My first attempt at short-story writing won me a few prizes in a competition. While I enjoyed writing this genre, I don’t know if I have mastered it yet. Nowhere near the greats like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, PD James and my favourite Martha Grimes. But here goes…
It is the unmistakable and sickening stench of human degradation and waste, faintly overlaid by a chemical cleaning agent that has failed to fulfill its purpose, which awakens me to the depth of my present plight. The lumpy dirty bed which I had been afraid of when I first entered the cage about an hour ago, is now my only comfort. The wall adjacent to the bed has a metal sink and adjoining toilet that seems almost like an extension of the gray wall, if not the only decorative feature in the tiny room. Rusty thick steel bars enclose the little space. And it keeps me captive.
I have been staring at the wall opposite the bed on which I sit for the past hour. You see, I am trying to make sense of the past two weeks and especially my present situation. I would never have expected to have been an occupant in a prison cell. Never!
A few weeks ago I would have haughtily laughed at the possibility. My life had been perfect – I had the perfect husband, the perfect home and the perfect friends. But now I find myself here – locked in what I can only describe as a hole. Like… some animal. A CRIMINAL!? A MURDERER!?
Yes. I have had murderous thoughts in the last two weeks. Who hasn’t? But me? A murderer?
Now, this is where you come in reader. I would like you to be the judge in this situation. Would I do something like this?
I must admit I imagined gory bloody scenes where I exacted my revenge in the most satisfying and brutal manner. Scenes where my two victims begged for mercy and where I took significant pleasure in their pain. Does that make me a cold-blooded murderess? The act of actually perpetrating my flights of fantasy is what I can’t equate with the woman I know I am. To make matters worse I have no memory of the alleged crime, yet I am told I have the perfect motive and… no alibi.
There are stains on the walls of the cell that could probably tell the story of the previous occupants. Large ominous stains that tell the few who know the fate of someone like me. I look down at my hands. They had been well manicured in the past – I had always taken special pride in my appearance – now the nails are bitten and scraggy. I search for a stain or some indication of the blood I am supposed to have on my hands. There is nothing. Except for its deterioration it looks harmless, certainly not the hands of a murderer!
I suppose, for you to have any logical response, I will need to tell you my story. From the beginning, when everything had started to go horribly wrong. Precisely two weeks ago, I had made plans to meet my best friend for lunch. Sarah Morley and I have shared a long connection that has spanned pimply teenage years, unrequited love, marriage and recently her messy divorce. Three months before, she had reluctantly revealed to me that she was in a new relationship. At first I was glad – she deserved to be loved. You know how it is. You want your best friend to be as happy as you are and have what you have. Being happily married for the past seven years, I had begun to feel both guilty and grateful at the same time for having a solid and comfortable marriage. My relief that she found someone was short-lived when she told me he was married. I tried my best to discourage her. I knew someone would be hurt in such a love triangle and I feared it would my dear friend. Our relationship became strained but I was determined to restore it, hence the lunch date – an attempt at a reconciliation of sorts.
But she changed plans. An hour before I was due to meet her, she texted me to say that she was not going to make lunch because she had to see ‘Mr X’. I was furious that she had chosen him over me. I was also surprised that she had texted the name of the hotel where their clandestine meeting was to occur. I remembered thinking that perhaps this was the perfect opportunity for me to rescue my beloved friend from the clutches of her irresponsible situation.
The hotel was downtown, nowhere near my usual stored GPS co-ordinates. It was for all intents and purposes the perfect place to conduct an illicit affair – dodgy, seedy and convenient. As I ran up the short flight of stairs leading to the hotel, I spared a thought for the poor clueless wife of ‘Mr X’ and then thought she must be really stupid not to know where her husband was or what he was doing. Most of us have a natural instinct about these things, I thought smugly. I glanced at my watch and confidently thought that I knew where Michael was at that very precise moment. Dependable, predictable Michael was as solid as they come. He would never do anything unexpected and was always the example of respectability. Right now he would be doing push-ups at the gym under the watchful eye of his personal trainer.
