The Five Hundred Dollar Hit
THE FIVE HUNDRED DOLLAR HIT
The sudden pounding on the front door made Millie jump - only Wanda could make the windows rattle like that - and as she walked to the end of the dim hallway she could see her friends upper body outlined through the pane of frosted glass. Even in silhouette it looked disgruntled.
‘This heat!’ she burst out, as Millie opened the door. Wanda’s face was red and blotchy, her hair limp. ‘Its hotter than they said it would be - bloody weather bureau, never get it right.’
‘They’re hopeless,’ agreed Millie. The weather bureau was right up there with hipster pants and the gays, useless and no good to her. Wanda pushed past her and made straight for the coolness of the living room, where the curtains were snapped shut against the summer sun. She dropped heavily into the couch as Millie followed, moving a pile of newspapers from Neville’s armchair so she could sit.
‘Well,’ said Wanda after a brief and heavy silence, ‘That’s it. She’s getting the lot. All the money. I’ve just been to the lawyers.’
‘But you’ll get the house, right?’
Wanda’s eyes narrowed at the question. Since the death of her elderly mother and the reading of ‘The Will' - a constant subject these days, her face had taken on a hard, flat appearance. She‘d started spending evening with Millie and a cask of wine, with many references to her sister, Kathleen.
That skinny b*tch!’ she would say, her teeth gritted. ‘Never a phone call or a birthday card.’
Millie could have pointed out that Wanda did, actually, sleep with her sister’s husband ten years ago during a rowdy New Years Eve party, and that was probably the reason for her lack of correspondence. But she wisely kept her mouth shut because you didn’t deliberately rile a person like Wanda.
‘I’m getting an ancient shack that’s worthless. It was ready to be pulled down when I was a kid. What good is that to me? I won't put up with it. I’m the one who looked after her when she had her fall. Remember that Mill? On the bus every week to see her when she was in hospital. Hardly ever saw Kath, did I? And all Mum would ever talk about was her. Her precious baby, with her precious job, and her precious new car. Give us a drink, Mill.’
‘I’ve only got beer,’ said Millie.
‘What about the wine?’ asked Wanda, irritated.
‘We drank it all last night.’
‘Beer will have to bloody do then.’
They drank in the lounge, with the Breezemaster fan plonked in the middle of the carpet, whirring away gently. Millie had her feet up on a stool, hoping to ease her swollen ankles.
‘I went to the doctors this morning,’ she told Wanda. ‘I told him about the chest pains I’ve been having. He just said I had to lose weight and give up smoking. Its always the same. If you’re a big woman they blame everything on that.’
‘Bloody doctors,’ intoned Wanda.
‘I hope I have a heart attack right in front of him, in his office. That’ll teach him.’
With that, they lapsed into comfortable and discontented silence. The type of silence that had sat between them since high school, since boyfriends, rotten jobs and equally rotten husbands. Now after 34 years of friendship, they lived on the same street and no longer looked for anything better. Wanda was single and on disability, Millie married to Neville.
Millie turned the telly on and they sat, watching the cooking shows for awhile.
‘I won’t have it!’ exploded Wanda suddenly, making Millie’s timid nerves sing and dance. ‘That bloody skinny cow! Why should she get everything? Its not like I don’t need the money. The pension barely feeds me.’
‘You should do something’ said Millie, with a rare surge of enthusiasm. ‘Can’t you contest the will or something?’
Wanda didn’t seem to be listening. ‘I was awake all night, thinking she should just have some sort of accident. That would take care of everything, wouldn’t it? Then I thought of doing something myself, like draining the brake fluid in her car.’
‘You can’t be serious!’ said Millie. ‘You’ll go to jail for life.’
‘I know. That’s why I need someone to do it for me. Someone who knows what they’re doing.’
The dimness of the living room seemed to settle heavily over Millie. Her brain worked overtime. Wanda seemed unfazed, her eyes turned back to the telly, her set jaw masculine and unattractive. Neither of them spoke for a long time.
‘Who would you get?’ asked Millie eventually. ‘I mean, its not like you can just go to the phone book.’
Wanda leaned forward, and for the first time in months her face sprang into animation. ‘That’s just it! I read this article in a magazine about how these things were done by everyday people who needed money. I read one guy did it for a second hand car and two hundred dollars!’
‘How much do you have?’
‘Five hundred,’ said Wanda flatly. ‘That’s all I have in the bank. There must be someone who would do it for that. What about that Laurie bloke that Neville knows?’
‘Laurie Cooks? He’s not going to kill anyone.’
‘He went to Vietnam and killed a lot of people didn’t he?’
Millie thought there was some flaw in Wanda’s argument. But for the moment it seemed to escape her.
