The electronic clock beeped softly under Steven’s pillow. It was five-thirty in the morning. Still in his pajamas, Steven quietly opened the door and stepped out. The air was nippy and birds were chirping softly. The corridor was dark and Steven saw no signs of any activity. He returned to his room, taking care not to awaken his wife, who was gently snoring in the far corner of the bed.
Steven was familiar with Nancy’s sleeping habits – even a herd of stampeding bisons couldn’t wake her up at that hour. He quietly wore his shorts, sweat-shirt and sneakers, then wrote a note for her to say he will be gone awhile on a walk. It was around 6 am and the morning was getting brighter in Rockland as Steven walked out of The Citadel.
He returned a little before ten o’clock. Nancy was still asleep. He tore up his note and went up to her, then planted a kiss on her cheek and stroked her hair. Nancy stirred slightly and took Steven’s hand. She whispered in a groggy tone ‘What time is it, honey?’
‘Nan, it is almost ten, time to get up, baby. Let us eat breakfast and go to Devil’s Rock. You do not want to remain cooped up in the Hotel all day, do you?’
Nancy yawned. ‘Devil’s Rock? What a strange name!’
Steven laughed. ‘Devil’s Rock is about two kilometers from here and is a wooded cliff. The rock is actually 400 feet below the cliff. The tall trees and the entwining creepers are absolutely fantastic. You will love it, sweetie.’
‘You really are going gaga over this place, Mr. Armstrong!’
‘I haven’t seen another place in my life as stunning as this. Besides, it is a wonderful place to satisfy your sketch-itch. Not a soul ever seems to go there. It is a perfectly private get-away I chanced upon during my last visit.’
‘Alright, give me half an hour, or thereabouts. Can you take out something suitable for me to wear, sweetheart?’
Nancy disappeared into the bathroom.
Steven gathered Nancy’s beige shorts, bright maroon shirt, inner wear, scarf, maroon socks and white sneakers. ‘She always looks good in these’ he thought to himself.
As Nancy dressed, he made light conversation on what they need to carry in their backpack on the trek – binoculars, camera, water, some fruit and so on. Nancy reminded Steven to pack her sketchbook and a few charcoal pencils. They ate a light breakfast.
A brisk 30-minute walk on a dirt track, bereft of any signage, brought Nancy and Steven to Devil’s Rock. As Steven had predicted, the place was free of any human presence. Little birds flitted in and out of trees, making a myriad sounds. The only animal life they spotted was a troop of black-faced monkeys. An overhang of rock offered a panorama of the forested chasm below Rockland. ‘Oh, my God, it really is so breath-taking!’ exclaimed Nancy.
‘Didn’t I tell you?’
‘I am so happy, Steve. Feels like when we were courting. Do not leave me ever, please. I can’t switch loyalties easily.’
‘Don’t I know it, Nan? I do not want to leave you, either. Quit worrying.’
As Steve busied himself with his binoculars, Nancy wandered off to sketch the enchanting views of Devils’ Rock from various perspectives. She then went down a narrow path to a ledge below. Looking up at Steven, she called out ‘Hey, handsome! Let me draw you in the backdrop of trees.’
‘Okay.’ Steve stood still while Nancy caricatured him.
Soon Nancy returned to the top. She handed Steven the picture she had drawn of him. ‘Like it?’
Steven looked at the sketch and was genuinely pleased. He complimented Nancy as he hugged her tight. ‘Wonderful! Do I really look this good?’
Nancy extricated herself from Steven’s embrace, and made a roll of her sketches. Steve suggested she put away the sketches in the back-pack, but Nancy preferred to hold them in her hand to prevent them from getting crushed. They walked about a bit, Steven switching to his camera to take photo shots now and then.
‘Nan, let’s pick a good spot for your picture.’ He looked around and seemed satisfied with a place by the edge of the cliff. ‘Go over there, please, Nan, towards the railing.’
Nancy moved to where Steven pointed. ‘Here?’
‘Move farther back, go as far back as you can on the flat stone and grip the railing hard! Just a bit more, …… a wee bit more. Perfect, absolutely perfect now.’
Steven focused the camera on Nancy, making a fuss about getting the shot right.
‘Click’ went the camera even as twigs crackled under Nancy’s feet. Instinctively she gripped the hand rail, but it came apart. Everything happened all too sudden and the poor girl plunged down the gorge with a shrill cry.
