it wouldn’t be long before another car came their way. James worried at his lip. If someone else stopped, they would call the Police for certain and there’d be a lot of questions. He’d finally found the courage to leave his wife. If he lost his momentum now, he’d never get it back. He’d end up staying with Katie forever and that was a prison sentence all of its own.
Valerie looked at him expectantly and he nodded.
“Okay,” he said.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Valerie said. “I’ll go get my car. I’ve got a change of clothes in there, too. I don’t want to smell like a brewery if I’m stopped later.”
James waited nervously while Valerie ran down the road to find her car. He stared at his hands, which flexed uncontrollably. The minutes dragged. He tried to ignore the dead man, but his tracksuit glowed like a beacon. It was as if he was trying to draw attention to himself, to undo their plan before it was too late.
At last, she returned. She wore an all-in-one body suit. They looked like pyjamas.
“Where did you get those?” he asked as she stepped outside of her car.
“I keep them on the back seat in case I break down and need to keep warm.”
She turned to the dead man and James followed her gaze. She seemed to sense the sickness in his stomach.
“You’ll be gone in under an hour, James. Stay with me until then. I really appreciate you doing this,” she said.
She nudged him and James climbed down into the ditch.
“Grab him under the armpits,” Valerie said. “The boot’s open.”
He closed his eyes as he reached under the dead man. He heard the crinkle of his tracksuit as his hands searched for a purchase. Valerie was tugging at his ankles. He took a deep breath and lifted. Together they clambered out of the ditch and hoisted the body into the car.
“Get in,” she said.
As he settled into his seat, Valerie pressed a button on the dashboard. James heard the doors lock.
“Safety first,” she said.
Valerie drove fast, but took the bends carefully. They were silent, Valerie concentrating on driving while James fretted quietly. She swerved suddenly, waking him from his thoughts as she avoided a rabbit too startled to get out of her way. James looked in the side mirror and saw it scuttling into the hedgerow.
“If only you’d been so quick to avoid that man,” he said, but Valerie didn’t reply. She kept her eyes on the road and pressed harder on the accelerator.
The countryside passed in a blur. This morning James had planned to leave his troubles behind him. Now he was travelling with them. God help them if they got stopped. The moment he touched the dead man, he’d become an accomplice. All he could hope for was to get his bag and run. Away from Katie. Away from Valerie. Away from everything.
His cottage was around the next bend in the road and Valerie slowed down.
“James, I want to say thank you. Perhaps if we had got together after that night none of this would have happened.”
She stopped at the gate to his driveway and James got out to open it. He looked at the cottage, expecting to see Katie, scowling from a window, but there was no sign of her. He let out a sigh of relief and climbed back into the car.
Before he could stop her, Valerie kissed him on the mouth, her tongue searching for his. When she pulled away, James was breathless. He sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. He realised that Valerie didn’t taste of alcohol. In fact, now that she had changed, there wasn’t a whiff of alcohol about her.
“How much did you drink again this morning?”
Valerie drove slowly up the long driveway. She parked outside the cottage and opened the glove compartment, fishing out a crumpled piece of paper. She threw it in his lap. Instinctively, James picked it up.
It was a note. It read:
“I’m sorry, but I had to do it. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
He recognised it immediately. It was his note; the note he was going to leave for his wife four months ago.
“Where did you find this?” he asked Valerie, panic rising in his voice.
“I didn’t. Katie did.”
His eyes widened in horror. His wife had known all along. Valerie had known. They had known he was leaving.
“It was a valuable find when it came to framing you.”
His heart quickened. Valuable. Value. Valuation. That’s it, he thought. He remembered where he’d seen the dead man. A fleeting glimpse, but it was him. He was sure of it. He had been at Valerie’s house only a week ago.
“The man,” he said. “He’s an estate agent. He came to value your house.”
Valerie’s face darkened.
“The bank was forcing me to sell. The house is worth less than when I bought it. I was going to lose my home and still be in debt. I couldn’t stand by and let that happen.”
“So you killed him?”
“You killed him James. Not me. When Katie realised you were leaving, we saw a way of solving both our problems.”
James grabbed the handle of the door, but Valerie had re-locked it. Safety first, she had said, but it was her safety, not his.
He turned back to face her.
“How did you know I was leaving? I wrote that note four months ago. I could have left anytime.”
“Your suitcase, James. Katie had been looking for them ever since the note. She guessed it would take you time to pluck up the courage to leave. In the end, it worked out rather well. Don’t you know a wife knows all of her husband’s little secrets?”
She gave him a little smile before slamming her face into the steering wheel. James recoiled from the repulsive crunch it made. Valerie unlocked the doors and threw herself to the ground. The Police came from nowhere. They were armed response, shouting and waving their guns. In the noise and confusion, he heard Valerie’s voice.
“He took me from my bed. He said he was going to kill me. He said he was going to kill his wife.”
As if on cue, Katie stepped solemnly from the cottage as he was dragged from the car. His arms were wrenched behind him and he could feel the cold metal of handcuffs being snapped tightly around his wrists. He kept his eyes on his wife and the phone she had in her hand. While Valerie was persuading him to hide a dead body, his wife was arranging for the Police to arrest him. Who knew what she’d told the Police?
He heard Valerie crying. Her sobs sounded genuine, as genuine as they sounded when she’d stopped him in the road. He’d believed her then. There was no reason the Police wouldn’t believe her now.
A Police van pulled into his drive and he was thrown into the back. The last he saw of his wife was a grimace she gave him when they closed the door. James didn’t know if the dead man was Valerie’s boyfriend or whether he really was an estate agent. Maybe he was both. James didn’t know. He didn’t know how long his wife had hated him so much she was willing to frame him for murder, either.
He only knew one thing. Today was going to be the last day he saw his wife.
As the Police van rolled down the driveway, he smiled.