Sarah looked out the window, her thin, pale hands wrapped around a large mug of hot chocolate. The marshmallows had melted, but she kept sipping it, even with the frosting of melted goo on her upper lip. Martin didn’t mention it to her, deriving a quiet stab of childish pleasure watching it settle on her upper lip before she swiped it away with her tongue.
She looked at him, thanked him for the hot chocolate and turned to look back outside. All he saw was their reflection, distorted and robbed of detail by the overhead lights and the night outside. He turned away with a sigh and went over to the couch, picked up the book and tried to read.
He scowled, knowing she couldn’t see it but felt another burst of malign delight at, to borrow the Italian phrase, biting his thumb at her.
Sarah had it coming.
Responsibility without authority was slavery, Martin believed and the years he had worked, maintained and pursued for a life of stability was such an example. A wealthy businessman, with an attractive wife and she had betrayed him.
With someone penniless in comparison.
Sarah looked out the window.
The chocolate had lumps in the bottom, so it was too weak and she had clumps of damp powder on her teeth. He had sulked over to the couch, and it was a relief. She was accustomed to his sullen silences, a small but anxious cloud of self-reproach and covert contracts never fulfilled. His squat, little body had softened out around the middle and wisps of hair clung to the side of his head. A perfect catalogue of his flaws was hers with a single thought.
She hears the splash before the quinine comes to her across the room. He’s having a drink, she thinks. It is his excuse for his inability to get an erection, or why he slept in the spare room most evenings. Sarah ached for comfort but he denied it to her, long before she ever sought anyone else.
At least, she tells herself that.
The first time she saw herself through John’s eyes had been in a bookshop. She ordered from the internet, but when she had met her mother for lunch, she had an hour spare before Martin came home and walked into the Book Hive.
The newer titles reminded her of how sparse her inner life had become. She was about to leave, unable to bear the sharp edge of her insight.
Which was when she saw him.
Warm, brown eyes. An awareness equidistant between the faint glimmering of need and a wry, playful hunger. Some white in the beard, but clear skin and he had good posture. Her eyes fell to his hands and her stomach flipped with a slow curious interest at his long fingers and the soft, brown curls of hair on the backs of his hands as he held the book.
They said nothing. A small, slow smile from him. A little overbite, but his teeth were white and his lips were full and the colour of fresh salmon.
Shaved head, which lent him an arrogance she found compelling. He followed her eyes.
Their words were ineffective jockeys riding vast primal beasts of want, stirred into being and her interest became an amusement.
She was open about being married as much to test his reaction. He smiled and asked none further.
They exchanged numbers. It all felt inevitable in hindsight. The free market of ideas, and this one, breaking a cardinal, ancient tenet.
They went to his, coupled with a ferocious energy which she hadn’t enjoyed since her twenties and he reintroduced her to her body and its capacity for joy with amused mastery and invention.
John never specified what he did for a living. She saw him writing a lot, and he travelled. A consultant, he said. He listened more than spoke, his implacable strong fingers running along the soles of her feet.
The curve of her buttocks.
She had a drawer of toys at his, plus some underwear she never wore for her husband.
They wrote to one another, bought the letters with them and left them in a lacquered box he made for her. A present she could not display, but it spoke to her heart in a way nothing her husband gave her ever could.
Not even the fucking car, she thought.
She was lost in a fog of hormones. Sarah missed the battered Ford Escort which followed her drive from home into the city.
Deaf to the small click when she called him.
Blind to the short, dark man who left the restaurant just after them and tucked a small leather notebook into his coat pocket.
Mute when she came home and found Martin sat there, flushed with indignation and gin as he slapped the manila folder on the coffee table.
She wouldn’t get a thing in the divorce.
He would get custody of the children.
Martin was an awful husband but an excellent businessman.
A sense memory came to her, cruel in its beautiful clarity. John on top of her, looking into her eyes with a hunger which made them dark whilst his fingers curled around her throat. She blinked it away as tears came.
After that, it was a negotiation.
She finished it by email. He made her delete and block his number from her phone. Martin walked her between the computer and the phone like a recalcitrant child.
Martin said he would have John hurt if she saw him again.
Or worse. He did business with some Polish construction companies. Men who were directors on paper but thugs in person. They would understand his anger, and act to help him. It was the closest he had come to potency for years.
