The room smelled, as if some small animal had died in there. Hardly surprising, with the old couch-potato slumped in front of the TV, farting away. Why was he watching that stupid soap? Maybe he didn’t notice, maybe the remote had slipped down between the cushions and he couldn’t find it.
Margot screwed up her nose, cleared her throat. “Pretty ripe in here today.”
Roger came as close to alertness as he ever did these days. “I’m sorry, dear, it isn’t something I have full control over. You know it’s the meds.”
“Then why didn’t you carry on with the alternative Dr Schwarzman recommended, that doesn’t have the same side-effects? We can certainly afford it.”
“Because it made me nauseous. We’ve been through this before. How would you like to live, always feeling you’re about to throw up?”
“So of course, you transfer the inconvenience to me…” Margot bit her tongue. Perhaps the dying had the right to be a little selfish.
In the gleaming stainless-steel and glass kitchen, among gadgets to automate almost every culinary process, Margot chopped zucchini, eggplant and bell peppers: by hand, with a Sabatier knife, and viciously. Roger liked ratatouille, and its texture and flavour were ideal for one whose appetite was progressively fading. ‘Little and often,’ the dietician had said, like feeding a sick baby, though at least she didn’t have to puree everything. But he’d become a messy eater, who refused point-blank to wear a bib.
The single thing that most annoyed her was his shuffling around the house in that threadbare plaid bathrobe.
“I swear you must have worn that thing when you were in college!” she’d say.
“Not that long, not even close. It’s comfortable. Pure wool, made in Scotland. I bought it in Edinburgh. I forget whose tartan it is.”
Macavity, she thought, like the cat. As a birthday present, she’d splurged on a Versace bathrobe for him, with a design of a leaping tiger. Or rather, her allowance had, though to keep within budget she’d gone without a lovely little number that she was almost sure she could carry off. It hung in his wardrobe, worn only on the day she gave it to him. And he’d been such an elegant dresser. She’d been proud to be his escort at formal dinners and opening-nights at the theatre, in couture gowns that really made her look special.
Those were the days. And now Roger was a dying cripple, and she an unpaid nurse and scrubwoman.
When she’d married a man twenty years her senior, Margot had been satisfied with her bargain. A millionaire, a talented engineer with a head for business, who’d built up and sold on three thriving companies in succession: sorting machinery, auto-analysers, facial-recognition cameras and software. Handsome with his barely-lined face, full head of grey hair curling below his ears in a nod to the styles of his youth, urbane and charming – a real catch. Two of her then-friends had developed wild crushes on him, and when she and Roger lay close post-sex, they’d laughed about what Lynne and Juliette were missing out on.
After the messiest of divorces, and battles over the family assets that funnelled most of them into lawyers’ pockets, Roger had been an island of stability in the shifting sands that threatened to engulf her. She’d kidded herself into thinking she was on the agency’s shortlist for making VP, but in reality she was more likely on the list of those to be let go – past her creative best, a leech sucking the salary that belonged by right to someone young, dynamic, overflowing with bright new ideas. The office boasted several such, most of them female, so she couldn’t even play the gender-equality card.
That was fifteen years ago. And after thirteen years of married mostly-bliss, heart disease had struck. Roger put a brave face on it, and so did she, but both knew there was no way back. Surgery wasn’t an option. Specialist physicians prescribed pills – white, yellow, pink, blue, like pastel M&Ms except for the bitter aftertaste. ‘Don’t shake me, I’ll rattle,’ Roger would quip if she accidentally nudged him.
Up to then, he’d been an active man who kept himself in condition, still capable of giving her orgasms even in his early seventies. All gone now, as were the vacations, the nature walks, the theatre, movies, even eating out. The shrunken relic on the couch was unrecognizable as the loving and attentive spouse of so short a time ago. Now all the attention had to come from her.
