White Phantom Chapter Seven, The Body
“I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can. You’ve got to.” Jennifer pushed her through the front door and let it lock firmly behind them.
Beth felt faint. An overpowering heat met her inside the door and settled itself over her body like an unbearably thick blanket. It was hot, she had to gulp in a lungful of air. She felt the force of the heat again as it hit the back of her throat. It was like being in the butterfly house of a stately home, or in a small car with a powerful heater left on too long at maximum setting.
They could smell him immediately. Out in the well ventilated hall it wasn’t overpowering but the air was tight and musty. It wasn’t instantly recognisable as the aroma of meat left to putrefy for thirty hours. It was more of a foistiness similar to the air around damp clothes left too long in the wash basket, or leaves desiccated to the point of crumbling in your fist, yet still retaining the tinge of the wet pulp they’d been. Above this musty smell Beth detected blood. She told herself that it could just be her imagination but she felt a metallic tang at the back of her nasal passages. She could feel the taint of blood in her throat. She could taste iron. And on top of all of these other scents was the distinct aroma of eggs, as though somebody had hard boiled a pan of eggs and had mashed them while still warm and pungent.
“You go and reacquaint yourself with my dear brother and I’ll go and find us something to wear. Don’t touch anything,” said Jennifer.
“Don’t leave me. I’m not going in there alone.”
Jennifer laughed. “No, I don’t suppose you will. Stay here then and I’ll be back in a sec.” She rushed off in the direction of the kitchen and Beth heard her rattling a key in a lock somewhere. She sat on the bottom stair and pulled her knees into her chest. She was terrified and her entire body trembled as her muscles relaxed into a classic ‘traumatised child’ position. True to her word, Jennifer was soon back. She threw a pair of dark blue mechanics overalls towards her. “Here, put these on. They might be too big so there’s a belt there too.”
Beth caught the overalls. They were reminiscent of engine oil and grease. Normally it would have been a comforting, manly scent, but any aroma from this house was going to repulse her. “I can’t wear these. They belong to him. I can’t.”
“Beth, in a minute you are going to be lifting his body down from that statue. It might me messy and we don’t want to risk being covered in incriminating evidence should the shit hit the fan at some point. I really think wearing a pair of his overalls is the least of your problems.”
“I can’t touch him. I can’t. I can’t go in there.”
“Okay,” Jennifer began to walk to the front door. “I can’t lift him by myself, so if you won’t help. Well, you’re on your own, girl.”
“Wait,” Beth screamed, “Don’t leave me. I’ll try.”
Jennifer turned around, smiling. What they were about to do didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Beth noticed that the set of overalls she was scrambling into fit her tiny frame perfectly. Jennifer saw Beth looking as she did up the last of the poppers.
“He was interested in restoring classic cars. We both were,” she said in explanation. For the first time, Beth thought she saw a fleeting glint of emotion pass across Jennifer’s face. “We’d do them up together. Come on,” she, donned a cheerful tone and expression, “Let’s get to work.” She tapped Beth on the arm to chivvy her along and laughed merrily, “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Jennifer’s moods could change in the turning time of a coin, one flip to the next the face that she chose to show could change. She stepped forward and flung open the doors to the lounge. Instantly a force of additional heat blasted from the room blowing out into the hall and bringing with it a terrible foul odour, the same as before but increased in strength tenfold. The smell of eggs was stronger in here but they no longer smelled freshly shelled, the aroma was rotten and putrid. Beth gagged and covered her mouth with her hand, afraid that she was going to vomit.
“Oh God, that’s a bit rich,” said Jennifer, behind a muffling hand, “I thought I’d lay on a little surprise for you so, before I followed you, I turned the heating up full. Besides, I wanted to see how quickly he’d decompose. Don’t puke... D.N.A,” she yelled. Jennifer crossed the threshold but Beth remained in the hall, unable to move.
“C`mon. I want you to see this.” Jennifer grabbed her arm and pulled her into the room. She made no attempt to dig her heels into the floor or hold back and allowed herself to be led. It’s said that a human being can only sustain terror for two minutes before either going into shock or getting over it. Beth’s mind had removed the terror and replaced it with a soft cushion of cotton wool shock. She was meek and compliant. Had this state not come upon her she would surely have run from the house screaming and crying. Nothing could have prepared her for the grotesque sight in front of her.
“Daa dah,” said Jennifer, throwing her arms wide in revelation. “See, he’s not so scary now, is he?” Beth’s mind wasn’t playing so she made no comment either way and merely stood, looking, her hands clasped together at the front of her belt.
