On a cold autumn night when the rain is coming down in sheets, when the streetlamps’ glow polishes everything over with orange, and when the trees are so bare and skeletal they look like demons looming from the sidewalks, a woman appears on a street corner, so suddenly it seems as though she simply stepped from a shadow.
The tip of a gentle profile peers out from under her hood. She rounded the corner and begins to walk, quickly, to a nearby park. The sign GREENWICH looms on the brick wall and she slips through the gates.
In the middle of the park there’s a man sitting on a bench: he’s her destination. He glances up as she approaches and stands with a heavy sigh.
“Really,” he said. “Finally. You’ve been ages.”
“My apologies,” she replied, sitting down in his vacated spot. “I had to wait until the children were asleep. Freddie gets hungry at night.”
The man sniffed. “Children. Nasty things. I could never raise one, be a damned nuisance. With women it’s different, forced to love them by their own genes. Quite the trap. I suppose they keep you happy, though?”
“Very happy, else I wouldn’t have them.”
“Of course not. No one keeps things that give them misery.” He sat down again with a puffy sigh and fiddled with the buttons of his raincoat. “Suppose not even mothers.”
“Suppose not,” she agreed coolly. “How are you, George?”
“Very fine, very fine,” he said. “Bit hungry. I haven’t eaten since three, you know, my doctor says I ought to go on some sort of diet. I can’t say the idea appeals. Although liking food does come with accessories.” He frowns down at his stomach.
The woman simply watches him, which might have unnerved George but by now he was used to her. She was a strange creature, very quiet and not prone to giving up information. Calculating, that was the word. Perhaps it was because she was ugly or at least not as pretty as her sister. The harsh lines of her face, sharp cheekbones and thin black eyes like a snake. Her body was bony, usually disguised in heavy gowns and tall boots although- he puzzled over her feet- tonight she was wearing red flats. Red flats! In the pouring rain! Poor girl must be freezing.
“Nice shoes.” George grunted, to be polite.
“Thank you,” she said. “They’re new.”
“Mind if I ask what we’re doing here, in the middle of the rain? My house would be so much warmer.”
“It would,” she says. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have suggested the park.”
“I suggested nothing!”
“Of course you did. When we talked over the mobile I asked where we should meet and you told me ‘The Park’ even though the forecast was predicting a happy rainstorm!”
“I don’t remember that.”
“I suppose it was yesterday. From the sounds of it you were stuffing yourself with a donut while we talked, so perhaps that caused you to pay less attention to your words, and more attention to the sugar you were eating. Raspberry, I think you said it was.”
“That’s quite enough,” George said, salivating slightly at the mouth. “Well. Raspberry. Yes, I remember, a fine breakfast that was. I also had a lemon pie and some cream puffs. You know, raspberries can be hard to make, there’s a precision to it--not too much filling or it squeezes out the sides, nor too little or you’re just eating a big glob of dough. And then of course the sugar on top, sometimes they overdo it, irritating when it happens, it’ll clump together from the greases and creates a big grainy snowman…”
The woman (whose name was Jane) realized she had made a mistake in bringing up the donuts, but listened patiently to her companion ramble on for some time. When he paused to begin on his cream puffs, she interjected smoothly. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve asked you here, George dear.”
“I thought I asked you.”
“You did, mostly. But perhaps you’re wondering what I’d like to talk about.”
“Not really, I’m quite happy with our current topic. Now, about peach pie, I’m two ways. I think peaches are too oily, a little gross, but then after a first bite of a really, really good peach pie you forget your own name, which I find makes up for it quite well. I remember this experience when I was a boy… one bite and my brain was putty.”
“After my bullies realized they could prank me with it they took to stuffing pie in my mouth at any opportunity. Worked every time. I’d go all dreamy and start spouting stuff, they’d ask silly questions… my, it was a horror show.”
“Ended the day they tried blueberry. Turns out I’m allergic, swelled up faster than a balloon and was sick all over the ringleader. He wet his pants and they had to roll me over to the nurse. I was turning blue from asphyxiation… she nearly had a heart attack, thought I really was a giant blueberry. She fainted, and they had to call an ambulance for the both of us, although unfairly the nurse got the better cot. Gruesome experience, it was.”
“George! I’d like to ask you about my sister.”
That hit a mark. George turned to look at her. Jane was watching him, her dark eyes glued to his face from underneath her hood. It unsettled him. “What about her?”
Jane sighed. “I didn’t get the chance to see her before the trial. I wish I had- I wish I had just taken the bus or something, no matter what Patrick said to do. But I didn’t get that chance, and I’ve felt bad ever since. Can you tell me what happened? What her final words were, if she had any?”
“Well, er…” George stammered, “Well, she- she said she loved you and would miss you.”
“Uh… she was scared the trial would find her guilty, which sadly they did. She gave me back her ring. Said to give it to someone else who would love me as well as she did.”
“My sister was not a witch. You know that, right?”
“Well…” George laughed nervously. “Well, she did make a killer turkey casserole, I always thought there was something magic in there. It might have been the gravy…”
“It was because she was a protester,” Jane said, almost to herself. “It was because she headed protests for the war. They just wanted her out of the way, now that we’re soon to start another one, this one even bigger…they were afraid of what she would do.”
