The situation we found ourselves in was more than a little unusual. For starters, there was the fact that Craig and I had been invited to James' house for dinner and drinks. Secondly, there was the fact that his wife had not immediately vetoed that invitation. Lastly, and perhaps most strikingly, there was the little matter of the dead saleswoman occupying the space inside the chest freezer located in James' garage.
“Why the bloody hell did you decide to put her in the freezer?”
“I didn't know what else to do,” James explained. “I panicked.”
Since he had gotten married, we hadn't seen much of James. His wife, Kate, believing myself and Craig to be a negative influence, had openly discouraged James from seeing us. The sudden and unexpected invitation to visit had piqued our interests, and we had seized the opportunity to see our old friend. Knowing his wife the way we did, we had expected a frosty reception, but the dead girl in the freezer had been slightly more than we had bargained on. Still, at least the body had gone some way to explaining the bountiful spread of oven cooked foods we had observed when James had led us through the kitchen to his garage; the freezer hadn't been spacious enough to accommodate both the body and the food. Not wanting to see the items he had reluctantly been forced to defrost go to waste, James had decided to cook them all. What he didn't eat this evening, he would be able to refrigerate and snack on later. He had become frugal in the time since we had last seen him - notably, since Kate had spent all of his money on their new home.
“I don't understand, James,” Craig said. “If you didn't kill this woman, what on Earth possessed you to hide her body?”
James had already explained to us what had happened earlier that afternoon. He had been in the shower when he had heard a knock at the front door. Thinking it might be his postman, he had thrown on one of his wife's dressing gowns, and had rushed downstairs to answer it. There had been a young woman on the other side, enquiring about energy efficiency and whether or not she might be able to save him some money on his gas and electricity bills. If it was convenient, all it would take to find out was James' participation in a short survey. Fresh from the hot water of the shower, James' energy expenditure had been on his mind, and he had gladly welcomed the young woman into his home. After thirty to forty minutes, he had signed up to the fixed price energy plan the girl had been peddling, saving himself the worry of rising fuel costs over a three year period. Somewhat inconveniently, she had died as he had been showing her out.
James had jumped out of the shower so hastily, that he had still been dripping wet when he had answered the door. The salesgirl, eager to leave James' house lest he should change his mind about the contract she had just signed him up to, had slipped on one of the many puddles that had formed as a result on the parquet flooring in the hallway. According to James, she had died instantly, and without anguish, after hitting her head on the hard wooden panelling. James had concluded that her neck must have been broken in the fall - although he couldn't say with any certainty because he wasn't a doctor, he was a bricklayer. He was confident, though, that if Kate had agreed to having carpets downstairs the way he had wanted, the accident could have been prevented.
“Why didn't you call an ambulance?” I asked.
“I don't know,” James replied. “I guess I was worried about Kate finding out.”
Unfortunately, when the girl had slipped, James' first thought had been what his wife would think when she discovered that a girl had died in their new home within weeks of them moving into it. Kate was a superstitious woman; the kind that would burn different coloured candles to bring about spells of fortune and success, etc. It had been an orange candle that had brought the house fortuitously onto the market, and a second that had seen their offer on the property be agreed. James had been worried that if Kate found out about the death on the premises, she would attribute it to a bad omen and desire to move elsewhere. Judging by the stacks of cardboard boxes in the corners of most of the rooms, the couple were still in the process of moving in. I could understand why James would be inclined to avoid such a scenario. Still...
“Kate's not even here, James,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “How would calling an ambulance have made a difference?”
Her absence had explained why mine and Craig's presence in the house had gone unchallenged. She simply didn't know about it. Kate worked as a personal assistant for a man in the insurance industry, and would regularly accompany her employer on his many travels around the globe. This week, she was skiing in Aspen on a visit to one of the firm's American clients.
“If I'd called an ambulance, the police would have been called too,” James said. “I'd have ended up as the chief suspect in a murder investigation.”
Craig and I, alarmed by his reasoning, stared blankly at him.
“Think about it,” James continued. “She'd been in my house for almost an hour. If they'd turned up to find her dead, with me in a dressing gown, and with my wife conveniently away on business, it would've looked suspicious. Like we were lovers. I'd have been arrested for sure. And Kate would've come home to find her husband in jail.”
James wasn't so much concerned that the girl had died in his house, as he was that he had invited her in whilst his wife was away. To make matters worse in his head, he had done so wearing nothing but his wife's dressing gown, and having previously removed his wedding ring in order to shower. It would look as if James had been having an affair.
To be honest, it would probably look that way to anyone investigating the events of that afternoon. As a tradesman with a professional wife who worked away a lot, it would be easy to believe that James had been seeing this younger woman. Easy to surmise that perhaps she had been trying to break things off after an encounter so passionate that James had needed to shower. Easy to conclude that James' temper had gotten the better of him after hearing the bad news, and that he had pushed her when she had tried to leave his home for the last time.
“I'm sorry, James, but it just doesn't compute,” Craig said. “If you thought it looked bad to begin with, how do think it's going to look now that you've stashed this girl's body in your freezer?”
