The Blockage - Ian Cowmeadow
Fine drops of rain bloomed on the van’s windscreen. The engine clicked as the heat drifted from it and Shelly Wrench was beginning to feel the cold. Across the street, a strip light flickered behind a frosted window in the police station. Shelly lifted a corner of the oily rag in her lap and took another look at the severed finger and the lopped ear. They lay in the folds of the rag; a deathly off-white, with skin ruched around a gold band on the finger, the ear like a puddle of candle wax.
She could do the right thing. Take them in and drop them on the counter, fill out forms, explain how she came to have them. But maybe she had already done the wrong thing. Everybody knows that you should never interfere with a crime scene and you should certainly not go wrapping the main exhibits in a bit of cloth and driving off with them.
Perhaps from the very beginning, Shelly had known what she was going to do. She had probably made her decision right at the point where she nearly banged her head on the underside of the sink – the point where she nearly blurted out to Mrs. Henley what she had found.
‘What? What did you say?’
‘Nothing Mrs. Henley, just twisted my neck a little.’
‘That must be a bit of a hazard in your line.’
‘What was that?’
‘I was saying, these little spaces you have to crawl into where they stuff all the guts as it were – the pipes and so on.’
‘Oh. Oh, yes, I have to be a bit of a contortionist really.’
When she eventually emerged from under the sink, Shelly made play of wiping her hands on an oily cloth while conjuring her finds into it. She put the bundle into her boiler suit pocket.
‘I’ve sealed the pipe for now, but you won’t be able to use the sink just yet. I need to get a couple of parts, so I’ll finish it tomorrow morning if that’s OK.’
‘It will have to be, I suppose.’
What would happen if Shelly took her grim little package over the road? Would they get on the case straight away, or would they sit her for hours in a bare interview room, popping in occasionally to bark leading questions at her.
She remembered what she had nearly called out from under the sink.
‘Look what I found!’
Along with a gag of revulsion as the fleshy blockages slurped from their lodgement in the pipe, she had experienced a giddy thrill as if she had hit upon treasure. She didn’t call out – not because she had stopped to consider how the things had got there and what that might say about Mrs. Henley – but because on some instinctive level she had realized that there was something in this for her.
Shelly dropped the folds of rag back over the offcuts and put the package in the glove box. She had already developed a technique for handling the bundle with a minimal grip so as not to feel the gristly lumps within. Firing the ignition, she turned on the wipers and pulled away from her slot opposite the police station.
The next morning, Shelly ambled her van along the quiet street admiring what she could see of the houses behind their hedges and fancy iron gates. They dated from the 1930s and were arranged in semi-detached pairs, each slightly different in detail but all in the style of oversized cottages with beams and steeply pitched roofs. There was plenty of money around those parts.
The only plumbing she really needed to do under Mrs. Henley’s sink that morning was to fit a wider bore pipe and check the external drains. Less than an hour really, but she would stall as much as she could – perhaps a visit to the loo – so she could snoop around the house a little, just to get a better idea of who she was dealing with.
Shelly preferred to think of her plan as simple negotiation rather than anything as aggressive as blackmail. Essentially, she had information that she imagined her client would rather keep from the long ears of the law. It seemed likely that human parts would not have found their way into Mrs. Henley’s waste pipes without her knowledge. Unless she had been unlucky enough to buy a shoddily prepared ready meal from the supermarket, those bits belonged to someone known to Mrs. Henley.
By the time her threadbare tyres were gently compacting the gravel on Mrs. Henley’s drive, Shelly had come up with a figure that she considered quite reasonable. It was in the mid-tens of thousands, an amount that would not be likely to bankrupt her client but would be a solid base for her to reinvent herself; to escape a life of rummaging around U-bends and pulling hairballs from plugs. There would be just the one demand because Shelly wasn’t vindictive and, in any case, the thing that she supposed must scupper most common blackmailers was the repeated contact with a victim kept on a hook.