They ate the ratatouille as a side to a faux-Bolognese on spaghetti. Ground beef was another staple, needing little effort to eat. Now Roger couldn’t manage winding spaghetti around his fork, she’d started cutting it into short lengths, creating what looked like an unholy mess; but he swallowed it anyway. Then she wiped his mouth and did her best with the spillages on his clothes, stacked the dishwasher before putting him to bed.
She lay in the queen bed in the main guest-room, sleep held at bay by bitter thoughts. Her life shouldn’t end at fifty-five! He’d had his full share, an exciting career, money galore, eminence in his profession, global travel, two successful kids. Meanwhile, hers was being cut off in its prime, like the spinster schoolteacher in that Limey movie. If seventy was the new fifty, what did that make her fifty-five? She calculated, resorting only once to her fingers. Thirty-five? No, say thirty-eight. She might pass for that, with careful makeup and soft lighting.
After the diagnosis, she’d hoped he wouldn’t linger in pain for months and years. A strong, successful man deserved a dignified death when his time came. She’d deliver a moving eulogy at his funeral, praising his virtues as provider and family man. But what had transpired? A slow and steady decline, a loss of faculties once second nature, a regression to childish, then babyish, helplessness. His life had already lost all that made it worth living.
Why, then, did cruel fate prolong it? More merciful by far… She sat bolt upright with a small shriek. Unthinkable, yet she’d just thought it…
Was she a monster, or merely realistic? She recalled her little Cairn Terrier, grown old, arthritic and uncertain in its bowel movements. The vet advised euthanasia, and she cradled Hamish in her arms while the injection was given, then wept into his soft, cooling, pelt. Wasn’t that the kindest way? Revolving her ideas fruitlessly, she eventually found sleep.
These and similar thoughts sprang up unannounced in the following days, sometimes mixed with anger when Roger had been particularly tiresome. Then came a partial remission. His interest in new gadgets revived, and she’d come in to find him in his study, sketching circuits and components for his latest idea. It didn’t matter to him that he’d never build it. He was happy, and as positive and considerate as he could manage. She turned a blind eye to the mess of papers, and tried to show an interest.
“This, honey? An enhanced movement sensor for self-driving cars,” he explained, gesturing to the maze of lines on his drawing-board. “The vehicle has to know whether the moving object ahead is another vehicle or a living creature. I use ‘know’ anthropomorphically, of course.”
Margot nodded. Their Porsche sat unused in the garage. Roger didn’t feel up to driving it any more, and she hesitated to grapple with its fierce acceleration and taut handling.
One day, she came home from coffee and a movie with girlfriends to find a silent house. Her heart leapt into her mouth. Was she finally released? She set out to explore: the living room, the kitchen…
A small noise from the basement made her start. She hurried downstairs, high heels clacking.
At precisely that moment, Roger emerged like an apparition from what seemed a blank wall, wearing the everlasting plaid bathrobe, a smudge of dirt on his face, cobwebs in his hair. Margot’s mouth fell open.
He smiled. “Oh, you’re home, darling. Movie any good?”
“Ah… Our family secret. I can’t believe I never told you, but I hardly ever think about it myself. Haven’t been in there in years. You know this house is seventeenth century. Well, the original builders installed a hiding-place to use if Indians – sorry, Native Americans – attacked. In the witch-panic, they hid girls suspected of witchcraft till they could smuggle them away. A brave thing to do.”
He waved his hand at the wall behind him. “Pretty near undetectable without close inspection. Superb craftsmanship. I’ll show you inside sometime – not today – you’ll need to wear old clothes…”
His voice trailed off. Margot helped him up the stairs, sat him at the breakfast counter and made them coffee.
True to his word, Roger gave Margot a guided tour. Not that there was much to see, just two small rooms cluttered with household junk. He showed her the secret press-points. “One. Two. Three. If they’re pressed in the wrong order, it starts a piece of clockwork and can’t be opened till it runs down. Takes about an hour. A masterpiece of Colonial engineering. Nowadays you’d just use a microchip.”
“And how do you get out?”
