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Kevin Wood
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@KevinStphnWood
3:48 PM 10th June 2024
fiction

Little Old Lady on a Bus

 
The old lady climbed the twisted stairs to the top deck of the bus. She had to grab at the hand rail as it pulled away, but managed to attain her goal without falling. It would have been easier for her if she hadn’t been carrying a shopping bag in one hand, but what can you do?

She sat in the left-hand aisle seat with a sigh, placed her bag behind her ankles, and rearranged her respectable coat. The little blue woven hat, glasses, and tan stockings completed the picture. She was just another little old lady on her way to town.

“Truffles! Truffles!”, called a woman’s voice.

The little old lady turned on hearing this obscure exclamation. A younger woman – which from her perspective meant someone in their forties – was restraining a small nondescript terrier, which was sniffing around her shopping bag. Quickly, she shifted the bag to the seat next to her.

Dragging the animal back, the woman continued, “Truffles, you bad doggie! I’m so sorry, he’s normally so well behaved. He must have smelt something in your bag.”

“It’ll be a joint of meat, or some such”, said a man on the opposite side of the aisle. He nodded to himself, automatically convinced of the knowledge he had imparted.

“Oh no”, said Truffles owner. “No, he certainly wouldn’t do that. He’s a good little doggie.”

The man carefully did not raise his eyebrows at this obvious untruth. He considered the owner of Truffles, considered his own circumstances, and decided that friendliness might bring benefits.

He was of a similar age, hair cut close exposing the bald spot. There was no sensible way to hide that he was losing his hair, so why bother? The combination of stripped shirt open at the neck, an open anorak, and a stomach that was starting to bulge suggested the life as an office worker.

Truffles’ owner was wearing a blouse and jacket which might have been fashionable in the recent past, complemented by bobbed hair. Ten, fifteen years ago her figure must have been quite good, but now it matched a face that was starting to defeat mid-range face creams. Not that her face was displeasing; indeed, there was a hint of underlying prettiness.

“Well”, he replied, “Even the most well behaved dog would have been ‘round my bag the other day. I’d just picked up a real bargain from the market.”

“Did you, dear?”

“Yes, love. It all went straight in my freezer.”

“Freezers are so useful, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes. Just had to shift the wife’s body out the way first.”

“Your wife’s body?”

“Sorry, just a joke. Something I saw on the news the other day. Man in America killed his wife and stuck her in the freezer.”

“Oh, that’s horrible!” The sudden animation of her face suggested that horrible as the event might have been, it held her intrigued.

“I’m Margaret, by the way”, she added.

“John. Pleased to meet you.”

Indeed, John was pleased to meet her. For a single man of a certain age, finding a woman prepared to talk to you is very pleasing. Especially if they are prepared to provide a name. He tried to discreetly check her left hand for a wedding ring, but the hand still was occupied with Truffles.

The little old lady just stared out of the window, at the passing traffic. Her left arm rested on her bag.

Sensing Margaret’s interest in the macabre, John carried on the theme.

“Of course, the freezer is a stupid place to keep a body.”

“Well, seeing as how as he got found out, I suppose it must have been.”

“Oh, he was bound to get found out keeping it in there. Besides, where can you keep your food if the freezer’s already full?”

“Stick it in the gaps, I s’pose”, said Margaret. She giggled a little.

Continuing the discussion of the macabre was definitely the right move, thought John. He just needed to make friends with the dog and he’d be in with a chance.

He extended a hand. Truffles sniffed it, and gave it a lick. Thus reassured, he scratched Truffles head.

Margaret relaxed a little. Dog owners are all the same, he thought. If the dog gives its seal of approval, then you must be all right.

“You’re a grand chap, you are”, he said.

Margaret smiled a little, taking a compliment to her dog as a compliment to herself. She continued, “Still, I’m sure that Truffles would never be able to eat something that had been stored in a freezer with a dead body. No, you would have to get rid of the body.”

“Easier said than done, I would think”, said John, as Truffles gave his hand another lick.

“Oh, I’m sure there must be plenty of ways to get rid of a body”

“So how would you do it?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t ever thought about it. I’ve never had the need”, she said, waving a hand.

For John it was a moment of success. He had seen her ring finger and it was bare.

“Surely you’re not telling me you’ve never thought about getting rid of someone, you know, bumping them off?” he asked.

“Well, there was my ex-husband, but in the end it was easier to divorce him.”

John duly laughed.

Confirmation – no husband, therefore available.

Keep making a fuss of Truffles and talking about dead people.

“Didn’t you think of how you might get rid of his body?”

“I did think of just pleading momentary insanity, or whatever the technical term is, but that didn’t seem like a very good idea. They would just lock me up in a mental hospital instead of a prison – sorry, that’s supposed to be mental health unit these days, isn’t it?”

