Malcolm Gantry’s finger hovered over the Enter button. He’d locked the door, even though he knew his wife was at work. He wasn’t quite sure why. After all, he reasoned, it’s not like he was cheating on her. Not really. He stabbed the button.
The screen split in half, like a curtain opening, to reveal a round-faced blonde with enormous breasts and a lot of lipstick.
“Well hi,” she said in a Texan drawl, “I’m Destiny. I’m real glad to -”
Malcolm hit the Next button. Destiny was replaced instantly by an Asian girl, who blinked twice and looked nervous.
“Hello duck,” she said in a Manchester accent. “My name’s Jemima.”
Malcolm hit Next again. A succession of women paraded themselves for his inspection: a range of nationalities, physiques, accents, face shapes, hair colours.
He stopped at a girl with short, jet black hair, pale blue eyes and sharp features. There was something about her. Her name, she announced in an Welsh accent, was Verity. She looked at him appraisingly.
“Well now,” she said. “Caught your eye, is it?”
Malcolm tapped the Accent button, and a small map of the world appeared. He pinched to zoom into the UK, and tapped on London.
“Leave it out,” said Verity, “it ain’t funny. You’re jus mental, innit.”
He zoomed in further, and dragged further west: The City. Westminster. Kensington.
“Well, darling,” said Verity, “have you and I reached an understanding?”
Malcolm hit Enter, and tapped the Hair button. He picked a mid brown from the muted spectrum, and Verity’s hair changed to match. He chose hazel eyes, a slightly shorter nose, a more rounded chin. When he’d finished, she was perfect. He tapped the large, friendly button marked She’s The One, turned the tablet off and slid it into his desk drawer.
* * *
The next day, Malcolm was on edge all evening. He waited until his wife, Janet, had gone to sleep, then slipped out of bed and hurried to his study. He locked the door and turned on the tablet.
The screen showed a small, bare studio apartment. A single bed, a table and chair in the foreground, a gas cooker. Verity was curled up on the bed, reading a book. She glanced up, and a smile spread across her face.
“Malcolm!” she said, jumping up and running over to sit at the table so that her face and arms filled the screen. “Darling, I’ve missed you. How was your day?”
Malcolm didn’t know how to begin. Sure, she was gorgeous. But what do you say to the girl of your dreams?
“Er, not too good,” he said, feeling a little foolish.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Verity. “What happened?”
“Mr Jeffreys gave me a hard time,” he said.
“You poor darling,” said Verity. “Why don’t you tell me all about it.”
* * *
Malcolm’s days passed in a blur of anticipation. He couldn’t wait to get home, then the agonising drag through supper and reruns of Seinfeld, until his wife finally fell asleep.
“Hi, Verity!” he said happily, as he saw her sitting in her usual place on the bed.
Verity glanced over at him, but this time she didn’t jump to the table.
“Hi, Malcolm,” she said, and turned her attention back to her book.
“Verity?” said Malcolm. “Is something wrong?”
Verity put down her book and sighed.
“No, Malcolm, nothing’s wrong. It’s just -” she waved in an arc around the room. “This place. It’s so bare, I get so bored. And you’re out all day. I’d really like a TV.”
“Oh, Verity,” said Malcolm, “of course. Stupid of me. I should have thought. I’ll be right back.” He tapped the Store button at the top of the screen.
The shopping experience was much like Amazon, except you could spin all the items around on screen, and you could customise their colour, size and shape. He visited the TV department, and chose a small 19 inch model. After a moment’s hesitation, he added the YouTube option, and tapped Buy Now.
Malcolm was surprised by the price. $299 seemed like a lot, for a virtual television that really didn’t exist. But it would make Verity happy, he reasoned, so it was worth every penny. He paid up cheerfully.
“Oh darling,” said Verity, “you’re so generous. I do love you.”
* * *
Over the next few weeks Malcolm bought Verity a new bed, an armchair and some colourful curtains. When she mentioned that she was feeling a little drab, he bought her a new dress. Then a pair of gold earrings to go with it. The stuff was expensive – almost as much as its real-world counterparts – but Malcolm didn’t mind. Verity was delighted, and that was all that mattered.
Verity really understood him, in a way that Janet never did.
* * *
“Hello darling!” said Verity happily. “I’m so pleased you’re home. Listen, I’ve seen this fabulous pair of shoes, they’re a real steal. They’re only -”
“Er, Verity,” said Malcolm. “Look. I really can’t afford all this. I’m heavily overdrawn as it is.”
“Oh,” said Verity. “It’s not the shoes, Malcolm. It’s not the stuff. It’s just that – well, you get home so late. I get so bored.”
“I can’t help it, Verity, you know that. It’s Janet. I have to wait for her to go to sleep.”
“Oh yes,” said Verity. “Janet. It’s always bloody Janet. Look, Malcolm, I’m sorry, but tonight I have a headache. I’ll see you tomorrow. Give my love to bloody Janet.” And, for the first time, Verity shut off the screen.
