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Feb 21, 2010 at 9:39pm
Edited: February 22, 2010 at 7:55am
Round six entry
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#1648300 by Not Available.

Have fun, I know I did.

A Friendly Rivalry

John poured the freshly brewed coffee into two mugs, adding plenty of cold milk to both and two spoons of sugar to one.

“This is yours I believe,” he said lifting the yellow mug and saluting the body sprawled on the kitchen floor. “No, don’t bother to get up,” he added before tipping half the contents down the sink. “Two spoons of sugar? You know this stuff rots your teeth. Not that you’ll be worrying about your teeth after tonight,” he added with a scowl.

“You thought you were such a clever bastard didn’t you?” he snarled at the unconscious man as he stood over him.

The bruise on the side of the head where he’d hit him with the cane was colouring up nicely. Matt Cranfield had been his friend for more than fifteen years. With his dark sandy hair and boyish features, at thirty two he still looked like the eighteen-year-old boy John had played football with back in high school. After school they had both gone to different colleges but still kept in touch. After graduating, John got a well-paid job as a claims adjuster for major firm in Michigan City while Matt went back to Pillsborough to work for his father at the local sawmill. Two years after moving to Michigan, John met a girl at the one of the firm’s parties and Pauline became Mrs John Houldsworth. Matt never married. Although his letters were full of the girls he’d been dating, none of them had been “the one”. As John climbed the corporate ladder, Matt laboured ten hours a day as the sawmill’s underpaid accountant, sales manager and general dogsbody. His letters from that time were full of bitterness at the paltry wage and his father’s arrogance. That all stopped when the old man died. The first John knew about his friend’s change of fortune was a rushed email telling him about his father’s death, the sale of the mill and that Matt was moving to Michigan to start a new life.

Pauline had met his old school buddy and had been as thrilled as he was that they would soon be seeing more of him. Matt hadn’t been in town long however before she pointed out how driven he was, how he always played to win, whether it was golf, poker or a light-hearted game of basketball. John explained about the friendly rivalry they had enjoyed back in high school, and after ten soul-destroying years in a backstreet sawmill, he couldn’t begrudge him a little bit of one-upmanship. John remembered that evening clearly. The way he took Pauline into his arms, nuzzled into her neck and promised her that Matt was a great guy and she would soon get to like him. Remembering Pauline’s smile, the smell of her hair, the softness of her skin almost brought tears to his eyes. Instead, he swung round and kicked Matt as hard as he could in the back of the head. His glance strayed to the knife block, the ebony handles clustered together, the blades hidden deep within the wood.

“Stop it!,” he told himself, the harshness of his voice drowning out the hum of the refrigerator. “You've got a plan all worked out. There’s no room in it for messy improvisation. Just stick to the bloody plan!”

“What you forgot Matt,” he snapped at the man on the floor, “is that claims adjusters wade through bullshit and lies every day to get at the truth, and you,” and here he punctuated his point with a kick in the ribs, “are a crock of shit!”

That’s enough he told himself silently. Crossing the room, taking care not to touch anything, he headed down the corridor.

The plan he’d devised was a good one. He had busted a few award-winning insurance scams in his time, so he knew a good one when he saw it. He had taken everything he knew about Matt and wrapped it up in a bow, a bow that would have him paying dearly for what he’d done. In the bathroom, John pulled out a pair of latex gloves and put them on. He didn’t want to leave fingerprints in here. Opening the medicine cabinet, he searched for the sleeping pills. A few weeks earlier Matt had complained about not sleeping and needing pills. He found the bottle he was looking for. It was labelled Lunestra and instructed the user to take one pill at bedtime. Taking the bottle to the kitchen, he dropped a small cream pill into the mug of unsweetened coffee, leaving the open bottle next to the coffee machine. Taking both mugs he went back into the living room.

“One for Matt,” he said, placing the half empty mug on the stylish white and chrome coffee table, “and one for me,” he continued, placing the coffee with the sleeping pill on the opposite side.

Sitting down on the white leather settee, he stared at the doped coffee and reminded himself why he was there. Pauline never took to Matt. At the time he had put it down to jealousy because of the hours they spent together; the weekends on the golf course, the betting at the racetrack. They bet on everything. Sometime John won, sometimes Matt did. It was like their high school days all over again. Only this time they had money and were having the time of their lives. When Pauline complained that she was being neglected, John did what any caring husband would have done. He cancelled the next meeting with Matt and took her to the beach instead. When he met up with his old friend a few days later for their weekly game of golf, it was obvious that Matt wasn’t happy. It didn’t help that he played badly that day and lost a lot of money. Matt hated losing.