Steven lingered a while, then slowly walked over to peer down the crevice. He saw dark patches on the rock below, which he assumed was the splatter of blood, but could not see Nancy anywhere. Steve surmised Nancy would have died instantly and rolled down the sloping face of the rock.
Mission accomplished! Now for the formality of a ‘missing wife’ report with the police.
As Steven walked back to the hotel, his mind buzzed with thoughts of his marriage with Nancy gone sour.
It was about four years back that Steven first set his eyes on Nancy Kimberley. He was struck by her stunning looks and poise as she walked into the conference room of Fairyworld Fashions for an interview. She was not selected, but Steven met her later on several occasions casually. Love blossomed soon.
Within six months they were married. The initial months of their marriage were pure bliss. However, as their marriage settled into a routine, they realized their interests differed completely – his centred around races, soccer, partying and hiking. Nancy shared none of this. She was deep into Buddhist history, concerts, literature and painting. Nancy’s commitment to marriage was the antithesis of Steven’s compulsive flings.
In the third year of their marriage Steven suggested a divorce, but Nancy would have none of it. She wanted Steven to ‘reform’, no less. They led suffocated lives – particularly Steven, who fell in love with another woman.
Steven was exasperated. You just cannot continue to live with Nancy in this miserable state, Steven. Just get rid of her. But how? Perhaps the only solution is to fool her into believing you have begun to see things the way she does. Be careful though, not to show a complete change of heart all-at-once as that would make her suspicious. It would be quite a challenge for you to do it imperceptibly, convincingly and consistently, but you can do it. After Nancy trusts you, all you need to do is to engineer an ‘accident’ at an opportune moment and make sure it cannot be pinned on you.
As he went into a tavern for a beer, Steven smiled in satisfaction at his very ‘professional’ approach to solving the problem called Nancy.
During his business visit 3 weeks earlier to Rockland, Steven had chanced upon Devil’s Rock. Right then he had spotted a v-shaped gap in the rocks at the edge of the precipice. He peered down the gap. What a perfect place for an accident! If the gap was masked, anyone walking there would surely fall through and die. A flat stone or board, slightly smaller than the gap and supported by some weak sticks underneath, would do the trick. The rusted, rickety protective railing at that spot was a joke; it wouldn’t support even a child.
But wait, Steven. Suppose you made preparations now and some unsuspecting guy or wandering animal was to become the victim? Don’t be hasty. Better persuade Nan to come for a vacation here and then make the final arrangements. An hour or so while Nancy is asleep will do nicely, won’t it?
The plan worked well. They arrived at Rockland and checked into The Citadel. The first day was spent just chilling, eating and drinking, buying curios, playing billiards and walking hand-in-hand around the Nature Park behind the hotel.
The second day was ‘Mission’ day. During his early morning visit to Devil’s Rock, after he wrote the note for Nancy, Steven made the planned arrangements. After setting up the ‘trap’, he scattered tufts of grass and leaves generously and sprinkled dirt around the stone to mask any visible crevice. The rusty railing had fortunately remained intact. Perfect!
The ‘accident’ had happened without a hitch.
Lydia looked out of her room at The Pinewood. Steven should be calling her any time now. She had traveled to Rockland on Steven’s request. She hoped that as anticipated, during the previous two days he would have agreed upon an amicable settlement with Nancy.
Lydia met Steven for the first time at the Champions’ Challenge Cup races a little over two years earlier. They had gone to the same bookie and seemed to be betting on the same horses, with the same luck or loss every time. Steven had told her he was married, but had added, ‘Nancy is more of a stranger to me than a wife. She isn’t a bad sort, but she isn’t my kind of a girl. I do not think we can remain together for long.’
Subsequently they dated frequently and grew fond of each other. Lydia’s mother, Sally King, however, disliked Steven from Day One. Lydia assured Steven that the old lady would mellow towards him in due course, not that he cared. Lydia did see him with other girls on many occasions, but how could she object to Steven’s catching up with his “cousins or business collaborators or clients?”
When eventually Steven proposed marriage to Lydia, conditional to a divorce from Nancy, she was thrilled and instantly agreed.