I had a plan as soon as I clapped eyes on the hotel manager. He seemed an extension of his surroundings – bored and not entirely happy to be there. A desperate look pulled down his already long face.
“You’ve got to help me!” I pleaded, “My teenage daughter is in one of your rooms. She’s underage and believes herself in love. I have to stop her before she does anything stupid.” The mock tears swelled in my eyes. Anything for a good cause, I told myself. And Sarah was the best cause.
When he did not budge I said, “I don’t want to call the police, but I will if I have to!” I got the response I wanted.
“C’mon lady! Don’t go calling the cops now,” he replied quickly. “I’m going to be in a whole mess of trouble if you do.”
I looked at the little name badge pinned on his worn golf shirt. It read Billy Steele.
“That’s my daughter up there, Billy!” I implored loudly.
He hushed me up, “Fine. But you can’t disturb the other guests.” He immediately showed me the bookings and I instantly recognised Sarah’s maiden name, Norton.
“There. That’s the one,” I said and stabbed my finger at the computer screen.
“I’m going to be in so much trouble, lady. Do you know that,” he grumbled as he led me to the third floor. Just outside the door, before sliding the key-card into the slot, he reminded me, “You can’t make a scene, you hear. Just grab your daughter and get out!” I nodded my head. I would have agreed to anything. All I knew was that I was going to save my best friend from making a monumental mistake.
Nothing prepared me for what I walked into. I stood dumbfounded taking in the scene. My best friend barely covered in a dark sheet and profound shame was unusually pale. My husband jumped off the bed and with an astonishing swiftness pulled on his underwear and pants at the same time. It seemed incredible. A joke. Please let this not be happening, I prayed silently.
“Christy!” Michael said as if to caution me. He stood at the side of the bed not daring to come any closer. I was rooted to the spot; my head swivelled from Michael to Sarah and my mind swam with a million excuses as to why my husband would be in bed with my best friend in a seedy hotel. Sarah slowly got off the bed – the dark sheets swathed her nakedness. I was amazed at the tears that rolled down her face. She came toward me, her face pleading.
“I’m sorry, Christy,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
I don’t know if I heard her correctly. But I did hear a deep primal growl emerge from the bowels of a dark and frightening place. It was all me. It brought with it a wild strength that I did not know I possessed. My flat palm connected with her tear-streaked face and I watched her fall down onto the bed.
Again, with a swiftness that surprised me, Michael was there at her side. One hand tenderly touched her face. He had done that to me a million times – showed me the same tenderness. To see him touch another woman in that way cut so deep, I bent over. He held out his other hand – not to catch me but to keep me at bay. I clenched my fists at my side. I knew using them on Michael would be a futile activity. But it did not stop me from fantasizing how my anger would power a fisted punch straight at his jaw. I imagined his face jerking to the side and the skin around his jaw distort by the force of the punch. Of course I did nothing like that? However, I did find my voice. “How dare you!!!” I screamed over and over again looking desperately from one to the other.
It was the hotel manager who came to my side and turned me towards the door. He said something but I did not hear. I heard Michael say, “Sorry Christy. You should not have found out like this.”
So he was sorry I found out and not sorry for what he did. With my best friend!
I don’t remember getting home. But I found myself in our lovely living room – expertly decorated – a hobby of mine. I had believed I was the perfect wife – attentive, caring and exciting. I had ensured that our home was a haven and that Michael was master. He seemed happy. I thought he was happy. With my best friend?
I looked around the room, the evidence and memories of my life carefully positioned in perfect places. The two people I loved the most in this world were lovingly captured in an array of photos placed on the Steinway near the large bay windows. Without thinking I swept them off with one fell swoop. They crashed to the floor; splinters shooting off in every direction. I was not done. It could have been hours or minutes, I couldn’t tell but I destroyed everything that reminded me of Michael and Sarah. Exhausted, I curled myself on the leather padded seat of the piano and closed my eyes.