“Same way. You couldn’t expect the designer to invent two different mechanisms. Seen enough?”
“More than enough, thanks.”
“Let us out, then. Remember – one, two, three.”
Roger started spending the occasional hour in the secret room, ‘tinkering’ as he called it. But gradually he relapsed into his former torpor and dependence on her. A crisis or rapid deterioration would be merciful, but endless, glacial, decline was more likely.
Even criminals weren’t given indeterminate sentences. If you drew ten years, you served ten, less with time off for good behaviour. She’d have done better to commit an imprisonable crime.
She’d have done better… The thought was now concrete, an armature on which definite plans could be hung.
Any reader of crime fiction knew disposing of the body was the big problem. The secret rooms, then, that only he and she knew. The remains could lie there forever, eventually mummifying, and nobody would find them short of tearing down the building. As an excuse, she’d ask for another look at the bric-a-brac down there. Then, a blow from behind. Someone as frail as Roger wouldn’t need anything beyond her strength. In the backyard were some lengths of rebar, easy to conceal: the modern assassin’s poker.
Even so, maybe she should make it look like an accident, in case anyone came snooping. Something heavy she could push over onto him, as if he’d lost control trying to move it.
And last, the getaway. She’d tell anyone who cared to ask that they were heading to Arizona for the sunshine. California was more her style. She’d find – not a beach boy, an ex-college athlete maybe, with something between his ears as well as between his legs. She couldn’t spend all her time screwing, at her age.
“Honey, I’d k-kinda like to look in the secret rooms again.” Her voice caught; did he notice?
“Some of that stuff on the shelves might clean up and do for the second guest-room.”
“Sure. After my nap, maybe?”
She slipped the rebar in her sleeve and followed him down the stairs. One, two, three, and the panel swung open on noiseless hinges. Roger stepped inside, flicked the switch of the battery-powered light. The door fell closed behind them.
Quickly, while her blood was up. She aimed for the back of his skull and swung.
The sickening soggy crunch brought the sour taste of vomit to her mouth. Roger dropped like a rock, lay face-down, perfectly still and noiseless. Margot collapsed into the old chair inside the door, breathing raspily, willing her knees to stop trembling.
Finally, her pulse ceased its pounding, and she took stock. What might have accidentally fallen on him? Nothing on the high shelves seemed heavy enough, and anything that was might be beyond her strength to topple. How could anyone drop anything like that on the back of his own head? Could she inflict that further indignity on her husband’s body?
Best to leave it lie and get out of here. But in her flurry, she must have missed out a press-point. The door stayed stubbornly shut, and a soft whirring started.
The delay mechanism. How had she been so careless? Roger’s explanation had been as clear as all his explanations were. Now she had an hour to wait in this dingy ill-smelling cavern, with that lying right next to her. She sat in the creaky chair, wishing she had some distraction, like a book.
A book. On the table lay a few volumes of an ancient encyclopaedia, others of the set supporting the broken legs of pieces of old furniture. More readable than a phone book, at least. She pulled the top one toward her.
A loose page projected from the second volume down. No, a sheet of paper, fresh, not yellowed with age. She drew it out.
Roger’s handwriting, deteriorated like everything else about him, but still legible. Memories returned of her delight at receiving his old-fashioned love-letters, in the days before their marriage: the regret for lost romance. She began to read.
Project 436 (and probably my last) – security enhancement for secret rooms.
Existing security exemplifies the very best in colonial woodworking skills. Moving parts are constructed from cherrywood and pearwood, with lignum vitae bearings. An ingenious delay-lock is actuated if tampering takes place.
Its weakness is the use of the same mechanism for entrance and exit. Perfectly adequate to baffle half-naked Indians and ignorant Selectmen, but an educated person would easily infer the method of egress from that of ingress.
Design concept: an additional requirement for iris recognition. I am convinced that iris-recognition is the way of the future, supplanting fingerprints as the latter supplanted Bertillonage. The sensor placed above the door. One does not need to know its precise position, merely to cast one’s gaze over the entire panel.
