We must have made a strange picture, the group of us, huddled on the edge of the cliff, the wind in our hair. But no one was watching, and we weren’t thinking about our appearances. We had bigger things to worry about.
“Guys, we have to do something.” Charlotte crossed her arms and shifted her weight onto one foot. “This can’t point back to us.”
Milo, for once not cracking a joke, stared down at the two bodies at our feet. There was blood everywhere; we were standing in a puddle of it, and all our shoes were colored deep red. “Well then,” he said, “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Let me back up; let me explain myself. The minister was always a suspicious man. He snuck around at night. People saw him hurrying about, saw the lone flame of his candle crossing the green to the church. That would have been fine--a minister in a church is nothing unusual--but people also spotted him in town, gliding down dark alleys in his long robes in the earliest hours of the morning.
Charlotte came to me, Milo, and Keene the first day after winter vacation. She said she had stayed at school for the break, and that one morning, she’d seen him going in the church’s back entrance with something red spattered all over his robes.
With real fear in her eyes, she had asked us to help her investigate. And of course, with no real reason to refuse, we said yes.
We found several things immediately. One of them was a locked trapdoor, cleverly hidden beneath the altar in the church. The other was a large payment logged in the minister's ledgers, made to the locksmith on the first of every month. The connection--and our next move--was obvious.
“Don’t touch anything.” Charlotte said, sitting down beside the bodies, outside the puddle of blood. “We need to get rid of our clothes and fix up this crime scene fast.”
“What are we even doing?” Milo asked her. “Why do we need to change anything at all? It’s obvious that Keene killed the locksmith and the locksmith,” he paused here, took a breath, “killed Keene.”
Charlotte glared at him. “I know what I’m doing.”
Milo glared back. “Of course you do.”
Charlotte’s lips twisted back from her teeth in a snarl. “Shut up. Right now.” She yanked off one shoe and set it down beside her foot. “Take off your shoes and anything else the blood touched. Don’t let it get anywhere it wasn’t before.”
No one was supposed to die that night. We were only there to get information from the locksmith. Really, we weren’t supposed to be there that night at all. But the locksmith didn’t cooperate the first time we approached him. It was Keene who suggested that we rough him up a bit, just to get him talking. He volunteered to do all the dirty work, said we didn’t even have to show our faces at all, just watch from the treeline, make sure nothing went wrong. Keene did his job, but we didn’t do ours.
Keene took the locksmith from his workshop at midnight, going in and out through the window. He wore a pair of pantyhose over his head. He took the locksmith to the cliffs, held him down on the rocky ground and tried to get him to talk. But the locksmith was ready, and he had a knife.
We did as she asked, piled all our bloody shoes together, then watched as Charlotte pulled the pantyhose off Keene’s head and added them to the bundle. “We need to make it look like they weren’t here for an interrogation.”
“Why?” Milo asked.
“Because people know that the four of us were investigating the minister, and if people start looking into the locksmith and find what we found, things’ll lead straight to us.” She glared at Milo, “You don’t want that, do you?”
Taking a shuddering breath, Milo shook his head. “No. I do not want that.”
“Great. Now give me your pack of cigarettes”
The thing about the cliffs is that no matter what you yell or how loudly you yell it, no one will hear you. And so Keene was crouched down over the locksmith, shouting right into his face. He asked about little things. He asked about the locksmith’s wife and children, asked how he and his family were sleeping in their new apartment--fifth floor, Amaranth Boulevard. Keene was a good interrogator, and the locksmith seemed willing to answer his questions.
But as soon as Keene mentioned the minister, the locksmith brought out the blade he had hidden in his sleeve and drove it into Keene’s thigh.
I think that on any other night, Milo would have protested more, asked more questions, anything. But instead, he was quiet, and just dug in his pocket, pulled out his cigarettes, and placed them in Charlotte’s waiting hand. She pulled one out before tucking the rest of the pack into Keene’s jacket pocket. “Your lighter?” Charlotte asked, and Milo handed that over too. After lighting the single cigarette and watching it burn down, she dropped it neatly in the puddle of blood, near Keene’s hand.
Milo and I watched her as she worked.
Apparently finished, Charlotte sat back on her heels and looked up at us. “All done.” Her smile didn’t match the limp, bloody bodies beside her.
Milo avoided her gaze, instead eyeing the mound of bloody clothes, “Now what?”