“Wow, this is interesting,” said Jennifer, excitedly. “Normally it would take four to six days for a body to reach this level of decomposition. I read up on it on the net. It said that in the tropics decomposition is greatly accelerated, so I thought it would be fun to bring a little Tropicana into our hum-drum existence. What do you think, Beth?”
“Sick,” mumbled Beth, but it wasn’t clear whether she meant that she was going to be sick or was expressing her opinion of Jennifer’s character.
“See, now you were pretty damned creative positioning him like that. The fountain lights are so pretty, the overall effect is visual and clever but he was lacking something, don’t you think?” She stepped back a couple of paces and pointed her forefinger to her chin in a pose of evaluation. “I hope you don’t mind me sticking my nose in, but I felt that I could improve on the canvas. The intense heat was a master stroke. We wouldn’t have seen it like this if we’d just left nature to take its course. You did good, but together we are amazing. Look at this, it’s just…perfect!”
Beth was looking, she couldn’t help but look. Jennifer’s words were wasted on her. She didn’t hear any of them. One horror was as much as her brain could accommodate and visual was overtaking audible hands down.
The weight of the body had caused his head to slump forward. It would have hung, eyes downcast if gravity had been left to do its business but the bust of the statue had hampered its descent. His cheek rested lightly on the left breast of the bronze as though he were a gentle lover giving affection and seeking comfort. For the most part his upper body was pale, if Beth had to describe his pallor she would have said, ‘deathly pale’. The higher blood vessels had emptied causing the dried putty appearance of his skin. It had pooled only where it couldn’t escape. Fluid from his lungs had emptied from his nose and mouth, crusted and discoloured on his lips and chin. It looked as though he’d dribbled down his front. The area around his eye sockets had blackened and where his cheek rested on the dancer’s breast, a pool of blood had collected just below the epidermis. The area had bloated to form what looked like a large lurid purple and black blister. The same had happened to his abdomen. The day before his stomach had been firm and toned, now he had the appearance of a five month gestation pregnancy. At the lowest point of his belly the blood had again collected and blackened. His penis was shrivelled and yet at the same time stiff, pointing out from his body, the end exposed and purple. His legs dangled but not loosely, rigor mortis had also claimed them.
Although impaled, the stiletto sharp point of the dancer’s foot had not pierced clean through his body. There was no exit wound, her toe was buried somewhere inside Marc, tangled with decomposing offal, up hard against rack of rib and sternum.
“Come on then, Daydreaming Dottie, let’s get on with it.” Jennifer walked around to the back of the statue and looked at the body from behind. “Ugh, messy, you certainly mashed him up good.” Jennifer was sizing up the body of her brother. “I've looked at him all of my life,” she said conversationally, “but I've never seen him as an object for transportation. You know Beth, you have never once asked me what we are going to do with him. You’re in this as well, you know. Have you given this any thought at all? No, I don’t suppose you have. You just think that you can stand there, looking pretty and that Phantom will make all of your problems go away. What would you do without me, eh?”
If she was expecting an answer, there was none forthcoming. Beth remained standing immobile with her eyes fixed on Marc and the statue. She had the merest hint of a smile playing around the corners of her mouth, nothing definite or defined, but where ever she was the sun was shining and little birds twittered gaily in the trees.
Jennifer continued talking, “We’re taking him back to your house, you see. He can sit on the sofa tonight and watch, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, with us.
The birds weren’t singing now. Ugly words seeped through the fog. Marc was coming home with them to watch the television. That couldn’t happen, she hadn’t hoovered up and there were still bits of broken pottery all over her living room. What would he think of her? But, he was dead, wasn’t he? He wasn’t going to think anything. He was just going to prop stiffly on her sofa, stinking and rotting. Beth came out of the fugue and began to wail.
“Nooooo, nooooooo, you can’t, he can’t, he mustn’t.”
“Don’t worry, only joking. Gave you a scare though, didn’t it? Woke you up a bit. Ha, ha, you should see your face. So, now that I’ve got your attention, try and stay with me, eh? I need you to help me. I can’t do it all on my own and the sooner you get your act together, the sooner we can get this done and get out of here. There’s a room upstairs, a vault. Marc’s paranoid as hell, well, he was, always reckoned that somebody might come and kill him in his own home. He built the vault for his protection and safety. We can take him there. It’s hidden. Nobody would ever find it, even if they came looking for him.”
Beth was still horribly pale but her eyes were focussed and she dried the tears that had started to pour from her eyes. “Okay,” she said, “What do I have to do?”
