John and Sara were having a party at their house in the middle of nowhere, or rather down a country lane distant enough from the nearest towns that you could look to the horizon and see no other signs of life. Apart from the wind turbines. ‘Face it’ said Abbie, the new arrival to their friend group that night, ‘you can’t live the good life in 2021. The world’s too small today.’
John smiled and refreshed her wine glass. ‘You’re right’ he said, ‘but we don’t have to hear the neighbours fucking, and that’s good enough for us.’ Abbie laughed and swilled the vintage red she’d been served. It pained John a little to see such a rare vintage be chucked back like Coca-Cola, but he reminded himself that the wine circle he and Sara were hosting wasn’t strictly for oenophiles. Abbie swaggered out of the kitchen and onto the porch, where the barbecue gave its smoke to the night sky and the other guests (three in total) lounged about on deck chairs.
Watching Abbie as she flirted with Rob, one of John’s peers in investment banking, Sara pulled a newspaper from a drawer. Turning to a page, she read softly to her husband. ‘JUDGE SAYS KILLER’S WIFE WILL NOT BE NAMED’ ran the headline. ‘A judge has ruled that convicted murderer Ian Christie’s wife will be granted indefinite anonymity once released from prison. She is currently nearing the end of a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence after she was convicted for lying to investigators about where Christie was on the night that Sally and Shauna Becket, 13-year-old twins, disappeared. Now infamous in her home town, where she was reportedly a dinner-lady at the girls’ school, she will need to be given a protection order on release, entitling her to a new name and placement within a different community. She maintained throughout her trial for perjury that she only aided her husband out of fear of what he might do to her.’
‘You want this for the scrapbook?’ said John. ‘Normally we have a picture.’
‘Obviously that’s not going to be possible in this case.’
‘Unless...’ He took his phone from his pocket and strode outside. Sara quickly put the paper back and followed him. ‘Why don’t we get a picture?’ he announced to the group.
Abbie seemed hesitant. ‘I don’t know... I don’t like being on camera. What’s it for?’
‘Just for us!’ he said. Everyone stood and got into place with Sara’s gentle guidance. John stood in the middle of the group, held the phone at arm’s length, and snapped a picture. ‘Alright you reprobates!’ he said, ‘let’s get inside for the tasting. Me and Sara’ll sort out the barbie.’
The group filed inside. John looked at the pic. Abbie had buried her face in Rob’s shoulder, so that only her dirty blonde hair, jacket, and jeans could be seen, all in profile. John looked crestfallen. Sara chuckled and went to extinguish the barbecue. ‘This woman convinced a jury that she lied out of fear, John. Did you really expect her to be that daft?’ She scraped bones into a bin and collected the plates. ‘Perhaps we can get a snap of her after the tasting.’
The dusty bottle in question sat in the centre of the round table, in the living room. Sara noticed that Abbie kept moistening her lips. She’d even diverted her energies from pursuing Rob, for which the expensively dressed and tanned cityboy seemed grateful. Abbie, Sara had observed on first meeting her, had the alcoholic’s blush: cheeks bruised red by burst capillaries. She was forty-two, a model in her youth. (One of the souvenirs that the wine circle had found was a piece of cardboard from which bags of roasted nuts were suspended, displayed in pubs. The more bags were sold, the more of Mrs Christie you got to see.)
John explained the vintage that they were all about to try. Abbie didn’t seem to care much for the lecture on grapes and vineyards, how the French propaganda machine meant that wines from that country were overrated, and in fact tonight’s bottle had come from Germany. ‘As our new guest’ he concluded, addressing Abbie, ‘you get the first taste.’ He poured her a generous helping. Everyone leaned forward as she brought it to her lips. Poor thing, one of them would later remark, she actually thought that we were interested in her opinion.
A crescent moon was pinned above the house, and a photographer could have made quite a charming print of the image. The country cottage with roses-‘round-the-door, stars in the sky like falling flakes in a snow globe. Sara thought how perfect it was, so far removed from that ugly office block that she and John had been forced by circumstance to use when last it was their turn. The vintage was perfect, too, to a point where it was almost a shame to fill it with cyanide and slop it out for this vile bitch. Abbie sniffed the wine and said ‘mmmm, almonds...’ One or two of the other guests looked at each other and repressed smiles. Then she gulped it down.
The truly gluttonous amount she sloshed down her throat meant that the effects were, perhaps, a touch more rapid than usual. If she’d failed to excite Paul with her fading forty-something charms out on the patio, she was having no trouble now, as she clutched at her throat and the whites of her eyes announced themselves. Suddenly she hurled up the barbecue meat she’d had for dinner, all over her neighbour’s dress. ‘Ugh! You dirty slut!’ cried the offended woman, shooting up and grabbing for a box of tissues.
Sara and a couple of the others burst out laughing. By now Abbie was kneeling on the floor, rocking violently back and forth as if to dislodge something in her windpipe. Chance delivered the coup de grace. She attempted to stand, staggered bow-legged, then fell and smacked her head on the side of the table. It bounced off and a blood spray hit John as he sprung to protect the bottle. ‘Is she dead?’ said Rob.
‘What do you think?’ said John.
‘You can’t always tell.’
Sara rolled her eyes, picked her up by her hair, and smashed the head again against the table. What even an untrained eye would suspect was cranial fluid leaked out of the dent below Abbie’s bloody, matted locks. The group looked at Sara. ‘There’ she said, ‘we gave her a quicker fucking end than those girls probably got.’
She was about to let go of the hair when John said ‘wait! Let me get the Polaroid!’
The article revealing Mrs Laila Christie’s (or Ms Abigail Breslin’s) protection order was cut out and pasted into the scrapbook, alongside the photograph of her dead body. The scrapbook bore the legend ‘best enjoyed with friends’, beside a bottle of vintage red and some grapes. It was John and Sara’s year to keep the scrapbook and the box of souvenirs, given that it was their year to host the murder, and they duly locked them away in a box in the cellar. Five of the ten-strong circle were absent that night, their task having been to facilitate Mrs Christie’s execution behind the scenes. The circle’s number included an MP, a high-ranking social worker who specialised in rehabilitation (and whose “find” Mrs Christie was), and, of course, a millionaire wine merchant whose wife was an expert in poisons.
The body was stripped (‘they’ll do for the charity shops’ said Sara, stuffing clothes into a bin bag), then rolled in a carpet and tossed on a bonfire in the back garden. The five jolly killers and oenophiles gathered around their latest sacrifice to Justice (or their conception of that goddess, at least) before eventually going their separate ways.
‘I think we did alright tonight’ said John as he climbed into bed, sans all but his boxer shorts. The smoky stench still drifted through the bedroom window, an incense in a honeymoon boudoir. Sara put down her Reader’s Digest and moved to turn off the light. John caught her wrist and grinned as he shimmied on top of her. ‘Leave it on’ he said, ‘I want to see every inch of you tonight.’
‘Talking of inches...’ Sara grinned and pulled at the waistband of his boxers, exposing him fully to the moonlight. He tugged at her bra. ‘I would say tear it off like an animal, but I spent a bit of money on this’ she remarked after a good five minutes of him struggling with it, and the two of them collapsed into helpless laughter. Humour can be good for a marriage. Good humour, good friends, and good wine.