She was reading a book. The sun shining through the shop window picked up the red tones of her strawberry blonde curls, forming a messy halo. With one foot up on the chair she looked angelically contained, her book close to her nose. It was mid-morning and although she’d only been there for half an hour, she gave the impression of having been there forever. She inhabited the space around her, one shoe on the floor, her bag tossed on the chair next to her, a still-smouldering cigarette stumped in the ashtray next to a half-drunk cappuccino.
The waiter hovered near her table, both attracted by her fragile beauty and deterred by the aura of aloofness that shimmered almost tangibly around her. She’d been there many times before and he knew a little about her. A grieving mother turned grieving widow. But so young. She was always alone, always with a book and always with the same ratty piece of paper as a bookmark. He’d read the piece of paper once, upside down. It had four names on it, each scratched out and with a tick next to it. Tao, Joanne, Arabella and Kim.
Jess wasn’t really reading. She was thinking about the women she had invited to lunch. Her late husband’s mistresses. Arabella was the first one she’d found out about. Even her name sounded sexy and when Jess met her she immediately understood why David had gone to her. After their son died, Jess hadn’t wanted David to touch her. It had been all his fault, rushing home and not looking as sweet Luke stood in the driveway waiting for daddy. Every time she looked at David she saw her son’s bleeding and mangled body.
The next one she’d found out about was Kim. That also wasn’t too much of a surprise. Kim worked with David and was the ultimate play hard, work hard girl. She was always impeccably groomed, a pair of killer heels to match every colour of her myriad power suits. She had straight blond hair cut into a sharp bob that highlighted her strong jawline and boy’s hips that looked good in a pencil skirt. Kim had a no-nonsense air about her in both business and personal relationships. She was straight up and everyone knew where they stood with her.
Joanne puzzled her at first; she was more soccer-mom than seductress or party girl. She had beautiful soft eyes and wore three-quarter pants in pastel shades. But she was a deeply loving woman and Jess guessed it was her nurturing that David had wanted. It was Tao that Jess still didn’t understand. Tiny Tao who only ever wore white. Her brown skin as smooth as chocolate, her exquisite face framed by a perfectly round afro. Everything about her was compact, doll-like. But she had a mysterious air about her; she never showed what she was feeling, even her laugh was guarded.
The jangle of the door jolted Jess out of her reverie. A woman with hard curves that defied reason sauntered into the café, her hips quickly mesmerising the hovering waiter. Arabella headed straight to Jess’ table, a light smile on lips that begged for passionate kisses. She reached for Jess, placing her hands on her face and drawing her up to a kiss. Jess smiled and put her book down.
Almost immediately the door opened again and a petite woman entered, her silky brown skin off-set by the crisp linen dress that stretched over her swollen belly. She too made her way to Jess’s table. Tao kissed Jess’ cheek and nodded at the seductress before sitting down with studied elegance.
Joanne arrived next. She’d changed the most. She’d lost a lot of weight in the past year and now wore fashionably skinny jeans and silk blouses in deep shades. No more pastel. She touched each woman on the shoulder before gently hugging Jess.
Jess ordered champagne, saying that of course Kim would be late. As it arrived at the table, the door burst open and Kim rushed in, her bustle creating an almost visible ripple in the room. She grinned at everyone and sat down abruptly, scraping her chair loudly. Kim lifted her glass saying ‘Chin chin ladies. To David, may he rest in peace.’
David. The reason they all knew each other and the reason they were all meeting today. They’d only ever been together as a group once before, the night before David died.
After Luke’s death, Jess had been so caught up in the pain and loss and anger she felt as if she didn’t exist anymore. She found comfort in sitting in Luke’s room, singing his favourite songs. She couldn’t look at David, couldn’t reconcile the gentle, caring man she’d married with the murderous bastard who knocked on Luke’s door countless times a day begging her to forgive him and insisting that he had also lost a son. Instead of abating, her grief grew. She mourned the loss of the future she’d foreseen with a loving husband and a brood of children. She mourned what would never be. She mourned the loss of her own light. With the growing of her grief, a deep anger grew too. It overtook her and everything she did was tinged with the red light of rage.
David had eventually stopped knocking so often. He would leave early in the morning and come home late, after she had retired to the little bed in Luke’s room. She wanted him gone but he refused to leave her until the grief subsided, until they could speak again about anything other than Luke. He wouldn’t leave until her eyes softened and that secret smile he had loved so much appeared again. He sought comfort and love and answers in women who represented the aspects of her that were gone.
On the anniversary of Luke’s death, Jess decided she had to get rid of David. She was forever changed and he would never be able to fix it. She’d known for some time that he was seeing someone; she could smell her perfume, taste her on the air as he tip-toed into their once happy home. Every one of her friends, family and counsellors had told her to keep her marriage alive, to try to find some forgiveness and love out of the tragedy. With her knowledge of his affair, Jess thought perhaps they would support her decision to split from David. She’d make him pay for everything he’d taken from her. When David was asleep that night, she took his phone and started scrolling through it, looking for the name of the woman who would help her divorce him.