“I’ve brought a tarpaulin in from the garage. It’s just by the interconnecting door, go and get that for starters. We can roll him in it and use it as a stretcher to get him up the stairs.”
Beth nodded her head to show that she understood the instruction. She even grinned at Jennifer. This she could do. Anything rather than have to touch the body. Getting a tarpaulin was easy work. Having to come back into the room afterwards was not going to be so easy.
Despite her conviction, getting the tarp was not easy work. It weighed more than Beth did and just getting it into the lounge was a huge effort. She seriously doubted that they would be able to move it with the added weight of Marc’s body inside of it. When she returned, Jennifer was standing in the fountain. The water had a film of crud on the top where her feet had disturbed it. An oily slick, thick with blood pooled around her lower legs and where the water level had risen a ring of scum mottled the basin. “Bring the tarp over, Beth and spread it out along the base of the fountain. We need to make sure that nothing gets spilt on the floor. He’s going to be heavy so it’ll take both of us to get him down. Are you up for it?” she smiled encouragingly at Beth.
She sounded almost kind. It was the first time that she’d shown any concern at all for Beth’s state of mind.
“Yes, I think so.” Beth made sure that there was good coverage of the tarpaulin on the floor. She stood at the rim of the fountain and tried to lean over, making sure that her hands would connect with statue, and not with Marc’s body. She screwed her face up with distaste, hating what she was about to do and hating even more what she had already done.
“That’s no good, Beth. I’m going to need you closer so that you can help me take the weight when we get him down. You’re going to have to get your feet wet. Just imagine you are at Bardsea beach, only difference is there’s no ice-cream vendor.”
Beth didn’t want to step into the blood thickened water. She didn’t want to feel the weight of Marc’s body against her again. She felt her gorge rising. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.
“No you’re not. Come on, take some deep breaths and just go for it.”
It seemed sound advice. She drew in and expelled several lungfuls of foetid air, trying not to feel the disgusting smell sticking to her epiglottis and slicking down her throat. She didn’t look down as she strode purposefully into the water, keeping her eyes level with a cast fold on the dancer’s tu-tu. The smooth surface of the fountain base had never been intended for walking on. The marble bottom was coated in a film of blood. Beth’s right foot made purchase with the marble while her left was still on the wooden floor. She lifted her left leg before her position was stable and was horrified to feel her right foot beginning to slip from under her. Her body slewed forwards and her foot slid like a figure skater along the base of the fountain. She was falling. Her head was going to sink into the three feet of filthy water. She opened her mouth to scream and put out her hands straight in front of her to save herself. Her left hand grabbed onto the smooth bronze finish of the dancer’s dress. There was nothing to grab hold of and again she felt herself falling. Her right hand grabbed out, clutching at the flesh of Marc’s chest, piercing his skin with her nails. Her fingers curled into his chest hair clutching and snatching in an attempt to keep upright. She felt Jennifer’s arm under her elbow, securing and helping her to right herself. Her relief at not falling into the soiled water swamped her revulsion of touching the dead man. When the moment of contact had come, it hadn’t been so bad really. He felt unnaturally cold. He was hard and unyielding, like a mannequin, but her fingers had not burst through his flesh into one of the black and blue bubbled blisters.
When she was steady she turned to Jennifer, “Thanks,” she mumbled.
“S’okay, it would have been funny to watch you swim, but at least now you’ve got over the thing about touching him. Let’s get him out of here.”
Jennifer moved around to the front of the body, she expected to be able to fling his arms over her shoulders but hadn’t reckoned on the stiffness of his limbs. Rigor mortise had given the body the density and immoverablity of somebody frozen solid. She inched towards his chest and tried to pull him bodily from the spiked foot of the sculpture but she hadn’t the strength to move him more than a couple of inches towards her.
They each took hold of one side of his body and took turns in trying to move him forwards. They got into a rhythm inching side to side as you would when moving a heavy wardrobe. When he finally came free of the statue, he came suddenly. The ballerina’s foot left his body with a loud popping sound that made Beth scream. This time the rigor mortise worked to their benefit. Had he been loose and floppy his body weight would have carried him forwards in a rush of momentum, as it was, the stiffness of the corpse held him upright. He still fell onto Jennifer, knocking her off balance and carrying Beth with her. Getting him onto the tarpaulin happened at a pace that caused no further injury.