James seemed to shudder when he thought of the possibilities, but it could just have easily been a reaction to the cold air emanating from the open cooler. Distressed by the afternoon's events, he had clearly not been thinking straight, and was still wearing the pink robe that Kate would wear to cleanse her spirit and banish any feelings of angst from her soul after a long day at work and a shower. James barely fit into it, but it had been the only robe to hand when he had rushed to answer the door. Kate usually took her larger yellow one with her when she went away because she said it helped her gain insight into problems and improve her concentration.
“Why the bloody hell did you put her in the freezer?” I asked again, unable to comprehend the act. “If you didn't kill her, the only thing you've done is make it look as if you did.”
Obviously, it would be far too late to call the police or an ambulance now without James, and perhaps even Craig and myself, being arrested too. After a few hours in cold storage, if the girl hadn't been dead when her head had hit the floor, she definitely was now.
“Look, I've told you already. I panicked,” James said. “I wasn't thinking logically.”
James walked out of the garage into the adjoining kitchen, leaving me and Craig to stare down at the body partially covered with bags of frozen vegetables and cartons of pizza. I failed to see how panic could lead a man to incriminate himself when no crime had been committed. One thing I was sure of, though, was that if James' fidelity was in question when Kate returned home from her business trip, she would certainly be throwing out the green candles, burned to boost fertility, that I had seen so far in every room of the newly weds' house.
James returned from the kitchen carrying a can of beer for each of us. Rejoining us at the side of the freezer, he passed them out. We cracked them open in synchrony, taking large gulps as we continued to stare down at the girl's cold dead body.
“I suppose that deep down, one of the reasons I must have put her in there is because I felt responsible for what had happened,” James said.
“Responsible?” Craig and I exclaimed in unison.
“Yeah. In a way, it's all my fault; if I hadn't just gotten out of the shower, the floor would never have been wet and she would never have slipped.”
Craig and I stared blankly at James as he stared down at the freezer, deep in contemplation.
“James,” Craig said flatly. “If she hadn't knocked on the door in the first place, you wouldn't have gotten out of the shower to make the floor wet. If anything, she only has herself to blame.”
James thought about that for a moment, but seemed not to want to accept the logical argument. He had already deduced that even if it had been all the girl's fault, if he'd called for an ambulance, by the time it had arrived the puddles on the floor would have been absorbed into the girl's clothing. Any evidence of her slipping would have been eliminated, and the eyes of suspicion would still have fallen on him.
“Maybe if I'd just had the heating on,” James said. “The puddles would have dried up before she went to leave. I mean, it's snowing for God's sake; what kind of a monster doesn't have the heating on when it's snowing outside? I am responsible.”
It was cold inside James' new house, that much I had to admit, but seeing as so far this evening we had spent the majority of our time standing next to an open chest freezer, it was hard to say whether the chill was a direct result of James' reluctance to put his heating on. James was apparently wondering the same thing, and conscious of the energy being wasted by the cooling unit as it sat with its door wide open, he leaned over to grab the handle on the lid and closed it. With the mesmerising spectacle of the dead girl now hidden from view, the three of us turned around and began to lean upon her icy tomb.
“The only thing you're responsible for, James, is your own stupidity,” Craig said. “By putting this girl in the freezer, you've made yourself look very, very guilty of causing something that was essentially an accident. Kudos.”
I raised my can of beer into the air and nodded to second the motion. James had dug himself into a pretty deep hole by doing what he had done, and he knew it. It was why he had invited us round; he hadn't known what else to do.
He pushed himself up off of the freezer and took a few steps forward into the room, turning so that he could face us. As he did so, the waist tie of his wife's dressing gown - which had been struggling to remain knotted as it was - untied, allowing the garment to flap open. At six foot two, James towered over his petite wife of five four, and the robe he had thrown on earlier had barely covered his groin. Now it was failing to cover anything, Craig and I held our hands out to block the unexpected view of our friend's anatomy that we had been provided.
“Before you say anything else, James, do me a favour, and go and put some clothes on,” Craig requested. “Pink doesn't suit you, and I've seen enough of your legs to last me a lifetime.”
James looked down, wondering what was wrong with his legs, and surprised, suddenly realised that since the girl in his freezer had died, he had been walking around in a daze, unaware of his attire. Quickly retying the knot on his wife's gown and aware of Craig's comments, he suddenly became extremely self conscious, and obliged Craig by disappearing into the house to find some jeans and a tee shirt. Craig and I still a little dazed ourselves, stood pondering the evening's events so far. As far as dinner parties went, this was one of the weirdest we had ever been to.
“So how are we going to get rid of her?” James asked as he returned fully clothed.
Craig almost chocked on his beer.
“We?” he spluttered. “It's your body, James. Your mess. What have we got to do with it?”
I couldn't help but agree.
“Well, I was hoping you guys might be able to help me,” James explained.
Craig and I stood silent and motionless, staring blankly at James once again, and shocked at the boldness of the request. James just stared back at us awaiting a response. Whether intentional or not, he was wearing the tee shirt that Craig and I had bought him as a wedding gift. Emblazoned across his chest were the words, Good friends will help you get over her, Really good friends will help you hide her body. Strangely, Kate hadn't found it funny. It was one of the reasons we hadn't seen James in a while.