Lydia recalled a conversation with her mother two weeks before the trip to Rockland. ‘Li, I know you are seeing Steve, he is good-looking and undoubtedly a charmer, but remember he is married. Even if he divorces his wife for your sake today, he might do the same to you some time in the future. It is Nature’s law that most men are philanderers by instinct, while most women are loyal to their marriage. One has to be very, very careful in these matters, my child. I do not believe Steve is the man for you’ the matriarch had said.
This kind of a conversation had taken place earlier too. ‘Mama, don’t be silly. Steve never did love Nancy, he was just moon-struck with her. I have never met a finer man than Steve. I know he loves me deeply and I think of him every waking moment.’
‘This is mere infatuation, Li.’
‘No, Mama. We are truly in love.’
Mother realized she was getting nowhere. ‘Ha! It is your life anyway, Li. Some day though, you will realize your Mama is not a fool after all.’
The phone rang, startling Lydia.
‘Morning, Li. How are things?’
‘Hi, Stevie. You tell me. Is everything sorted out?’
‘Yes darling, but let’s talk over lunch. Meet at Papa’s Pizzeria in an hour?’
At the pizzeria Steve looked sullen and reluctant to talk. ‘Is something wrong, Steve?’ asked Lydia.
Steven remained silent for a long time. Should I tell Lydia that Nancy has gone back? Surely that would look silly after a happy resolution of our marital problem. Shall I say Nancy has just gone missing and I am waiting for the police to find her? In that case I ought to be with the police, helping them. No, it has to be something else. Finally he said, ‘Li, there has been a terrible accident. Nancy agreed to a divorce yesterday, but she is dead now – at least I think so.’
‘Dead? Oh, my God! You can’t be serious!’
‘Would I joke about something like this? She fell accidentally off the cliff at Devil’s Rock yesterday when we went for a walk. She walked into a gap in the rock and fell from a great height. I do not think she had the ghost of a chance. Lydia, I feel so wretched. I have informed the police, of course and hope they find her soon. I wanted to be with the police during their search, but they will have none of it.’
‘Can’t believe this, Stevie. Where were you at that time?’
‘I was taking some snaps nearby. I had warned Nancy not to go too close to the edge of the cliff.’
Lydia was credulous. Could Nancy have really been so careless as to walk into a crevice in broad daylight? Lydia felt nauseated and excused herself to go to the rest room.
As she stood in front of the mirror, lost in thought, Lydia’s phone rang. It was her mother.
‘Hi Mom. How is your back today? Not playing up, I hope?’
‘I am okay, don’t you worry about me, honey. Are you kids enjoying yourselves? Is it cold there?’
‘The weather is great Mom. Eight or ten Celsius, maybe. But the vacation has turned out to be anything but great.’
‘Good God! Why is that?’
‘Seems Nancy accidentally fell down a precipice yesterday and lost her life. The irony is, this happened after Steve and she had agreed upon a divorce. I feel terrible and confused, Mama. Steve is very depressed too.’
There was a long pause before Mom spoke. She spoke very slowly. ‘Nancy…..died…….accidentally? Did…..Steven…..tell you that?’
‘Li, maybe……the accident ………was intended. I fear for you, Li. Why don’t you just come away?’
‘Do not pick on Steven at a time like this, Mama. Accidents do happen, you know.’
‘Baby, just think. Why would Nancy agree to a divorce all of a sudden? Maybe she continued to act difficult and Steven was exasperated.’
‘Mother, are you out of your mind?’
‘Maybe I am, but isn’t it possible?’
‘Are you suggesting Steven caused the accident, mother?’
‘Please come home at once, Li. You do not need to be there.’
‘I will think about it. Love you, Mom.’
Lydia returned to her table. She was worried. What if Mom was right? She must find out the truth, without letting Steven know of Mom’s suspicion.
They ate in silence. When the plates were cleared, Lydia spoke up.
‘Stevie, can we go to Devil’s Rock, please?’
Steven was unprepared for this. He tried to persuade Lydia it was pointless, but she was insistent. What have I to lose by taking Lydia there? Dead persons tell no tales, do they?
On the way he spoke of his plans for their life together ahead. Lydia could hardly believe her ears. How could Steven think of another marriage with such haste? Her temples began to throb; she felt a great revulsion towards Steven.
They came to Devil’s Rock soon.
The cleavage in the rock caught Lydia’s eye. She asked ‘Stevie, did Nancy fall down through here or over the cliff?’