“Being locked up one place must be very like being locked up in another, I would think. But didn’t you even have one plan?”

Margaret leant forward in a conspiratorial fashion. John leant forward until their heads were less than a foot apart. She didn’t retreat.

“I thought that perhaps if I put him in the bath, and chopped him up, then I could feed him to Truffles.”

“Good plan”.

“It wouldn’t have worked, though. Truffles never liked him. I’m sure that if I’d tried to feed him to Truffles that he would just have plain refused to eat. He’s very particular, is Truffles”.

“Besides”, she added, petting the dog fondly, “Truffles is not a big dog, and he’d never be able to eat an entire body before it went off.”

The little old lady shifted in her seat, possibly to move her bag further from a dog, who would no doubt take advantage of his mistress’ lack of attention if given the chance.

“Mind you”, said John, “It seems there’s a problem with your idea.”

“What’s that?” asked Margaret.

“I used to do some work for a charity, giving advice on wills, helping out with the form filling when someone dies and things like that”, replied John.

It was true. He had had done work for a charity, but it was necessary to put things in perspective. From his point of view, “Used to do charity work” meant he was a caring person, prepared to help others out. A positive. On the other hand, to say “I work for a charity” would mean that he was either unable to get work elsewhere, or hyper-committed to the cause. John felt that charity work in the past tense was a positive with Margaret, but the present tense would mean a lack of financial security.

She immediately confirmed his evaluation.

“Oh, that was very good of you”

John shrugged in what he thought was a self-deprecatory manner. “There’s a problem if there’s no body.”

“A problem for the police, I suppose. It must be a lot harder to prove a murder without a body.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. Well”, amended John, “Not quite. No. Without a body, it’s very hard to prove someone’s dead. I mean, they might just have walked out on their wife, or taken off with a lover, or even lost their marbles and wandered off into the night.”

“Yes, but why is that a problem? If the police don’t think there’s been a murder, then it must be a lot easier to get away with it.”

“Because if there’s no body, you can’t prove they’re dead, and if you can’t prove they’re dead, then you can’t claim on insurance, for example.”

“Do you know, I never thought of that? Isn’t there some limit or something, you know, if they haven’t been found after a bit, then they’re assumed to be dead?”

“Seven years”, said John.

“Seven years? Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t feed Donald to Truffles, then.”

“Oh yes, and besides, think of all the weight that Truffles would have put on.”

Margaret giggled again.

The little old lady shuffled on her seat, attempting to turn her back further to the couple. John nudged Margaret, nodded in the little old lady’s direction, and grinned. He was rewarded with another giggle.

“Seven years is a long time to wait for your insurance, though”, said Margaret, trying to keep her face straight.

“Particularly if the person you just got rid of is the main wage earner, and the bills are piling up. One of the things I had to deal with, all too often.”

“So you need to keep hold of the body.”

They both jerked slightly as the bus stopped a little too quickly.

“And there is the real problem. You’ve just killed the person, and you’ve got to keep hold of the body if you want the insurance”, said John.

“But”, continued Margaret for him, “If you’ve kept the body, then they might notice that you murdered them.”

“Big bullet hole in the head, that kind of thing?”

They both automatically braced as the bus pulled away. John momentarily considered the ruse of “accidentally” falling against Margaret as the bus pulled out into traffic, but quickly forgot about it. That was strictly for schoolboys, and they were both well past that stage now. An opportunity would present itself.

“If we worked out how the person had been killed – oh, let’s say him shall we? I always get tied up with this political correctness stuff.”

“I know what you mean”, agreed John.

“Alright, so if we know how he was killed, then we can work out how to keep the body and make it look like an accident, or something.”

“Ok, well, I think we need to rule out guns. It’s hard to hide the cause of death. And no one seriously believes the gun-cleaning accident story.”

“Especially if there’s a large insurance payout attached. So how about poison?”

“Poison?”

“Well, it is supposed to be a woman’s choice of murder weapon, and if we’re calling the victim ‘He’, we may as well call the murderer ‘She’”

“Murderess”, said Margaret. “But what poison to use?”

“Something that would look accidental. I don’t know, warfarin, perhaps?”

“That’s the thing they give to stroke victims, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Thins the blood, or something. They also use it in rat poison.”

“Why not just use rat poison, then? Anyway I would have thought they’d be pretty careful with stuff like prescription drugs – making sure you don’t have too much of it.”

“I don’t know how many people use rat poison, these days”
“Plenty of farms, I’m sure. And if you’re on a farm, you’ve got all kind of useful things available to you. As a murderess, that is.”