As she hauled herself out of the van and swung the door back with enough force to make it stay closed, a man appeared on Mrs. Henley’s porch.
Colin was turning a sleek mobile over in his pocket wondering what to do with it, when he noticed the battered van on the driveway. Surely that wasn’t her real name on the side of it?
A short woman with hair the colour of stripped pine tied up in a messy hybrid of bun and ponytail was coming towards him, her steps on the gravel made heavy by the weight of the canvas bag she was carrying. Despite her lack of height, she looked bulky, though that may have just been an effect of the green, multipocketed boiler suit.
‘Mr. Henley, I presume?’
For an instant, Colin was wrong-footed. In a way, he was Mr. Henley now.
‘No,’ he stumbled, ‘no, I’m just the neighbour. Just popped round about something. Is Victoria expecting you?’
‘Mrs. Henley? She is – a bit of a blockage she needs sorting.’
‘Oh, I see. Well, good luck.’
Colin walked off without looking back, hearing the muted chime of the doorbell as he went. He turned out of Mrs. Henley’s gate and walked a few yards alongside the high privet before turning into his own half of the semi-detached villas.
He would have to keep hold of the phone for a while at least. If it came to it, he had no doubt that they could trace what part of the country the text messages to Victoria had really been sent from. But any road wider than a dirt track would be bristling with cameras, so a drive down to Hampshire wouldn’t go unnoticed either. It was swings and roundabouts really, and if he managed the story well enough no one would think to dig that deep anyway.
Meanwhile, there was something nagging him about this lady plumber.
Shelly was about to flush the toilet, just to confirm her whereabouts in the house when she realized it would be better to leave that until she was ready to go back downstairs. Mrs. Henley seemed in buoyant mood, even making Shelly a cup of tea, which she hadn’t done the day before. She could be heard humming a tune while the cups clinked into their saucers. It must have taken a lot of faith in that waste disposal unit of hers to be so relaxed. To be fair, though, one finger and an ear remaining unshredded out of a whole, presumably diced, corpse wasn’t bad.
Apart from the toilet, there were other rooms with doors onto the landing, which was itself large enough for a substantial bookcase. A rapid survey identified a master bedroom and a study. It was a toss-up which room would be most revealing in the short time Shelly had to get an impression of the woman downstairs. She chose the master bedroom.
It was a wide, bright space with windows looking out over the drive and sparingly furnished. A built-in wardrobe, dressing table and plain king-size bedstead were all finished in a pale green stained wood and against the wall between the two large windows was an antique writing bureau. The bed was unmade and appeared to have been used to its full extent with all the pillows dented and the lemon yellow duvet sloughed almost completely to the floor.
Tentatively, she started to slide open the wardrobe door and made enough of a gap to dimly see a rail of jackets and dresses. It didn’t feel right, though, the snooping, and she quickly closed the door again. Looking round, she realized that she didn’t have the stomach for a thorough sift of the room, especially without a definite object in mind. Maybe just a quick rummage in the bureau would be enough.
As she folded down the front slope, she could see compartments neatly filled with letters and paperwork. A small photograph in an ebony frame fell from one of the internal shelves and clunked onto the inlaid leather writing surface. The noise made Shelly stiffen up and listen intently. She could hear a kettle clicking off downstairs.
The picture showed Mrs. Henley smiling in the embrace of a slightly built, casually dapper man. Both were wearing light summer clothes and they appeared to be posing on the pontoon of a marina, with sleek yachts moored up behind them. Shelly peered at the man’s hands. It didn’t surprise her that much to find that he was wearing a gold band on one finger.
The man at the door, the bed, the jolly tune, the waste disposed of – it all made sense to Shelly.
Mrs. Henley was feeling a little uncomfortable watching the lady plumber sip from her cup as she leaned against the sink, raising the familiar logo of What Yacht magazine to her face. Perhaps there was something subliminal going on and it was the cup’s association that had led Mrs. Henley to mention Marcus’s plans for their kitchen, so finding herself in a conversation about her husband straight after an intense, almost magical night with her lover. By the same token, it must have been her imagination that made it seem as if the plumber herself was finding the subject awkward.