Keene wailed when he was stabbed. It was a rough sound. Hard to listen to. As he clutched at the deep gash in his leg, he looked frantically at the treeline. I know that he was looking for us--I knew it then too--but I didn’t do anything. Charlotte, Milo, and I just sat frozen side by side.
The cliffs are far away from the town, too far for us to carry Keene before he bled out. We all knew this, and we knew how long it would take before death came to claim our friend. And so Milo looked at his watch, and looked at Keene, and looked back at his watch, and Charlotte stared out over the ocean, and I kept my attention on the locksmith.
It was clear he did not have the capacity for murder. He dropped the knife, crawled away from it, his mouth opening and closing in shock. The locksmith has two young sons, and I’m sure it was their faces he saw when he looked at the dying boy--because Keene was really only a boy--in front of him.
“Now,” Charlotte said, “We get rid of our stuff and go back to school.” She looked at Milo. “Make sure not to get blood anywhere, but dump it all over the edge.”
Milo, swallowing hard, picked up the pile and did as she asked. His hands shook, and as he walked back to us, he wiped his palms on his pant legs. Of the three of us, he seemed to have been the most disturbed by what had happened.
Charlotte stood. “Come on,” she said, “The longer we stay here, the greater the chance that someone finds us.”
The locksmith was afraid: afraid of himself, of what he’d done, of what could happen to him next. And so, after throwing down his knife and scuttling away, he crawled back towards Keene with his hands out, ready to help. But Keene was a good fighter, not one who went down easily. When the locksmith was too close to get away, Keene grabbed the knife and drove it into the soft, exposed side of the locksmith’s throat. He jammed the knife in over and over again, and then he stopped, set it down. He lay down on his back gently, holding onto his thigh.
I could hear him sobbing. I don’t know why he didn’t call for us. Perhaps he knew we wouldn’t have come. He died alone, slowly. And Charlotte, Milo, and I just sat, watching, until we knew he was gone.
Charlotte started into the forest, and, without any other options, Milo and I followed. We didn’t speak. She led us down the wooded hillside, into town, through the darkest back alleyways to the school. Following her lead, Milo and I crept around the side of the building to our room. She pried our window open with quick fingers and crawled inside. Milo went next. Then me. She closed the window.
“We’re not going to talk about this.” She said, sprawling herself across the unmade bed in the corner. Keene’s bed. Milo gulped, eyes darting from her to the blankets. She didn't notice. “Not even to the police. If they ask, say that Keene snuck out a lot, and sometimes you went with him, but sometimes you didn’t. Tonight was one of those nights, right?”
Milo shook his head. There was a weight on his shoulders, on his chest, that hadn’t been there earlier that night. “But we did go with him,” he said, “We watched him die.”
Charlotte sat up, “No, we didn’t. We were here. The whole time.” She looked at me, something fearsome in her eyes. “Right?”
I nodded. Where Milo looked weighed down, hunched over, by the night’s events, Charlotte looked sharper. The death had not affected her as it had Milo. It had not weakened her; it had made her stronger, fiercer.
She looked back at Milo, stood up and stepped towards him. “Right?”
His gaze was caught on Keene’s blanket, crumpled at the end of the mattress.
Taking another step towards him, Charlotte grabbed Milo’s shoulder and shook him. “Promise me,” she said, quietly, through her teeth, “That you will not say anything about going out with Keene tonight. You will say that he snuck out, and you didn’t think anything of it.” Milo finally looked up and met her eyes. His gaze was blank, but he nodded.
Charlotte let go of his arm. She stepped back, looked at me. “Make sure he doesn’t say anything.” Then she spun, hair whirling out around her shoulders, and slipped out the door.
Once she was gone, Milo collapsed. Her presence had been holding him up like puppet strings, but now the support was gone. He curled up in Keene’s bed, pulled the pillow against his chest, and cried.
I sat down next to him. Not touching him, but close enough that I could feel the warmth of skin. “You know you didn’t kill him, right? There was no way we could have saved him.”
“But we just watched him,” he hiccupped, “We watched him die.” He buried his face in the pillow. His voice was muffled. “Why couldn’t we have at least sat with him?”
I wanted to tell him that maybe we were all too scared, even Charlotte, but I realized I didn’t really know. Why hadn’t we left our hiding spots, once we knew that the locksmith was dead, and gone to sit with our friend? What force had kept us behind our trees, silent and frozen? And why didn’t Charlotte seem to care at all?