The next day Malcolm turned on the tablet to find Verity sitting at the table, waiting for him. She looked serious.
“Look, Malcolm, I’ve been thinking. I don’t think this can go on.”
“What?” he spluttered. “What do you mean?”
“The thing is,” said Verity, “the thing is – I’ve found someone else. Sorry, Malcolm.”
“But Verity -” he began.
The screen went blank.
* * *
“Bonsoir,” said a husky French voice, “I am Madeleine. We will talk, yes?”
Malcolm hit the Next button.
The hardest thing is disposing of the remains.
Dead bodies are large and unwieldy, and take forever to decompose. You can’t just dig a hole in the rose bed and hope it won’t be discovered. Even Miss Marple was wise to that. You could choose a deserted spot by a river and let the tide drag it downstream, but dog walkers with their inquisitive charges are bound to sniff it out within a day or two. This much you know from Morse.
You don’t crap on your own doorstep, so it makes sense to drive a long way away, strip the body of all identifying marks and then dump it somewhere it wouldn’t be discovered for a long time. But you have to reckon with CCTV, and the fact that your car can be traced from town to town. Number plate recognition is just too good. This you know from Spooks, and other reliable sources.
Which means a false number plate. But number plates are tied to a specific car, so you can’t just make one up – you don’t want to be driving a Vauxhall Astra when your registration says you’re a Ford Focus.
So you go on Autotrader and search for a car of the same make and model as yours, and from roughly the same year. And, of course, the same colour. Dealers will often blur the plate out but if the ad’s from a private seller they won’t think to do this.
You might just go down the local car shop to get a plate made up, but who’s to say they don’t have CCTV? You’ve seen this on Crimewatch. So you get a hat and dark glasses – you think of adding a false beard but figure this would just make the man in the shop suspicious – and take the tube to a car shop some miles away. You have to buy a one-day travel card with cash, as your own card knows where you’ve been. But of course you don’t change the plate just yet, you don’t want it CCTV-linked to your home address.
You wait till it’s really dark and there’s not much traffic about. You pop a Red Bull to say awake. Now you have to drive somewhere quiet and secluded you can swap the plates. But first you stop at a cash machine and take out a couple of hundred quid for petrol. Just in case. Wouldn’t do to run out and have to use a credit card.
It’s hard to think of somewhere to change the plates. All the obvious places – supermarket car parks, multi-storeys, local parks – have cameras watching who comes and goes. Then you remember that piece of woodland down a narrow lane near where you went on holiday that time. It’s an hour away and in the wrong direction, but that will just confuse them all the more.
So you get there, park up, get out the false plates and realise you’ve forgotten your torch, but of course you’ve got one in your phone. Your phone! How could you be so stupid? Of course, you could just turn it off. Take the SIM card out just to be sure. But does it still record where you’ve been? A satnav app would run it down fast, but of course that tracks you. So you go onto YouTube and watch movies, and sit there for an hour and a half until the battery’s completely dead.
You drive north. A couple of hundred miles should do it, somewhere remote and wild. As you drive you consider possible locations. A building site? A convenient hole where the foundations have been dug and where the concrete will be poured the next morning? All very well in the movies but you don’t know where any building sites are, and anyway they’re all protected with barbed wire. Probably dogs. Probably CCTV.
So you decide to find a decent cliff. Make sure there are no labels, nothing in the pockets, and by the time the body’s found it should be unrecognisable after the fall and the seawater have done their job.
You’re driving up the east coast, but that’s no use. There are no hills in East Anglia, so no cliffs. So you just keep going. Where was it they filmed Broadchurch? No, that was south. Beachy Head, Dover, Seven Sisters, all the best cliffs were in the south. Too close to home.
So you turn left and head cross country and do the long drive into Wales, where you’ve heard it’s mountainous and there are few people about. On the way you listen to Radio 4 but it’s a police drama and they’re being just too damn clever, so you switch to Classic FM. The stirring orchestral music feels like a soundtrack.
You pull up at a service station and fill up. You’d really like a coffee but they have cameras in there, so you just use the petrol station and grab an instant caffeine shot from the machine.
You hit Wales and you just keep going, and eventually – who’d have thought Wales could be so big? – you come to the coast. You turn right, because for some reason you think the north of a country is hillier than the south, and eventually you find a cliff. It’s harder than you might think, because there are no signs to cliffs. You’d really like to use Google Earth but of course you can’t turn your phone on.
You park up – no CCTV here. You get to the top of the cliff, dodge under the wire, and stand on the top looking down into the blackness. Some might say you’ve been over-cautious, but when you really, really don’t want to be found, you don’t leave anything to chance.
And you go back to your car, back up a hundred yards, slam it into first and accelerate towards the cliff. You don’t bother to change gear. You might ruin the engine, but frankly who cares.