As the body fell on top of her, Jennifer staggered backwards. Alive Marc had weighed thirteen stone, Jennifer only weighed eight. Her knees caught at the back of the fountain base and she fell out in an ungainly heap with Marc falling heavily on top of her. Beth had no option but to go with the rush of the movement... She was still hanging onto Marc and again her primary concern became keeping her head above the foul water.
After death gasses had begun to build under pressure in Marc’s body. It was this escaping methane that had caused the unbearable rotten egg smell. As the body fell on top of Jennifer the remainder of the methane was forced rapidly up his airways and came out of his mouth with a loud ‘uggggghhhh’ sound. The cloud of gas smothered Jennifer’s face and, winded by the fall of Marc’s body on top of her, she gulped it in. To this point she had shown no concern or revulsion at the demise of her brother. Her only reaction had been a morbid and disturbing fascination in his death and decomposition. Now, Beth felt no sympathy as she watched the young girl thrown into a mounting panic. Jennifer struggled violently beneath the dead weight on top of her, fighting to get out.
Beth had fallen to her knees in the fountain. She stood gingerly, conscious of the slippery basin and carefully climbed out of the water onto an unused corner of the tarpaulin. She stood, watching Jennifer’s struggles to free herself, making no move to help the girl. Jennifer was grunting. It had taken only seconds from Marc flying free of the statue, to Jennifer crawling out from underneath him, but the scene played out slowly to Beth and she derived a certain malicious pleasure in watching the tables turning on Jennifer.
Jennifer was out from under the body. Still on her knees she crawled to the side of the fountain. She was making inhuman grunting and heaving noises before she flung the top half of her body fully over the rim and vomited loudly into the water. It splashed back into her face and she wretched again emptying herself into the pool.
“Ah, ah ah, D.N.A, remember,” said Beth, cruelly.
Jennifer threw up a third time and then wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her overall. “Fuck off,” she replied, before resting her back against the wall of the fountain, drawing her knees into her chest and lowering her head onto her knees.
Marc was lying on his side, one arm sticking stiffly up at an unnatural angle. Beth lowered herself to the floor with her back towards the body and took a moment to rest, too.
“Well, that’s the worst bit over,” she said, conversationally, “It can’t get any worse than that.”
“Huh, don’t you believe it,” replied Jennifer, “We’ve got to carry him up two flights of stairs yet.”
While they rested the two girls discussed the next part of the cleaning up. Beth was still very shaky but Jennifer soon regained her composure. “Don’t know what the hell that was all about,” she said, in reference to the unladylike vomit fest of minutes before, “Those beans on toast at yours must have been dodgy.”
Getting Marc into the vault was going to be difficult. The tarpaulin was enormous, made of heavy canvas, and that, added to the weight of the body, meant that they would have to lug almost twenty stone up to the top of the house. Jennifer suggested using the tarpaulin like a large blanket, keeping it open and dragging Marc up by each of them holding two corners. Beth said that it would be impossible to do it like that. They finally decided to wrap him up in the canvas Persian carpet style.
Jennifer left Beth alone with the body while she went in search of rope or a thick twine to bind the ends. Surprisingly, Beth didn’t fly into hysterics. She had dehumanised Marc and thought of him only as a body. She was still terrified, but now her concerns were all for self preservation. She had to see this through so that she wouldn’t be brought to justice for the death of this man. As much as she detested Jennifer, she had to admit that without her none of this would have been possible. Jennifer terrified her. She seemed so cold and emotionless. She had already proven herself to be cruel and manipulative, all those veiled threats and insinuations. And yet, still she had gone to great lengths to help Beth? Why? What were her motives? Beth had killed her only brother and yet, instead of wanting vengeance and the hand of justice to crush her, she was putting herself out on a limb to keep her from being answerable. None of this made any sense and Beth wanted time to sit and think things through clearly. She had questions that Jennifer must answer, but this was not the time. Now, she cleared her mind. She had to function rather than think. There would be plenty of time to worry and work out where she went from here when they had concealed Marc’s body.
When Jennifer returned she brought with her two steaming mugs of strong coffee and had a nylon washing line draped around her neck. “Thought you might be needing this,” she said by way of explanation, offering one of the mugs to Beth.
Beth shook her head and turned her face in disgust. She couldn’t face the thought of drinking anything.
“Suit yourself,” said Jennifer, pulling a chocolate biscuit out of her pocket, but it’s going to be thirsty work. Somewhere a pipe gurgled as it cooled and Beth was gratified to note that while she was out of the room Jennifer had also turned off the heating.