“I suppose so,” said George, scowling slightly. He disliked the idea of his fiancée being more successful than he was. “But she did act… oddly at times. It made me wonder…”
Jane turned with practiced surprise. “Wonder if she was a witch? Why, George! I believed more from you! Witchcraft is an outdated idea from centuries ago! You really think such a thing could possibly exist now?”
George squirmed in his seat, an endeavor which, considering his size, was difficult. “The judge made a bloody good argument, he did. She had those cat nails and those reddish eyes and that paleness; it was hard not to be afraid sometimes.”
“You were engaged. Did you try to win the trial? Surely you didn’t want Eliza to die.”
“Don’t be silly. I loved her well, and I love her more now that she is gone. I wouldn’t dream of…” his voice trailed off. He was frowning to himself, his moustache bristling as he thought. He started over. “But- but surely if Eliza was thought to be a witch, there was someone who had started the claim already. Really, it wasn’t my fault. I just- well, I just-”
“What did you do?” Jane asked softly.
“Nothing!” he cried, turning to look at her. “Really, nothing at all!”
This was a lie and they both knew it. George’s froggy eyes rolled around in their sockets. He couldn’t stop himself from glancing away, anywhere but at Jane’s face. He found himself looking at Jane’s shoes again. The red color looked as though it were bleeding into the pavement. Their umbrellas knocked together as George shifted his.
“That’s a nice suit,” said Jane. “New? Must have been expensive.”
“Somewhat… somewhat new…” George mumbled. He tried to avoid Jane’s eyes, could feel her piercing stare pinning him to the seat. She waited.
“Oh, all right!” George shouted, throwing his hands up. “I did it! They offered money to claim Eliza was… odd, had special skills, so I took it! But really, what difference did it make? They already had a case set up against her, witnesses and friends and whatnot, it was pretty strong, and she was sure to be convicted. What did it matter? All I did was feed them a few stories that she stirred together strange ingredients at night, or had a cat she kept at her feet, or whatever. Little white lies.”
“Little white lies,” said Jane coldly, “that got my sister killed. You should've tried to save her.”
“Anyway!” snapped Jane, losing her cool for the first time. “Anything! You could have hired a lawyer, or gotten my father involved, or at least tried to settle for a quicker death!”
“I didn’t know she’d be hanged-”
“George, my darling, you are the foulest man I have ever met. You still killed her. You helped them to kill her- what does it matter how she died? She’s dead, it’s your fault, and-” Jane took a deep breath and pressed her fingers against her head.
She already knew all this, of course, having done research in the aftermath of Eliza’s death. But here, with her sister’s fiancé spluttering excuses, it was so much more infuriating.
“I feel terrible,” said George bluntly, “and I’m sorry. But, you know-”
“Don’t,” snapped Jane, holding up a hand. “Don’t you dare. You killed my sister and there’s no excuse for it, none whatsoever. She loved you, for whatever reason, and you let her down. You know perfectly well she wasn’t a witch, that she would never hurt anybody, that she was trying to do the right thing with her protests-”
“She never let me go to those,” George mumbled bitterly.
“And now you know why. You’re a sick little man, George!” She burst into tears right there on the bench. George, startled, leaned away from her. Jane stood to cry a few paces off from the bench, her hands to her face. Rain pouring down over her cast a striking, if gloomy, figure. George waited nervously until she had calmed down.
“Well, uh,” he said finally. “Well. I suppose I’d better be going. Uh. Work in the morning. And I’m hungry. There’s a fantastic little bakery not far from here that’s open at all hours, if you’d like to join.”
Jane cast him a look of deep disgust through red-rimmed eyes. “Why would I go anywhere with you?”
George coughed. “Yes, well, uh… I see your point. Erm. I guess I’ll be seeing you, then?”
“Of course not.”
George stood and, in a sudden swing of melodramatic sorrow, moved to Jane to capture her hands in his. He gazed into her face, trying to look as earnest as possible. “Jane… I’m so sorry.”
“Get away from me.”
He nodded and began to walk away. After a few paces he stopped, felt his head, and turned. “Jane, I’ve left my umbrella. Could you give it to me?”
She was watching him, suddenly calm again, from beside the bench. “That depends.”
“On what? Oh, I’ll get it myself.” He marched over to snatch it and made to leave, but she placed a hand on his shoulder. “George, dear…” she murmured. “Can you keep a secret?”
He frowned. “Of course I can. What’s the secret?”
“You can’t tell anybody.”
“Not even the police.”
“Or the paramedics.”
“I won’t-” He stopped. “Jane?”
She had moved away and had her hands held out in front of her. Her palms glowed orange, illuminating her face.“Thanks so much, George. Remember, not a word.” She placed a finger to her lips.
He made to scream, made to run, but she was too fast- a hand brought slashing down through the air, and some invisible force cutting across George’s throat, slitting it in a bright red smiley-face.
George’s blood spattered onto her scarlet shoes-- worn, of course, for that very purpose. She smiled down at him and murmured a spell to wipe the blood from her gown. Then she walked, through the rain and on her way home while his corpse bled on the ground. Over her shoulder, she called, “Thanks so much, Georgie dear. I knew I could count on you!”