She only found evidence of Arabella first because that’s who David had sms’d last. It had been a sexy message, oozing with innuendo. The picture of Arabella that accompanied her phone number was of a red rose, so Jess had no idea what the woman looked like, but she could guess. When she looked for more messages between Arabella and David, she’d found Joanne and Kim too. Jess had almost skipped over that name at first because she’d known Kim was a colleague. But then she saw the line of x’s at the end of one of his messages. Her David was seeing three women. Jess was completely shocked. David had always had a healthy sex drive, but he had never been overly sexual and he had never been secretive. Certainly not enough to manage three mistresses at once.
Jess’s mind had worked overtime, considering how she could get each of these women on her side, to help her get rid of him once and for all. She wondered if they knew he was married. Kim did, of course, they’d met before at company functions. But the other two? Lying, cheating, murdering bastard. That’s what her husband had become. How dare he come knocking on her door, his voice slow, low and cajoling, wheedling for forgiveness and full of declarations of love. Love!
She took down the women’s numbers and continued to scroll for more evidence. Then another name popped up, in his archived folder. Tao. That wasn’t a name she’d heard before so she opened the message threads. David’s were full of love and longing, while Tao’s replies were terse but not discouraging. The last message had been sent two days before. Why had he hidden her in the archive section? Jess opened Tao’s profile picture and at first thought it was a painting. But then she realised it was the woman herself. A perfect woman, everything in proportion and so crisply and elegantly presented, her eyes deep pools of calm, her full mouth serious but with the sense of a smile. Jess stared at Tao for a long time before writing her number down as well.
She’d contacted Arabella first, simply because hers was the first name on the list. She’d sent her a message saying she needed to meet with her urgently about David. Of course the woman messaged back immediately asking if he was okay. Jess had simply given her a time and a place to meet. When they met, it was clear that Arabella hadn’t known about Jess. She also hadn’t known about Luke. Arabella was under the impression that David travelled a lot for work and she only saw him about once a week, sometimes twice. It suited her because she had a busy life, filled wither husband’s diplomatic duties, friends and work. Jess liked her immediately.
Over the next few weeks, Jess met with each one of David’s mistresses. Joanne of course had no idea that Jess or the other women existed. She too thought David travelled a lot for work. She was in the process of leaving her own husband. David was a stop-gap affair, to help her move on with her life. She had no plans to live a life with him, in fact, she was determined to remain a divorcee for the rest of her life.
Kim was brightly unapologetic, saying she’d known Jess and David were going through a hard time and figured David just needed a bit of distraction. She too had no desire to keep David permanently. ‘Don’t worry,’ Kim had said, ‘I’m just keeping him positive until you want him back.’
Tao was different. She gave nothing away and Jess didn’t know if Tao was aware that David was married. She didn’t apologise or even express regret that she was seeing a married man. She merely asked Jess what she wanted from her. It was a question Jess took away without answering. What did she want from David’s women? The question played on her mind and began to turn into a plan.
Her rage became more focused. Instead of divorce, she felt David deserved something far worse altogether. He’d killed their son. He’d killed their lives and he’d killed the beauty inside her. He should die.
She set the plan in motion, writing and re-writing the roles each woman should play. She day-dreamed and schemed about how to get away with the perfect murder. David was known for his love of speed and a car accident would be a fitting end for him, especially as it had been his reckless driving that had killed Luke. She went to an internet café to research ways in which to render a car dangerous – how to cut brake lines and what makes a car actually catch fire after an accident.
At a large hardware store on the other side of town Jess purchased, for cash, a massive bag of compost containing ammonium nitrate, after discovering that the fumes could spontaneously combust. She also bought a soldering iron at another store far from her home.
Over a period of six months, her plan began to take shape. She needed David’s mistresses to be complicit and at each individual meeting with them, which she instigated at least once a week, she slowly drew them into her rage. She insisted that all the women to carry on seeing David so he wouldn’t be suspicious. Because he had limited time with each of them, their meetings tended to be focussed on the prevailing reason for their relationship – sex and just the briefest of conversation. So, it wasn’t difficult for the women to keep him in the dark about their conversations with Jess and their growing sympathy for her because of his intricate deceptions. Typically, Kim wasn’t concerned about his deception, she was simply keen to be in on an interesting venture.
Jess followed the weather closely and learned to read its patterns. She wanted a dark and stormy night. Based on a highly accurate website based of all places in Sweden, she picked the day for David’s death. Arabella was to meet with him in the afternoon and ensure he was sapped and satiated. She had to use every trick she knew to befuddle his mind and exhaust his body.
Next, Joanne had to make plans to have an early evening drink with him. She would meet him at a new bar, one that was at the top of a hill. Joanne was tasked with slipping half a Rohipnol tablet in his drink – not enough to knock him out, but certainly enough to make his reactions slower than usual. Jess had been prescribed the heavy sleeping pills when Luke died and she had a few left over.