Her worst fear was John coming to the house. Yet each day he didn’t, hurt even more. She held her children more, but it didn’t take from the anguish.
The cottage was his idea. Her sister had the children and been the one person she told about John. Lucy had never liked Martin, but loved her sister enough to listen saying nothing.
They didn’t have sex. He was enjoying his anger too much to allow himself the pleasure and the thought of having him inside appalled her. Talking things through, they agreed.
It had been silence for most of the evening. He communicated his disdain through his glances and the theatrical sighs which he did in between drinks.
He decided he would go through with it.
Lucy could have the children. He’d claim insanity and there was enough stashed offshore to keep the children until he got out. Wiping her from the face of the earth was a simple business decision. He had negotiated a deal which no longer benefited him.
She was so fucking beautiful and he disgusted her. His weakness burned like acid in his chest. He got up from the sofa and went to the bedroom. Sarah sighed with relief and kept looking out of the window.
There was a flash of a headlamp and then more of the damp dark kissing the windows.
It was small in his hand. Heavy and cold but it sat in his palm and when he curled his fingers around it, his cock stiffened with an electric urge as he opened the cylinder and checked the load. Six rounds.
He had perfume to confuse the gunshot residue. A revolver meant he could pick up the casings, dispose of them without incriminating himself.
A drive to the shops to get milk. She would have been alone in the cottage.
There had been burglaries along the coast. Bored teenagers, they said.
But, Martin had decided, what if they weren’t?
Even if he did time, it wouldn’t be long and he had resources. Friends in high places.
Low ones, too. His heart thumped against his ribs. Martin brightened and swelled as he left the bedroom.
She screamed when she saw the gun in his hand. His grin was a death rictus and his chin shone with a glaze of gin-scented saliva.
If only she had been looking at him.
Martin had time to turn before he stared into John’s eyes, no longer warm as something caught him in the windpipe. John’s leg swept his feet from under him.
The floor smacked him between the shoulderblades as his finger squeezed the trigger.
John let go, clutching his left ear from where the gun had gone off. Sarah saw he was wearing black leather gloves which shone from the rain outside.
A pane of glass shattered and Sarah felt something splatter her cheek.
She fell forwards, crying out but moving towards John.
He staggered for a moment before he looked at her. He nodded before he turned around and drove the heel of his right boot into Martin’s sternum then onto his left wrist. Martin wheezed his protest before the slick crack of his bones breaking made him scream as much as his empty lungs allowed. The gun hung from his useless fingers but John stamped on his hand twice more just to make sure.
John knelt over and drew out a pen from inside his jacket and hooked it through the trigger guard before he retrieved a clear plastic bag and slipped the gun inside. Martin gurgled as he aspirated bloodied scraps of cartilage. John stood up and sealed the bag shut.
He turned and looked at Sarah.
‘You ok?’ he said.
She touched her cheek. Her fingertips came away wet with her blood and her knees were hollow as he put the bag on the floor and unzipped his jacket. She collapsed into his embrace, warm fur and muscle against her. It was like cool water on a hot day and she looked past him as her husband twitched out his last breath on the wooden floor.
‘What did you do?’ she said.
He took off his jacket and put it around her.
‘Go wait in the hallway. Touch nothing and wait for me.’
She said his name. He moved with an experienced economy as he lent over Martin before glancing over his shoulder.
It took only twenty minutes. He came to her and found another coat for her to wear.
‘Your sister will vouch you were there after the kids were asleep. You left him here because he was drunk. You called an Uber and he will testify you were upset and had a mark on your cheek from where he struck you.’
She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. He put his hand out to her and she took it.
‘He bought the gun a few days ago. Saw him leaving and did the percentages.’
‘What percentages? I don’t get it, John, you don’t know things like this.’ she said.
His eyes shone with a quiet, cold light.
‘With you, I got to come away from all that.’ he said.
She took a deep breath and fought tears.
‘I can’t believe he bought me here to fucking kill me. The cunt.’ she said.
He put his arms around her.
‘We need to go.’ he said.
The bike was outside. He passed her a helmet and she slipped it on.
The cottage compressed as they rode away. His jacket was warm from his skin and he smelled of the dark tobacco he smoked. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed herself against him as he opened the throttle up on the bike.
She had it coming, she told herself and ached to see her children again. Meanwhile with her arms slipped around his taut waist, she leaned into John’s back as the cottage grew smaller and flickered with activity.