There was an obvious problem with rat poison – or any kind of poison, as John pointed out, “The forensics would be awkward. I mean, there you are on a farm, you’ve just given your husband a mutton curry laced with rat poison...”

“...And the forensics people might just notice?”

“Exactly. Blood tests, stomach contents...”

“How like them. And it would be such a convenient way to kill someone.”

“That might be why they do it.”

Margaret sat tapping her chin with a forefinger, in a manner that John thought rather sweet.

“I know”, she said after a few seconds, “How about substituting another body?”

John had to admit, it was a novel approach, murdering a second person to cover up the murder of the first.

“And how would you do that? Bodies don’t grow on trees, you know”

He smiled a little as he said this, to show it was only a friendly joke.

“I’m sure one could be found, if you tried hard enough.”

“So you’re suggesting killing both, one with rat poison, and one by some other means?”

“You couldn’t really use rat poison a second time, could you? You’d be right back to square one.”

“Yeah, I can see that, Well, it’s a farm, so they’ll have a shotgun for the bunnies. Shotgun in the mouth, very simple, very permanent.”

“Don’t be silly! How would you get them to open their mouth? Anyway, I thought that we’d decided guns were out.”

“That was before we’d realised we were short of a body. Besides, it’s easy to get someone to put the end of a shotgun in their mouth, Just say, open up, or I’ll shoot you.”

“That would be a little unfair, don’t you think? After they’d opened their mouth for you?”

“The mess is a problem, too”, said John. “But you’d still have to get hold of a volunteer. People like tramps aren’t as easy to find as you might think, especially one who was more or less the right size.”

“And relatively vermin free”, added Margaret, with careless prejudice. “Well, how about a twin?”

“A twin?”

“Well why not? Plenty of people have twins, and if you’ve already got a farm, rat poison, and a corpse, why not a twin as well?”

John had to concede this was a reasonable point. “Still have to worry about the identification, I suppose.”

“Police like to know who the body is”, she agreed.

“They probably get very upset if they’re not sure.”

“Fingerprints! The police can take the fingerprints!”

“Oh no, even twins have different fingerprints. It’s the DNA that’s identical,”

“Simple answer, then. Chop the hands off.”

“Won’t even the slowest policeman would notice that the person has no hands?” asked John.

Reluctantly, Margaret had to agree. They mulled the problem for a moment, then John’s face lit up.

“How about the person died in such a way as to leave them without certain bits of their body? Like we were saying about how a farm would have plenty of ways to get rid of a body? I’m sure that they have plenty of equipment that’ll chop you up if you’re not careful.”

“Oh, yes”, said Margaret, clapping her hands together. “When I was a little girl, my mother used to go fruit picking on a farm each year. It brought in enough extra money to see us on holiday. Anyway, one year, one of the farm workers, the regular ones, not seasonal like mother, he tripped and ended up with his hands in some kind of baling machine. Chopped them off almost to the elbows.”

“Did they sew them back on again?”

“There wasn’t enough to sew back together. Mother tried to keep me away, but I was only four, so of course I had to go and have a look.”

“Did he live?”

“He was lucky. It could have been his head in there too.”

“Promising, promising. So the twin takes care of the DNA, and the baling machine takes care of the finger prints.”

“And the head?”

“Put that in too.”

“Dental work?”

“What?” asked John.

“You’ve got a suitable body, killed by asking them to open their mouth so you can pop in a shotgun. With the baling machine, you’ve got rid of their fingerprints. You’ve done the baling machine on the head, to hide the cause of death. The police will now gather up the pieces of skull, and check the dental work, to make sure that it is the right person.”

“The police are very tedious”, said John.

“Ah! No! Suppose that you still had access to the first body, but that it just wasn’t suitable for public presentation”, came back Margaret.

“I don’t understand”, said John.

“The murderess has poisoned her husband. She’s hidden the body, anywhere you like, weighted down with rocks in a pond, say. Swap the heads over when the twin shows up to inspect the baling machine.”

“No, I can’t see that working”, said John, shaking his head. “The police will easily guess that a head that has been stored under water for a while will not belong to a body that has just fallen into a baling machine. It’d be all manky for a start.”

“Not a problem. The weather we’ve had this year, fish would clean the skull off pretty quick.”

“But then they would notice that the skull was clean. That is not normal on a freshly baled body.”

“Pork”, said Margaret.

“Pork?”

“Pork. Drop some pork and pig brains into the baler as well as the skull, and by the time it comes out the other end, no one will tell the difference. Pig flesh is almost identical to human flesh. As long as it weighs about the right amount, the police won’t bother looking too closely.”

“You’re good at this”, conceded John.

Margaret blushed with pleasure, and continued, “So now you just have to work out what to do with the spare head.”

“Spare head?”