A satisfying project and one within my compass, using easily-procurable components (thanks to online ordering) and requiring almost no physical effort; say two hours’ work. I shall wait until one of my better days coincides with Margot’s temporary absence from home. I would not wish her to worry unnecessarily that I am overstraining myself.
Seized by cold fingers of panic, she clutched the edge of the desk to save herself from falling. No use now waiting for the clockwork to reset.
Each human iris carried a unique pattern, he’d once told her. The sensor was above the door, that was easy enough. But the owner of the releasing gaze lay crumpled on the dusty floor beside her. Did dead men retain their living iris patterns? How could a dead gaze be ‘aimed’ at the sensor? Could she bring herself to touch that shattered head? Did the iris-recognition come before, during or after the press-points?
She sank back in the chair. Even if she could bring herself to handle Roger’s body, how would she know her search was even getting close?
Her scream of frustration and rage came unbidden. As the echoes died, Margot sat with her hands over her mouth. It might penetrate the layers of earth and concrete, alerting a passer-by that all was not well in the Jacobs household.
Silence. Her blood turned to ice as she realized how much she’d hoped for an answer. But it was a crazy idea. How could she explain Roger’s body, its occiput smashed to smithereens? There must be some way to escape her predicament, if she could only think what it was.
Yet her mind refused to function, returning again and again to the panicky I’m trapped. The environment was all wrong: dim, cold, dusty and musty. She’d done her best creative thinking in comfortable offices, coffee at the ready…
Oh, for a cup of fresh coffee! Even a glass of water… It struck her that there was nothing drinkable down here, not even a bottle of Gatorade. Right on cue, she felt the first pangs of thirst. Roger had spent too little time here to trouble himself about amenities.
Would anyone come to investigate their absence? Even discovery, and a stretch in the Pen for murder, would beat starving and freezing to death down here. But who would call? Roger went nowhere, had been nowhere for months. His quarterly medical check-up had been only two weeks ago. His daughter ranked high in her firm’s Irish subsidiary, and his son roamed the Asia-Pacific region troubleshooting ERP software.
Their social life as a couple had evaporated. Her girlfriends (none of them close) never came to the house, preferring to meet her in cafés, restaurants, mall food-courts. Her sister lived in Omaha and they barely corresponded. She hadn’t heard from either of her kids in years.
Her smartphone! She wasn’t thinking clearly. An emergency call would bring a fire crew with axes to smash in that door with its hateful trick lock. She pulled it from her purse. But why was it switched off?
She pressed the On button. The screen sputtered into life, flashed ‘battery low’, died. She tried again, tapping 911 quickly to catch the last flickering embers. Nothing. Technology had failed her, as Roger had said it always did if you relied on it too much. Ingenuity was the human competitive edge.
It was all about self-reliance now. Cellars were damp, perhaps that would save her. The mouldy smell certainly suggested moisture somewhere. She brushed her fingers over every surface she could reach. The end wall felt damp, or was it just cold? Could she bring herself to lick it and find out? All was dust, brick, beaten earth, no trace of anything remotely liquid. Besides, what would she eat? The pages of old encyclopaedias?
Her last hope faded. Self-pity welled up, bringing a lump to her throat. Then anger: how could Roger have done this evil thing to her? She’d never suspected she was married to a psychopath. You weren’t, said an inner voice. He was, though. Now you’ve got what you deserve.
She buried her face in her hands and sobbed, rocking back and forward in the rickety chair, keening, ‘oh-h, oh-h, oh-h.’ Her throat became dry and sore, and she hunched silent and unmoving, in the surrounding stillness: the silence of the grave.
The overhead light flickered, then dimmed as the battery gave out. Darkness fell.
About The Author
Chris was born at Cowes, Isle of Wight and educated at University College London. He has done a wide range of jobs, many in IT. He enjoys travel, performance art and reading. He lives in Marsaskala, Malta.
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