‘I bet Neville could do it,’ pushed Wanda. ‘You’re always whining about what a mean b*stard he is.’
Millie was silent.
Wanda stood up. ‘I need to get tea on. You think of anyone, you let me know.’
Millie did think. She thought while she made Neville’s dinner; lasagne and chips. He would be home at five thirty, expecting his dinner on the table. And it would be. Millie was never late with Neville’s tea. She’d learnt. When Neville got home from the pub she had his dinner on the table, a glass of beer on the left of his plate, and a frozen cheesecake from Coles defrosting on the counter.
She had been a good cook once, when she was younger. She’d made crepes and fruit pies and soft, perfect sponges. But those days were gone. Neville’s simple tastes and his habit of spending most of the pay check at the pub demanded simplicity.
‘Did you have a good day, love? How are the boys down at the pub?’
Neville glanced up, his fork poised midway to his mouth. Millie’s conversational tone seemed to fill him with suspicion.
‘They’re fine,’ he grunted, shoving food into his mouth. ‘Laurie paid me that forty bucks he owed me. It was about time.’
‘Well, that nice,’ said Millie. She sat down opposite him at the table, sprinkling salt over her chips. The doctors told her not to put salt on anything. But Millie had decided that when your time was up, it was up. ‘God didn’t give you a life on lay-by,’ her mother used to say. ‘You don’t get to decide when the last payments are made.’
Her mother had raised her in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and had hung herself in the separate shed that served as a laundry when her only daughter was a skinny, lonely thirteen-year old. As an adult, Millie often thought of the irony.
She ate the rest of her dinner in silence. Neville didn’t like chatter at the table. When he finished his beer she got him another without asking, and a third while she was washing up. He leaned back in his chair with loose limbs and eyed her.
‘You’re in a good mood today, Mill. Got lucky with the pizza delivery boy, did you?’ He laughed at his own wit, and Millie forced herself to join in, hating his stale beer breath and his rotting teeth and his grimy, wrinkled jeans that he hadn‘t bothered changing all week. Sometimes just seeing Millie in a good mood would set him off, but tonight he was benign and shambling from his afternoon at the pub. He was halfway through his beer when Millie broached the subject of Wanda’s sister.
Neville was shocked. She could tell he was shocked because he sat up straight and blinked a bit.
‘It’s a bloody shame, feeling that way about your own sister.’
‘She’s a cow. Don’t feel sorry for her.’
‘I’d want more than five hundred. Could go to jail if I’m caught.’
‘Millie doesn’t have any more.’ Millie hesitated. ‘I guess she’ll have to find someone else. There’s always someone who’s needs it badly enough.’
Neville sat back in his chair again. His small watery eyes were unreadable. He drained his beer as Millie lifted the last plate from the sink.
‘I’m going out for awhile,’ he said finally, and headed for the door. Millie was wise enough to not ask where he was going. And she was pretty sure she knew anyway.
To Millie, the next few weeks where the most exciting in her adult life.
The three of them were at Wanda’s almost every night. They would sit around her kitchen table, pushing aside the piles of papers and magazines and mail order catalogues, and plan.
Wanda wanted some sort of accident in the car. Neville disagreed.
‘You’d never be sure that it would do the job, would you? She might just get injured. Me, I’d shoot her.’
‘Do you have a gun?’
‘No,’ said Neville, and they lapsed into disappointed silence.
Millie savoured the excitement of those moments, the secretiveness as they huddled around the table in the small kitchen that smelt of stale cigarette smoke and onions. At last she had something vital in her life, something no ordinary person would even think of doing. Especially not those snobby b*itches who eyed her with distaste from behind the counters at the chemist. She’d like to see them dress in nice clothes if their husbands drank all of the money away every week. She’d liked to see how they kept their pert little figures with a slow metabolism and diabetes. But now she was doing something no-one with neat hair and strappy high heels would never dream of doing.
Wanda fished out a notepad and a pen from one of the heaps of paper on the table and wrote down everything about her sister. Where she worked, the gym she went to (‘Skinny cow!’), the address of her best friend. Neville started sitting outside of Kathleen’s house at night, parking the Holden in the shadows across the street. Millie couldn’t work out exactly why he did it, but it seemed to keep him amused. He called it surveillance. ‘Well,’ he would say in a nonchalant voice, getting up from the table around ten. ‘Better go do my surveillance.’ And he would drop a wink at her, full of slow, shadowy wit.
Three weeks later the plan seemed set. Neville would sit in his car until she came home from work, and then wait until midnight. ‘She goes to bed around eleven,’ he told them. ‘She lets her cat in and all the lights go out.’