A few days later John was at work when the call came to say that Pauline had been in an accident and taken to County General Hospital. Terrified, he flew down the stairs and sped across town like maniac, but arrived too late. His darling Pauline died before he could reach her. Matt stood by him through the nightmare weeks that followed. He stayed close as John closed his eyes and grieved. He reminded him when to eat and shave. He cooked simple meals, helped arrange the funeral, choose the floral tributes. He even picked Pauline’s parents up from the airport. Matt couldn’t have been a better friend. Two weeks after the funeral Matt moved back to his rented house while John returned to work. The guys at the office were patient, giving him time and space to come to terms with his new, solitary existence. Matt insisted that they go out but John just tagged along, not seeing the point, the hole in his heart eating away at all the reasons for living.

It was more than two months after the funeral before he could bring himself to open Pauline’s closet and bundle her clothes into plastic sacks for the charity shop. Everything was thrown in. The pink shoes she cooed over for weeks before buying. The green jacket she always wore to the movies. He bundled his life and memories so sharp they cut like knives into six black sacks, before tossing them in the back of the car like so much garbage. It was while he was sorting through the cardboard box that held the items taken from Pauline’s wrecked car that he came across her purse, diary and mobile phone. He left them next to the drinks cabinet and sat down with three fingers of Jack Daniels and drank quickly, needing its fiery courage to open her diary and let her words touch him from beyond the grave. He opened it at the last entry and skipped back a few pages. As he turned page after page, he saw the name “Matt” mentioned repeatedly.

Matt came early....Matt is always here ....Matt was horrible to me, said I wasn’t good enough for John.... Matt scares me. I wish he’d go away. I wish John would send him away.

John closed the small diary and rested his hand on its red leather cover. Poor Pauline. He hadn’t realised she felt that way. Why hadn’t she told him? He couldn’t expect her to like all his friends. They could have come to some arrangement. It was only when he switched on her phone and checked through the text messages that he realised why she hadn’t spoken to him about it. She hadn’t dared.

Bitch. I’ve had enough of your whining. Once more and I’m gonna tell him about your dad and what you two got up to when you were a kid. Keep your mouth shut whore, or I’ll shut it permanently.

John recognised the number. The text message had come from Matt. He was stunned. What was going on? What had happened to her when she was a kid? A quick flick through her other text messages threw up several more from Matt, all in the same viscous, threatening tone. It was the last message however that chilled his blood.

Too late bitch. You were warned.

That one was dated the day of the crash.

John sat in stunned silence, absorbing the realisation that Pauline may not have died in an accident, that she might have been killed...by Matt. His first thought was to take everything he had to the police but he soon saw that there was nothing conclusive. Although the tightening in his gut told him he was right, he knew Matt. Articulate and intelligent, Matt could easily pass it all off as a tragic misunderstanding. The police had already checked Pauline’s car. If Matt had sabotaged it, they would have found evidence of his tampering. After mulling it over for hours, armed with a piece of paper and a felt tip pen, John came up with a plan.

From his seat in the living room he could see the top of Matt’s head and an outstretched arm resting on the kitchen floor. He couldn’t help a small grin of satisfaction. Two days ago his plan had been put into action. A slip down the stairs at work had given him the broken leg, or at least the pretense of a broken leg. When he turned up at Matt’s house walking with a cane, showing him the cast under his trousers, it hadn’t prepared him for being hit over the head with the said cane as soon as his back was turned. The first part of John's plan had gone without a hitch.

“Now for the grave,” he told himself, his voice strident and intrusive when played against the muted sounds of the house.

One of the doors in the kitchen led to the garage. John pointedly ignored the knives as he strode across the terracotta tiles, pushed the door open and descended the steep concrete steps beyond. He picked up a shovel from the cluster of tools left by the workmen who'd recently landscaped the back garden. Pauline had been right about Matt. His house was bigger than John and Pauline’s, his car newer, his lawn greener, his furniture more contemporary. Looking back, John could only see one area of where Matt couldn’t compete. Pauline had been John’s pride and joy, his brightest jewel. Matt had no one, so he had created a level playing field by killing her. That bastard was going to pay.