Wrapping Marc in the tarpaulin and binding the ends took almost half an hour. They were sweating and he resembled a Christmas cracker by the time they had finished.
“Won’t we be leaving a trail of evidence in our wake if we carry him up the stairs?” mused Beth.
“Well, what do you suggest, Einstein, flying him up there?”
“The tarps dirty, what if it leaves oil stains on the stairs? What if he bleeds through it?”
“There shouldn’t be any blood now,” said Jennifer, knowledgeably, “Once the heart stops circulating the blood it can’t flow, can it? As for the rest, we’ll just have to clean up thoroughly after us. We’re going to have to empty and re-fill the fountain anyway. Moving him is just the first stage of the operation.”
“But, what about forensics? Just cleaning the floor isn’t going to be enough, is it? They’ll find fibres and oil stains and they’ll have ultra violet detectors to identify blood and stuff, won’t they?” Beth’s voice had risen as a feeling of overwhelming panic rose in her once more.
“Calm down, for Christ sake, you’re making me jittery. This is Ulverston, arse end of nowhere. The police are going to be in-bred Neanderthals. They won’t have all that high tech equipment and stuff here, Relax, it’ll be okay.”
“What if they bring people in? Won’t they call in Scotland Yard, or a big murder squad, or something? We’re going to get caught, I know we are.”
“Listen, I’m telling you. It’ll be all right. My brother and I led a pretty isolated life. We have no friends as such. His work was all freelance. Nobody will even miss him. Listen to me carefully. Nobody is even going to come looking for him. That’s the way he designed his life.”
Beth would like to have taken a moment to fathom out the deep and meaningfuls of this last statement. She’d also have liked time to try and weed the fact from the lies, Jennifer had already proven herself to be a skilfully adept liar, but time was against them. They had to get things done before night turned into day, and after the removal business was concluded the cleaning of floors and returning to order had to begin.
It took the two slight females a long time to get Marc’s body up the first flight of stairs, turn the corner at the stained glass window and then haul him up a second, even longer, flight and along seventy eight feet of corridor to the full length mirror that hid the secret vault. Several times one or other of them let go and precious space was lost as the tarpaulin covered body bounced back down several stairs with a sickening thud, thud, thud. Beth ached all over. She felt that the smell of the house had permeated not only her clothing but also her skin. She had never craved a long soak in a hot bath so much in her entire life. And never before had she felt the urge to empty full bottles of thick bleach into the water before getting in. She didn’t think that she’d ever feel clean again.
It was with some pomp and a flourish that Jennifer fiddled with the hidden mechanism that sent the mirror trundling along rails set into the floor displaying a very businesslike vault door with three combination locks and a green press down knob. Jennifer enjoyed showing off with a childish exuberance as she got straight to work expertly manipulating the combinations. As she did this she explained that the inner room was twelve feet smaller than the space it encroached owing to the three feet thickness of the reinforced steel walls. She was in her element relating facts about the vault, it was a dual purpose room, she went on to say, acting as both a vault for the family valuables and secrets and a panic room for the safety of the occupants. When you were outside, unless you knew the combinations, it was impossible to get in and when you were inside, unless you knew how, it was equally impossible to get out. Air circulated in the vault through special one-way filters. It was fitted with its own generator in case the electricity was cut, an independent phone line, emergency rations enough for two people for six months, and an extensive first aid kit covered all eventualities.
Jennifer finished fiddling and depressed the green plunger. The huge steel door jolted once and then opened easily on its tracks. They hefted the body for the last time, pulling him into the centre of the room and then straightening up to ease out the kinks in their backs. Beth looked around. The room scared her. It was only a room and she couldn’t understand why she was so nervous of it.
“In short,” finished Jennifer, “it would make the perfect prison.”
Suddenly, Beth knew why she was on edge. She looked up at Jennifer and saw immediately the now familiar cruel glint in her eye.
“Three times this evening you have called me Jennifer. I’ve asked you so politely not to. I’ve told you my preferred name, yet still you choose to ignore my wishes. You know there’s always going to be consequences, Beth, don’t you? Yet, still you flout the rules.” Beth had taken the head end of the canvas parcel into the room; therefore she had been the first one in. To get out again she had to get past Jennifer.
The girl was already over the threshold before Beth realised what was happening. She had already pressed the red plunger to close the door. The door was already moving on its tracks.
Beth made a lunge for the gap in the closing door, not caring that she trampled all over Marc’s body to get there. “Jennifer,” she screamed, but it was too late, the door finished its movement, jolted once, and came to a perfect close.
Copyright © 2008 Sooz