‘So… he’s away at the moment, you said? What does he do?’
‘Oh, he’s a lawyer. Does stuff for banks and big companies – dull money stuff. But he’s down in Hampshire right now playing at sailors. Honestly, he’s like a cat or something; goes out that door and I might not see him for days. But he always turns up sooner or later, looking for food and home comforts.’
‘That – sorry to seem rude – that must be a bit annoying.’
‘Twelve years married, so I’m pretty much used to it now. It’s quite endearing really and I have plenty of stuff to be getting on with on my own.’
‘Very understanding of you. He’d feel the rough end of my ring spanner if it were me.’
Mrs. Henley smiled and chuckled and sipped her tea.
‘I think he’d probably run off for good if I started brandishing heavy objects at him.’
‘Be easier, though … in a way. Wouldn’t it?’
Mrs. Henley stared at the woman by the sink. It occurred to her that the plumber was a little like a doctor. There was no hiding from her, no choice but to expose those parts of the home that were not for public show – the necessary conduits of all that we want to flush away out of our daily lives for someone else to deal with.
‘Sorry, that was far too intrusive of me.’ Said the plumber.
‘No, not at all. Of course, the idea occurs and it does no harm to sometimes think about what it would actually mean. But, you know what? I’d miss him.’
It may have been irrational, but DIY and maintenance annoyed him. He much preferred the things in his life to be ready for use and to stay that way. When things went wrong, he took it as personally as he would take being deliberately tripped over in the street. But Colin knew that wasn’t why he was feeling jittery about the plumber next door.
He stood in his kitchen filling a saucepan with warm water. When it was full, he tipped the contents down the waste disposal recess next to the sink and watched as the water gurgled away without any problem. It was something he’d done at least fifty times in a blind panic the other night. The first two or three had left a stubborn pool of water that had taken its time to disappear. After about the tenth go, the unit cleared quickly, but he had carried on tipping and tipping in a combination of ritualistic purging and raw anger at his own stupidity.
He really should have just taken those things out to the country somewhere and slung them in a wood for the foxes or crows to gobble up. But no, cleaning up his kitchen floor like a maniac, and he has to treat those bits as if they were something off a dinner plate and shove them down the waste disposal.
Colin put the saucepan back on its hook and went upstairs to the loft room where he knew he could get a view over his neighbour’s front garden. Craning his neck through the Velux window, he could see across the high dividing hedge and onto Victoria’s lawn and gravel parking area. The battered van was still there and the plumber herself seemed to be on her knees close to the house. She had her rear in the air and her face to the ground, like a pope kissing a runway, and she was rummaging in an inspection cover that Colin had never noticed before.
Shelly peered into the inspection cover and found herself thinking the plumber’s mantra – some cowboy had been at this pipe work and it would need someone who knew what they were doing to sort it out. The wastewater pipes from each house had been clumsily stuffed together into a junction at the head of the outlet leading eventually to the main sewer. If a blockage choked that main outflow, then debris would be forced back up Mrs. Henley’s pipes every time her neighbour put too much volume down his own plughole, and vice versa.
It was clear to Shelly now where the body bits had come from and a change of plan was called for. Mrs. Henley obviously knew nothing about it, and that finger and that ear were the mortal leftovers of her life companion. If the cause of the blockage in the main outlet was not a plug of dead leaves or a drowned rat, then there might even be more of Mr. Henley to be recovered. The poor woman had a right to know that there were physical remains so that she could focus her grief and achieve what Shelly believed was called ‘closure’. It didn’t seem like much comfort for such a loss, but people always said that was what the bereaved needed more than anything.
Reaching into the confined space with her adjustable wrench, Shelly grunted and grimaced as she disconnected the neighbour’s kitchen outflow pipe. A gush of warm water washed over her hands. She took the bundle of oily rag from her pocket and unraveled it. After initial hesitation, she decided that it would be best to work quickly and get it over with. She picked up the finger and shivered at the initial sensation of living touch on cold, dead flesh.