“Please, guys,” James pleaded when we failed to respond. “You have to help me. Kate will definitely want to move if she finds out that someone's died in the house. And a death on the premises is bound to have a knock on effect and devalue the property - I can't afford to sell in negative equity.”
James had traded his fortune for marital bliss. Most of his life savings had gone on the thirty thousand pound deposit Kate had put down on the new home. Whatever had been left, had been spent on their wedding; a lavish two day affair at a manor house in the Cotswolds followed by three weeks of sun and honeymooning in Greece.
“I think she'd be more likely to leave you than want to move house, James,” I said.
“Well, I can't afford a divorce either,” James announced. “And I'd still have to sell the house if it came to that. Kate would get it in the settlement if I was suspected of homicide and infidelity.”
All James had left was the wage he paid himself as a self-employed bricklayer, and most of that was eaten up by the mortgage and his utilities. To make matters worse, the coldest autumn in years had brought with it an unusually heavy snowfall and a cold spell that had lasted for weeks. Unable to ply his trade, James was quickly eating into his overdraft. It was unsurprising that he had jumped at the chance to save himself money by inviting the saleswoman into his home.
“Please,” James said. “I'm begging you. The only thing linking that girl to me, other than the fact that she's in my freezer, is the fixed price energy plan she signed me up to...”
James paused, and slapped his palm to his forehead in despair as he realised that the girl had never made it out of his house, and thus his new fixed price energy plan and change of electricity and gas providers would never come to pass. The reality of James' future savings was just a completed form with a signature. James had missed out on the limited time offer the girl had tended him. He cursed under his breath.
“If I can get rid of the body, and destroy the form I filled in, no one would ever need know that she was here.”
“And you want us to help you dispose of her body?” Craig asked.
James nodded emphatically. Craig and I turned and looked at one another to see if we both had a firm grasp of the request being made of us. Then, we turned back to James.
“No,” we both said in unison.
James took a step forward towards us.
“Just hear me out,” he said. “Kate will be back from her trip on Sunday. That gives me three days to sort this out, and it would be so much easier with your help.”
James loved Kate a great deal. That much had been clear when he had married her. It was rare for two people with seemingly nothing in common to fall for each other the way they had. After getting together, James had devoted his life to earning enough money to pay for the perfect wedding and the house of Kate's dreams, and he had really delivered. After years of living together in a tiny studio flat, the marriage and the purchase of the four bedroom town house had symbolised his commitment to her. It wasn't just a house, it was the perfect place to start a family, and given the number of green candles I had seen had been burned in the various rooms I had seen so far, it was safe to assume that Kate wanted kids. They had built a life together, and James was prepared to do anything to protect it.
“As long as I can get rid of the body before Kate comes home,” James continued, “she'll never need to know what has happened. Life can go back to normal, and I won't have to move house. What do you think?”
Despite having been branded a bad influence and not getting along particularly well with her on occasion, I did actually like Kate. She had her faults like anyone else, but she was good for James. She had given him purpose and direction. Surprisingly, he was good for her too. She had been hurt by men in the past who had taken advantage of her frequent trips abroad by cheating. James had mended the insecurities she had developed as a result simply be being devoted to her. She knew he would never hurt her, and her business routine, along with the periods where she would leave James to his own devices, had never been cause for concern. At least, they hadn't been until today, when James had decided to put a body in their freezer.
“Please?” James added, having not yet had a response to his question.
For all his stupidity, and however misguided his actions might have been, everything James had done today had been for the benefit of his relationship with Kate. I admired that. It would be a shame for their marriage to end, simply because James had been so stupid as to freeze a girl in his garage. Cruel that James should be accused of a crime when none had really been committed. It would be unfair, I thought, if he was made to suffer because a stranger had knocked on his door and had inconveniently died. Completely unjust for James to lose everything because of the unstoppable blight of door to door sales that had started the chain of events leading up to this point. Personally, and feeling a little sorry for him, I was inclined to help James, but I decided to take a swig of beer and see how Craig would react before making that opinion public.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” Craig sighed. “I knew something was up the minute you asked us round for dinner.”
So Craig was inclined to help James too, it seemed. He finished his can of beer and crushed it in his hand. Smiling, James punched the air, and paced toward Craig to hug him in gratitude. Unexpectedly, I was pulled into the fray too, and dropped my can of beer during the tug on my sleeve. I found myself, along with Craig, being crushed between the bricklayer's muscular arms, and thankful that he had changed out of his wife's robe.
“Thank you so much,” James exclaimed. “You really don't know how much this means to me. If only I could tell Kate. I'm sure she'd change her mind about you after putting your lives on the line for me.”
After a minute or so, he had calmed down somewhat, and allowed us to breathe. He ran into the kitchen to procure a fresh set of beers. The smile on his face when he returned had said it all; we had agreed to save his life, and he was relieved. There was no backing out now.
“Alright, James, so what did you have in mind?” Craig asked, after cracking open his new beer. “What's the plan?”
“I was kind've hoping you guys could come up with something,” he said. “I ran out of ideas after putting her in the freezer.”