Left You Dead

Peter James | 6 mins


Sunday 1 September

Most Sundays, at some point, they bickered over something. Mostly about nothing important. And mostly it blew over quickly when they just looked at each other and laughed it off. And this Sunday afternoon, coming up to their fourth wedding anniversary in just a few weeks’ time, was no exception. Today’s bickering had been about cat litter.

Niall’s driving scared Eden at the best of times, although he’d only had the one accident. A few years ago, he was driving them home from a date and had rolled their car. He had been showing off, stupidly, he confessed. They’d just bought a new – well, second-hand – Golf GTI and he was demonstrating how quick it was when, in the murmured words of one of the traffic cops to colleagues attending the scene, he’d run out of talent.

Today they’d been arguing for the past half-hour as they headed home. And, as ever when Niall was annoyed, he drove their BMW faster than normal. They’d already had one near miss as he’d passed a car towing a caravan, pulling in just feet in front of an oncoming Land Rover.

Great, Eden thought, I’m going to die any minute and my last words on earth will have been ‘cat litter’.

‘Look, do we really need to get it now, darling?’ Niall said, calming a little. ‘I want to try to catch the end of the Grand Prix.’

‘You can watch it on catch-up.’

‘Not the same.’ He wound down his window and chucked a tired piece of gum out, fished in his pocket and chewed on a fresh tab.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that – wrap it up and put it in a bin,’ she tutted. ‘We do need to get it now, you were going to pick it up on Friday and you forgot,’ she reminded him. ‘And you were going to pick it up yesterday and you forgot again.’

‘I know, but I was busy – trying to earn money. Three airport runs and only one stingy tip.’

‘You should think about working for Uber. You can rate your passengers, give them one star if they don’t tip.’

‘The day I work for Uber,’ he replied, ‘will be the day I own it.’

She let that go, Niall and his big dreams, not wanting their row to flare up again. ‘It’ll take me just five minutes to dash in and get it.’

He grunted.

She leaned forward and picked his iPhone up. ‘Just going to look at the photos you took today.’

‘Can’t believe you let your phone battery run so low, it has a much better camera.’

‘I would have charged it in the car if you’d remember to get a new cable that actually works. I’ve turned it off to conserve what’s left,’ she said, flicking through the maze of apps.

‘You should have charged it last night.’

She shook her head. ‘Well I didn’t.’

He grunted again.

‘Christ,’ she said, continuing to look through his apps. ‘How many apps do you have on here? You must have over a hundred! Bet you don’t even remember what half of them are. You said you were going to get rid of the ones you never use.’

‘I will when I have time.’

She shook her head, grinning. ‘If it makes you happy to have them . . .’

He grinned back. ‘Actually, it makes me ’appy.’

‘That’s terrible!’ She found a folder labelled Photography, which contained the camera and albums, and tapped on Photos. There were several, taken earlier this afternoon, of the beautiful exterior of a grand Elizabethan mansion and its magnificently kept grounds looking their best in the late summer sun. The lake. The views across the South Downs. Then several of her, in tight white shorts and a pink top, leaning against a wooden railed fence, with the lake behind.

‘Wow! You’ve taken some great ones of me!’ she said. ‘Love them. Well, some of them.’

‘They’d have been even better on your phone.’

Surreptitiously, she deleted the ones she liked the least, leaving just one that she was really happy with, the one of her standing with the lake in the background. Then she went back to going through the apps. ‘What’s this one – MindNode?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll delete it for you, shall I?’

‘Go ahead,’ he said, with faint irritation in his voice.

She continued through, deleting a couple more after questioning him on them.

As they entered the 40 mph limit on the Upper Shoreham Road, he pointed through the windscreen at the thickening clouds. ‘Rain’s forecast in two hours. I’ve got to do a Heathrow pickup tonight and I really want to do a bike ride after the Grand Prix, get in some cardio before I have to go. Can it wait until tomorrow?’

‘The cat won’t know to cross its legs, darling,’ she said. ‘Just pull up outside, I can run into the store, grab some and be straight out again. I’ll be five minutes.’

‘Promise? I know what you’re like when you get into a store – you just start buying everything else you think you need.’

She grinned at him and touched his thigh suggestively. ‘You’re all I need.’

‘Yeah yeah!’

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. And immediately saw that strange, unsettling look in his eyes. So different to when they had first got together, when she saw only deep love. ‘I promise,’ she said.

Niall’s mother was Spanish. He had a shock of dark-brown curls and a face that had reminded her, the first time she saw him, of a younger version of the actor Dominic West. When he smiled, he was the handsomest man on earth. When he was angry, he looked almost Neanderthal.

Their regular Sunday pastime was visiting National Trust properties whenever possible, which were free on their membership card. But this afternoon they’d been to Parham House, owned by a different trust, wandering around its glorious deer park.

Niall drove into the car park of the huge Tesco superstore, three miles to the west of their home in Brighton. And was immediately annoyed by the queue of cars in front of them. ‘Look at this – shit, baby – this is going to take ages.’

‘Just stop the car and I’ll jump out and run in while you park. Then I’ll come and find you.’

‘That stuff’s heavy – are you sure?’

She gave him a sideways look. ‘When did you last actually get any?’

‘Um – I don’t remember.’

‘So how do you think it appears in the house? By magic? Does the Tooth Fairy bring it?’

‘OK, OK, muscle woman – look, I’ll pull in over there.’ He swung into an empty bay, some distance from the store.

Grabbing her handbag, Eden jumped out, blew him a kiss, slammed the door and hurried off through the maze of vehicles.

Niall turned up the volume on the radio and listened to Laura Palumbo singing ‘Life Goes On’.

It was followed by another song. He was tempted to light a cigarette, but Eden didn’t like him smoking in the car. She didn’t actually like him smoking at all. So he just sat, listening to the music, looking anxiously at his watch then at the car clock. Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Then another song, Johnny Cash, ‘You Are My Sunshine’. They both loved country and western. Maybe she’d be back before the song ended – this was one of her faves.

But she wasn’t.

Another song played. Then another.

Twenty minutes had passed, he realized. What’s going on? he wondered. She’s probably shopping for more stuff, despite her promise. The sky was darkening further. His chances of catching the final stages of the Grand Prix were fading. He had recorded it and could watch it later or tomorrow, but that really wasn’t the same. Now his concern was to get home before it started raining and to head out on his bike.

He looked at the car clock, then his watch yet again. Another song. Twenty-five minutes. Then half an hour. What the hell are you doing in there? In a flash of temper, he punched the steering wheel boss – and winced in pain.

He would give it another five minutes, he decided.

How long does it take to get a bag of cat litter?

It was coming up to 3.50 p.m.

Finally, losing his patience, he decided to go and find her.