“Sure. You’ve taken the head off the twin, you’ve got to do something with it.”

“Can’t you just put it where you got the other one from?”

“Would you want people to wonder why you kept splashing around in the middle of a river? ‘Specially now the weather’s turning.”

“Tickets please, tickets please”, called the Conductor, coming up the stairs.

The little old lady smiled sweetly and showed her bus pass.

The Conductor nodded in a friendly fashion and moved on. John and Margaret dutifully displayed their tickets.

“It’s a problem, you must admit”, continued Margaret.

“Yes... Ah! Wait a minute!”

“You’ve got an idea?”

“Just one moment. Excuse me!” John called to the conductor.

“Yes, Sir?”

“If you had to dispose of a person’s head, how would you do it?”

“Oh, now let me think, Sir”, said Conductor. “That’s not a question I’m asked every day. Price of a single to the shopping centre, yes, all the time. Disposal of heads...”

“Well, I just thought I’d ask.”

“Don’t you worry, Sir. It’s more interesting that memorising time tables. Hmm. Yes. You know what I’d do, Sir?”

“What’s that?”

“Put it in a bin.”

“Oh, yeah, I can see that working. No one would ever find it there!”

“Please yourself, Sir, but we’re just coming to the shopping centre now. And every Wednesday at this time, you will see the council garbage truck parked at the bus stop, taking our place.”

“So?”

“So they go in and empty all the bins. Takes them an hour to do half an hour’s job, then you know what they do next?”

“Go on.”

“They take it to the council incinerator. Straight there, no stops on the way.”

“So if you dropped a head in the bin, it would be incinerated straight after?”

The conductor held out a hand, palm down, and waggled it side to side. “Probably two hours later, the way those buggers work, but yes.”

The little old lady looked up.

“Excuse me, can I just get past? This is my stop.”

“Of course, madam. Do you need a hand?”

“Oh, no, love. I’ll be fine.”

“Take my advice and wait for the bus to stop before using the stairs. Had someone almost come a nasty cropper last week.”

“Oh, but I’m not so fast, I don’t want to miss the stop.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure the driver waits for you.”

“Oh, thank you love.”

“This is my stop too”, said Margaret, looking a little sadly at John.

“I’m getting off here as well”, he replied, having made a rapid adjustment to his day’s schedule.

“Are you?”

“Oh yes, Do fancy a coffee? There’s a dog-friendly cafe towards the back of the centre.”

“I’m sure that Truffles would love that.”

The conductor made his way downstairs, as the little old lady waited obediently at the top of the stairs, clutching he bag. Soon, the bus juddered to a halt, at an angle behind the council garbage truck. She waved John and Margaret head of her. It was only politeness that caused John to offer Margaret his hand during the perilous descent, and somehow it didn’t seem necessary to let go after they got off the bus. The little old lady descended more slowly.

Climbing out of the bus, the little old lady thanked the driver, and walked into the shopping centre. She saw the newly enamoured couple heading deeper inside, and sniffed to herself. The council workers were slowly emptying the litter bins; she was just in time. She took the black plastic bag containing her brother-in-law’s head from her shopping bag, and the bin collector waited a few moments for her to drop it in with the litter.

“Thank you, love”

“No problem dear.”

She went into the café near the entrance – a definitely not dog friendly establishment - and bought a cup of weak tea. She sipped at it while watching the last bins emptied into the garbage truck.

She didn’t regret poisoning her husband, not one bit. It was a pity that she hadn’t realised about the seven year thing before he was legally dead. Fortunately, she had read the terms and conditions of the insurance policy before reporting him missing. She would have had a hard time getting through seven years on the farm by herself. It was a stroke of luck, really, that his twin brother had turned up. His brother had faded from sight years ago, joining a series of way-out communes, one after another. He’d just turned up on his way between one group of losers and the next. He was still living in the sixties, and telling everyone who would stand still that “if you can remember them, you weren’t there”. Of course, he’d only visited to scrounge money.

Still, he’d been very cooperative when she’d pointed the shotgun at him. Walked straight into the barn, and stood beside the baling machine. And conveniently opened his mouth for her. The only tricky bit had been the substitution of heads. Dental records were so irritating. Anyway that was taken care of now.

Just as she was finishing the cup, the workers ambled slowly back to the lorry, and drove off to the incinerator.

That meant that the only way to tell whose corpse it was would be DNA, and as identical twins have identical DNA, no one would know that it was her brother-in-law, not her husband in the barn.

Margaret held open the door of her modest, two bedroomed red brick semi-detached house for John. He smiled as Truffles rushed inside, and followed him in. As Margaret closed the door, she reflected how lucky she was to have found John. After all, Truffles was such a hungry little fellow, and dog food was so expensive.