Then Kim was to phone him as soon as the storm was abating. She had to have tears in her voice and speak with a desperate urgency. Kim, who was always on top of things and who never came across as desperate or needy would have to put on a good performance. Shock David enough for him to rush away from Joanne to Kim’s rescue. Down the hill. In the dark. On streets wet with rain.
Tao’s role was to wait in her cousin’s removal truck halfway down the hill and pull out from a side road – ensuring that David would have to swerve to avoid her. Joanne would message her as soon as David left so she could time it right. David always drove too fast and the combination of physical exhaustion, roofie-infused alcohol and slick roads were a sure-fire way to ensure he’d have a spectacular accident. Jess had placed the compost in David’s car boot a week before, knowing he never opened it. He’d never notice. She’d put the receipt in as well, just in case.
While David was having his drink with Joanne, Jess had used his spare car keys to slip the burning hot soldering iron into his boot on top of the opened bag of compost. She’d driven home using back roads, stopping at a supermarket on the way to buy ingredients for David’s favourite meal. She’d bought his favourite wine as well, along with a pregnancy test. Her purchases would surely put any investigators off the trail. She knew how to put on a show of grief, she’d been living it for so long. She would tell them that she was just getting better, learning to deal with Luke’s death and that she and David were trying again. She’d tell them that she’d been planning to make his favourite meal and then take the pregnancy test together. A new beginning.
She’d started the meal, with the playlist from their wedding on in the background. She’d even smiled as she chopped the onions and garlic, remembering the first time she’d made this particular meal. His face when he’d seen her wearing nothing but a tiny apron.
At eight, she had called his cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. She sent him a whatsapp, ‘babe will you be home soon?’ At nine she had called again. And again at quarter to ten, this time leaving a voice message, ‘David, you were supposed to be home ages ago. Please call me. I’m worried.’
That night, she climbed into their marriage bed, a bed she hadn’t slept in since Luke died. She was wearing a silky nightdress that felt soft and sensual on her freshly shaved legs. She’d been asleep when the call eventually came at four in the morning. The sky outside her bedroom window was tinged with grey light, all the clouds from the night’s storm blown away.
She put yesterdays’ jeans and a jersey over her nightdress and went to put on the kettle, waiting for the policeman to arrive. He brought a volunteer counsellor with him, a short woman whose bulk looked built for comforting hugs. Jess’ performance was brilliant. She allowed her knees to buckle and a high, keening scream to escape from her dry lips. The woman held her, rocked her and made consoling noises.
David’s car had rolled numerous times, exploding as it finally came to rest, facing the wrong way and upside down. It had been a spectacular accident and the police had a hard time finding all the pieces. In fact, they were hard-pressed to find much evidence of him at all, but the only logical conclusion was that he’d been in his car. In the end, there was enough trace evidence to conclude that the compost in David’s boot had caused the explosion; the weather preceding the summer storm had been exceptionally hot. David had also been seen leaving the bar in a hurry and the police decided he’d probably been over the limit and driving too fast. Luckily no one else had been hurt or involved. Jess was treated as a fragile victim and was hardly left alone for the months following his death and funeral. It took an age to get his estate tied up, even though she’d been named as his beneficiary in everything.
A year later, Jess wanted to ensure all David’s women weren’t feeling guilty or having second thoughts; that they were still keeping their silence. They’d all agreed to be part of her scheme and were all equally responsible for his death. Jess searched each woman’s eyes for signs of mutiny, but saw none. Of course Tao was as implacable as ever, but Jess had never worried too much about her; she had guessed that Tao’s life had been pretty rough – why else would she be so emotionless and rigid? Besides, Tao was probably the most liable of all of them, it was she who had caused David to swerve to his death.
After the champagne came frozen margaritas and the café’s signature tapas dishes. Only Tao remained sober, her hand instinctively rubbing her belly every time the waiter tried to offer her alcohol. The event ascended into a typical well-off ladies’ lunch, with screaming giggles and calls for more tequila. It would be the last time they all got together; Jess was leaving for a year-long exploration of the world. She wanted to have an Eat Pray Love experience and was starting her adventure in Italy. Tao thought it was too typical and boring, but the other women loved the idea. Maybe they just wanted to forget about Jess and David. They’d all moved on with their lives, Joanne to a young lover who obviously had a good eye for fashion, Kim was now running the company David had worked at with her and Arabella’s ambassador husband was being posted to some other African country in a few months.
There were air kisses and promises to stay in touch as Tao left. All the women wished her luck with her baby and hoped to meet the father of her child soon. She was weary as she left and glad to be going home to her haven.
She opened the ancient door to the sweet little Cape Dutch home she’d lovingly restored all those years ago, and there he was. David. Sweet David, the scar on his face creating a deep dimple as he smiled.
It had been a close call, diving out of the moving car. But, they’d been prepared. David had worn his old kart racing jumpsuit and helmet. He would have been wholly unharmed except for a smashed and discarded beer bottle that sliced through his cheek as he rolled towards Tao.
No matter; she thought it made him sexier. He reached for her and held her in a bear hug before gently cradling her belly in his big hands.