Taking Matt’s bright yellow base ball cap from its hook, he jammed it on his head, pulling it down over his hair. Leaving by the door to the garden, he deliberately let it bang. With hunched shoulders he strode out into the night. He hoped the light from the house would provide enough illumination for the task ahead, but he needn’t have worried. A new moon hung serene in the dark heavens above. Every leaf and blade of grass shimmered with a pale silver gleam. At the far end of the yard, under the delicate canopy of a tall rowan, he pushed the shovel into the newly-planted flower bed. As he had hoped, the fresh loamy soil was easy to dig and soon lay in a long heap along the grass. It didn’t take him long to excavate a shallow depression six foot long and three foot wide. Returning to the house, he knocked the soil from his shoes, scuffing them on the grass to clean them before he reached the garage. The shovel was left propped up inside the garage door with dirt clinging to its face, the yellow cap hanging from its handle.

Back in the kitchen, he knelt down and rubbed dirt into Matt’s hands before grabbing them and dragging him towards the garage. Keeping the door open with a foot, John wedged his forearms under Matt’s armpits and levered him upright. It took all his strength but as soon as he had Matt's weight resting against his hip, he twisted and pushed, hurling him into the garage. There was a satisfying clunk and smack as the body rolled down the concrete steps, ending in a huddle of bent arms and legs at the bottom.

John found he was breathing hard as he switched off the garage light. In the cloakroom he tore off his gloves, wrapped them in toilet paper and flushed them down the toilet. As they’d done when he’d tried this at home, they instantly disappeared. Collecting his cane from the kitchen floor he returned to the lounge. Sitting down he reached for his cold coffee, holding the mug to his lips knowing that drinking it would push him past the point of no return. Afterwards, he’d have five minutes at most before he’d be sound asleep. The knives in the kitchen called to him. They promised justice, an eye for an eye. John swallowed his coffee. The trouble was he couldn’t be certain. He felt sure that Matt had killed Pauline, but that wasn’t the same as being certain. You couldn’t cut a man’s throat based on a feeling, at least he couldn’t. He had to stick to the plan.

Leaving a swallow in the bottom for the police, he put the mug down and picked up the phone. Trembling hands dialled 911.

“Can I speak to the police?” Already he was beginning to feel the drug’s effects; a tightness across the forehead, a dryness at the back of the throat.

“Hurry up,” he whispered, knowing he didn’t have much time. Long minutes passed as he fought the compulsion to close his eyes.

“This is the police, how can I help?” a female voice crackled in his ear.

“Please,” he croaked at her, his vision blurring. “I’ve been...drugged. I’m at...16 Pensacola Avenue. Please, hurry. He’s coming back.”

At last John let the phone slip from his grasp and lay back with a sigh. It was done, now he could rest. The police would be here soon. They would find John with his leg in a cast, unconscious on the settee. Matt would be found equally unconscious in the garage with dirt on his hands and a shallow grave in the garden. It had all been staged to look like a murder gone wrong; that Matt had slipped down the garage steps before he could finish his grisly work. It would be enough for them to look at Pauline’s death with fresh eyes, and see Matt as the killer he was. They would dig until they found the truth, then John would know.

Lying back he closed his eyes and relaxed, waiting for the sirens. It was the click of a door opening however that brought him back to life. He stared in disbelief as Matt staggered across the kitchen with the shovel in his hand. His hair was dishevelled, his left eye bloodshot. An arm was pressed close to his body as if cradling a broken rib.

“What the hell happened?” he demanded.

“Oh damn,” John whispered before his eyes closed and he tumbled head over heels into the darkness.

He awoke with a start to find himself in a hospital bed. A quick check confirmed that he was unhurt, and still had all his appendages. As he lay there waiting for the police and their questions, all he could think about was Matt. Where was he, did the police have him? He later learnt that they’d arrived at the house to find him out for the count, and alone. After taking notes and promising to inform him as soon as they apprehended the culprit, they sent him home with the hospital’s blessing. As John opened the front door, using his cane to hobbled inside, a piece of paper on the hall table caught his eye. It was his plan, but he knew he hadn’t left it there. On the reverse, written in the same red felt tip pen was a message.

Well - I didn’t see that coming - still, no hard feelings. For the record, I fixed that bitch just like I fixed my dad. We're better off without them.
Now there is just the two of us. Since we’re having such fun, here are the rules - there are no rules. Catch me if you can John – but not before I catch you first!

John felt something harden inside. Now he knew, now he was certain. The analytical part of his mind took control. Picking up a pen, he began listing the ingredients for a new plan.

Change the locks
Organise a month’s leave
Ditch the cast
Find Matt - follow the money
Get a gun, a big one

Matt thought this was all a game. For John however, the stakes had just changed. This wasn’t a friendly high school rivalry...this was war.

Word Count 2935
** Images For Use By Upgraded+ Only **
Round six entry · 02-21-10 9:39pm
by Alan Philps

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