He would break in through the living room window. The lock was broken and the screen came off easy enough. This was just one piece of information provided by Wanda, who had visited her sister with the pretence of making peace. They hadn’t spoken since the reading of the Will. Another was that there was a gas stove in the kitchen. Neville would turn on all the knobs and make his getaway.
‘And I’ll mud the number plates in case some nosey bugger sees my car.’
‘You’ll make sure you don’t wake her, right?’ said Wanda. ‘You won’t wake her Neville, so you don’t have to. . . do anything?’
‘Nah. I’ll be quiet as quiet. She won’t know a thing. It’s the nicest way, really.’
Wanda was silent. There had been a certain lack of enthusiasm in her for ‘the deed’ (as they called it), ever since she had made her visit.
‘That stupid cow took one look at me when she opened the door and burst into tears. She always was a wet dishrag,’ Wanda had said with disgust. ‘She said she should have divorced that husband of hers years ago. And the whole time I was sitting in the kitchen with her, drinking coffee, I’m thinking, if only you knew what was ahead of you, girlie!’ She had grinned devilishly at Millie, but there was something in her eyes that was missing.
Neville didn’t notice, of course. He never was the brightest. But Millie did. She felt as if something was slipping slowly but surely through her fingers.
Over the next few days she started throwing casual comments at Wanda about what she could do with the inheritance.
‘Remember how you used to say you wanted to go to Queensland for a holiday? she said, getting Wanda another wine. ‘Well, we could go. Just like that. You could get some new furniture. And a DVD player. We could go out to dinner sometimes, somewhere really nice. Neville never takes me anywhere.’
‘I wouldn’t mind going on a cruise, said Wanda. She smiled, as if picturing herself on the deck of a ship, drink in one hand, a big straw hat on her head, the endless ocean around her. Millie breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
One evening they sat around the table, drinking beers and eating pizza. A time had been set.
‘Tomorrow night. That’s when we’ll do it,’ said Neville, bringing his big palm down on the table with a bang.
When they got home that night Millie hovered in the bathroom doorway as he got undressed for his shower. He was humming.
‘Are you sure you’re going to do this, Neville? Are you sure you’re going to kill Wanda’s sister?’
Neville’s humming stopped as if a switch had been flicked. He turned to look at her, frowning. ‘Of course. What do you think we’ve been talking about for the last three weeks, you dumb cow?’
‘Well, that was just talk. I just want to know if this is really going to happen.’
‘Happen it will!’ said Neville, turning away. The humming started again. He pulled off his jeans, revealing his skinny, pale shanks. ‘You really are a bit behind the times, Mill. We’ve been talking about it for weeks!’ He laughed and turned to the bathroom doorway, but it was empty.
The cops snared Neville as he sat outside Kathleen’s house the next night. Millie had been working with them for the last four days, after she’d walked into the Police Station with her story. She’d overhead them talking, she said between tearful sniffs and gulps. Neville and Wanda. She didn’t know what to do. Neville would kill her if he found out she knew anything. But she couldn’t stand by and let someone be murdered, could she? ‘I’m so scared!’ she wailed, and buried her face in her hands.
She wished desperately that she could have been there, to watch it all go down. She imagined big, burly cops swarming on Neville’s car, yanking him out, forcing him onto the ground. That’s how they did it in America, how they did it in the movies. She hoped he had put up a fight. The image of Neville being subdued with capsicum spray and maybe a few kicks was a pleasant one. Mostly she just wished she had been able to see his face, as it slowly dawned on him that he was in the worst trouble of his life.
They had got Wanda at her house. Millie knew she would have kept her mouth shut, her eyes full of smouldering rage as they snapped on the handcuffs.
And what about Kathleen, being told her own sister had paid to have her killed? Millie imagined the look of horror on her pretty face, imagined her crying and shrieking, maybe even fainting in shock.
She knew Wanda would be okay in prison. She was a big woman with a nasty temper. If anyone tried anything, they’d end up drilled into the ground like a tent peg.
She wasn’t so sure about Neville. He was mean, of course. She had plenty of healed bones to prove that. But he was a coward, and not even a cunning one. Millie hoped he would be beaten, and badly. Maybe sent to the prison hospital a few times. And if that did happen, she would go and visit him. She would sit opposite him and say, ‘Now you know how I felt, all those years of you smacking me about.’ And she would get up as if to leave before firing her parting shot. ‘By the way, I know you and Wanda were sleeping with each other. I’ve know since Christmas Eve two years ago.’
And she would walk out in a bright red blaze of triumph. She had sat on her hate for years, with the patience of an old cat sitting near a mouse hole. And she had dished out her revenge, served and chilled to perfection.
"Good job team! Head back to Base for debriefing and cocktails!"
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