Holding her breath and working by feel alone she stuffed the finger back into the neighbour’s outflow pipe, pushing it far up the bore with a bendy rod, before reconnecting the pipe to the junction. She put the oily rag containing the ear back in her canvas bag along with her tools and replaced the inspection cover.
In a way, Shelly felt the situation had changed for the better. She would be able to have a hand in Mrs. Henley coming to terms with her loss, she would be able to wreak a kind of vengeance on a murderer, and she could get something for herself out of a mess that was not of her own making. As for whatever continued to block the main outlet – be it rat or be it husband – that would be for someone else to sort out.
The utility room was always chilly, whatever the weather, and had a permanent background odour of damp laundry. It was also a place where sound from the rest of the house was deadened, so Colin had to strain his ears as he closed the lid of the chest freezer. That was definitely the front door bell.
Remembering what panic had made him do on the night of the big clean-up, he made an effort to stay calm. He had only got flustered then because the idiot turned his head at the last minute and stuck up his hand straight into the perfect arc of Colin’s swing, making the whole thing more unpleasant than it needed to be. Still, it was done now, and that thing in the freezer would have to go as soon as possible.
When he heard the bell again, he walked softly into the hallway and kept his eyes on the shape shifting behind the dimpled glass door panels, where irregular splotches of green formed an uncertain human outline. He just knew that plumber was going to be trouble. Bracing himself, he strode the last four steps to the door and yanked it open. The plumber seemed unfazed, holding what looked like an oily rag out for him to see. Colin took a step back.
‘Look what I found,’ she said.
Of course, he was right – cash was the only anonymous way and it seemed reasonable that it would take three days to arrange a withdrawal like that. All the same, Shelly was not comfortable parked up there on the waste ground by the quarry, but she also knew that her suggestion of the retail park would put them under the watch of a hundred beady cameras.
The fact that he was already half an hour late wasn’t helping and then there were those texts she’d been getting for the past couple of days. ‘Thx for last night’, ‘UR my plumber’s m8’ etc. She had tried phoning the number, ready to unleash a stream of industrial curses, but there was never any answer. It was probably some troll who’d picked up her details from the side of the van. Maybe she should take them off – a phone pest was bad enough, but her address was on there as well.
Surely he wouldn’t back out now. He knew she had the evidence to put him away, so what was he playing at? Maybe he thought she wouldn’t carry out the threat. A blackmailer wasn’t likely to get much more sympathy from the police than a murderer. But he must know that she would play the innocent who had just happened across the terrible crime and, anyway, her getting done for extortion wouldn’t keep him from a life inside. She’d give it another half an hour and, if he didn’t show, go home and get her story straight for the police.
The interview room really was bare – a table, chairs, a frosted window and a single strip light. The detective looked up at her from a sheaf of papers. Shelly was still in shock at what she’d found on her living room floor and, when the police arrived in numbers only ten minutes after she had got home, she knew she’d been stitched up.
‘Not much of a plumber’s m 8 to the poor sucker, were you?’
‘Never met him. Know nothing about him. Why don’t you ask that neighbour of theirs?’
‘We have. Says he saw you round the Henley’s about three days ago.’
‘It was a job. I never met the husband – he was down on the coast according to his wife.’
‘Yet he’s lying there on your floor with his head stoved in, there’s a vicious-looking axe in your broom cupboard, his missus tells us that’s his number sending you saucy texts and you’ve got his ear in your tool bag, for god’s sake. How sick is that?’
The detective had leaned forward, intimidating her with an exaggerated expression combining distaste and incomprehension.
‘And what the hell have you done with his finger?’
Ian Cowmeadow is a short story writer and blogger based in East London. If you enjoyed this tale, watch out for more in the pipeline as he is currently working on a collection of Shelly Wrench stories.