Days later, Michael found me in that exact position.
“How can you live like this,” the condescension in his voice was clear and hurtful.
“What do you care,” I retorted. I lethargically uncurled myself. My anger boiled again.
“Get Out! I yelled when I saw what he saw. I had made the living-room my hide-out – dirty plates, uneaten rotting boxes of take-out and broken mementos lay strewn across the large space. A space I had once been proud of.
“You can’t go on like this, Christy. It isn’t healthy.”
I looked at the man standing in front of me – judgement tainted the face I once loved. The arms that at one time held me, were firmly planted on his hips. He looked at me as if I was at fault; I was the unreasonable one.
“I hate you!” I spat out venomously. “How dare you come here and tell me how to live!” My throat hurt but I continued, “You animal. You had an affair with my best friend. My best friend!” I shrieked.
I advanced; this time intent on expressing my anger.
He retreated, “Christy, we did not mean for it to happen like this.” He looked worried. “We just couldn’t help our feelings.”
“I gave you everything. I trusted you! I trusted her!” I broke down then. Tears – a flood of tears paralysed me and I fell on the ripped couch. He came toward me and I held my hands out. “Get out!” I screamed. “Get out. I will kill you if you ever touch me again!”
This, dear reader, is where my memory fails me. I don’t remember the rest of that night. According to the police, I had followed Michael to Sarah’s apartment and I shot them several times. Six shots in total. I was arrested the next morning. They found me on the couch with an old raincoat wrapped around me and my muddy shoes still on.
It doesn’t look good, does it reader? I look as guilty as I feel.
I inhale deeply. The four walls in my tiny cell seem to be closing in on me.
“Mrs Otega.” I look up. The detective who read me my rights is standing outside my cell. A buzzing sound followed by a metallic click releases the iron-gate. It opens. He does not enter but says, “Mrs Otega, will you come along with me please?”
I don’t feel like going anywhere with him but I suppose I should get used to following orders.
He leads me down the corridor; I have gotten quite used to the stench now. We enter a room. I had been there earlier on – the interrogation room. He waits for me to sit on one of two plastic chairs. The room is as tiny as my cell. Another thing I suppose I need to get used to.
“Do you know a Miss Susan Geld, Mrs Otega?” he asks. And waits patiently.
I make a show of thinking really hard about that name. My memory has been scatty of late.
After a while I say, “Should I know her?”
“She was a friend of your husband, Mrs Otega,” he says. I can see he is uncomfortable and I read the pity in his eyes. If I could have hid my shameful face from him, I would have. So Michael had had another affair. How much more clueless could I have been? I recompose myself and keep my expression blank.
“No. I can’t say that I know her.”
“When we questioned the hotel clerk as per your story, he informed us that Michael Ortega had brought another young woman to the establishment months ago. According to him, the young woman and your husband had a…” He pauses. Then clears his throat. “Had a lover’s spat and she had threatened to kill him in the clerk’s presence.”
He watches me carefully and I’m careful to keep my expression as appropriate as possible.
“We found the murder weapon in her apartment a few hours ago.”
The murder weapon – the one they could not find and suspected I threw in the river that ran through town.
“She denies she had anything to do with the double homicide. But the evidence points to her. Fingerprints came back positive too.” He waits for me to digest the new information.
I am stunned at the last piece of information.
“With Miss Geld’s inability to confirm her whereabouts on the night in question and the evidence against her, it seems, Mrs Otega, you are not our number one suspect!” He states. “You’re free to go.”
I should feel happy. But I have been betrayed by the two people I loved the most. The life I had is over.
“You can have a chance at a new beginning now, Mrs Otega,” he says sympathetically.
“You know, not all men are like your husband.” He says this as he gets up from his seat and walks to the door. He opens it and waits for me to exit.
When the sun hits my face as I head out of the police station, I let out a sigh of relief. It’s over. But there’s much to be done. For one I need to take care of Billy. I smile to myself. It’s amazing how you can tempt the desperate.