‘Since I did not see it happen, don’t know for sure. This may have been the place.’
Her suspicious thoughts came back to her. How could Nancy have put her foot into this big gap knowingly?
‘This is ridiculous, Stevie. You must surely have seen her fall through, from wherever.’
Steven mumbled ‘I….I…..I cannot say.’
‘Good God!’ She took a few steps away from Steven and said ‘Please leave me alone for a while, Stevie.’
Lydia raised her voice. ‘I want to think. Please, Stevie, leave me alone.’
Steven gave her a cold stare and moved away. Lydia looked around. A charcoal sketch lying near the crevice, signed by Nancy, showed a smiling Steven as seen from below. So, Nancy was in her senses then. Lydia tucked the sketch under her blouse.
Lydia called out to Steven. ‘Steven, are you sure Nancy walked into this gap? Or….?’
Steve’s eyes flared. ‘Or what? What, on earth, are you implying?’
Nancy became nervous at Steven’s belligerence. ‘I mean…..I meant, are you sure she fell off, just like that? Or was she…..did she, slip on….…was pushed….. by …by…… ?’’
‘Are you saying I pushed Nancy down this hole?’
‘Yy….Yes. I mean, no, no, not you, but some one else, maybe.’
‘Lydia, quit playing with words. I know you suspect I pushed Nancy down this crack. Are you crazy? After we settled everything, why would I do something like that? It was an accident, I tell you!’ he yelled.
‘Okay, okay. Sorry, how did the so-called …… acc….accident happen?’
‘What do you mean, so-called accident? Please get this straight, Miss Agatha Christie, I did not do any such thing. Maybe she felt a bout of vertigo when she stood here.’
‘How can that be, Stevie? If she did, would she have gone down the ledge to draw your picture?’
Lydia pulled out the caricature from under her blouse. ‘How does this sketch happen to be here, Mr. Steven Armstrong?’
‘How would I know, huh? You are being so tiresome, Li.’
Lydia held Steven’s face in her hand by the chin. ‘Stevie, Nancy could not possibly have walked into a gaping hole with her eyes open. She would have noticed there wasn’t even a railing. Look me in the eye and tell me what exactly happened. Think hard. You must know and I have to know.’
Steven moved away. With his back to Lydia he said ‘Alright. What I am going to tell you isn’t nice, but you asked for it. Nan was so, so unreasonable, Li. She got nothing by remaining in her marriage with me, yet she wouldn’t let go. I had to think of some way to be free of her. Please understand.’
‘So you thought it fit to eliminate her? How did you get Nancy to walk into this gap?’
‘There was no gap, Li, at that time.’
‘What? Go on.’
Steven sat at the edge of the precipice, swinging his legs. Looking into the distant woods, he described how he had covered and camouflaged the crevice to cause the fatal fall for Nancy.
‘Believe me; I did all this only for us, Li. Please let us just put all this behind us as a bad dream and get ahead in life.’
Lydia screamed, ‘For us? My God, you are so cold-blooded! Don’t you realize the law will catch up with you, Steve? What future will you have then?’
‘Is there anything around here to implicate me?’
Lydia could contain herself no more. ‘You fool! I guarantee, you will be found out.’ She paused, then said ‘Moreover, you must be naïve to think I will share my life with you, after all this.’
Still sitting at the same place, Steven screamed in a fit of temper ‘Damn, damn, damn you! You are as much of a bitch as Nan was! Go to hell!’
Steven turned and glared at Lydia, as if to sear her with his eyes, then returned to stare into the woods.
Mama’s words started to ring in Lydia’s ears, growing louder each passing second.
‘…….he might do the same to you some time in the future…….’
Swine! You god-damned, two-timing swine! Would you like to take a tumble through the gorge, and find out how Nancy must have felt?
Lydia went over haltingly to where Steven sat and stood beside him. Closing her eyes, she gripped his shoulders and tried to push him down the precipice. She was frail and realized how difficult it was to move his solid frame.
Steven turned and held Lydia’s arms. ‘Stop being stupid, Li’ he screamed.
He tried to push Lydia away. She tried harder to push him down.
The edge of the cliff was no place to engage in wrestling.
Their distinct cries of anguish reverberated in the valley, as they hurtled down the cliff.
The black-faced monkey on the tree bent over to see what the commotion was about, saw no one, grimaced and went back to his dinner.