Once upon a time a teeny tiny baby rabbit was born. As soon as he was old enough to leave his mother, he was bought by a very kind woman called Kate. Kate thought he was the cutest thing ever and kept stroking and cuddling him. However, next morning, she placed him in a hamster cage, which was too small for him (but, Kate promised, would only be for a few hours), wrapped the cage in fancy paper in which she poked some air-holes, attached a label saying ‘Happy birthday, darling; from Nana xxx,’ and delivered him to the house of her son, Mark, and his daughter, Emmy. Mark placed the baby rabbit and his prison inside a wardrobe where, a few days later, having tried in vain to chew his way out, the poor little kit died of thirst and hunger.
Two weeks later, Mark handed the gift-wrapped cage and its gruesome contents to Emmy. Before she had time to open it, however, Mark’s mobile, which he had left in the kitchen, rang. He had just said ‘Hello there, Thumper’ to his closest chum when the conversation was interrupted by a scream and some hysterical sobbing coming from Emmy’s room. ‘What the fuck…?!’ he exclaimed, dropping the phone and rushing to his daughter’s side.
Emmy stood there as if paralysed. On the bed in front of her was the cage containing the tiny decomposed body of the baby rabbit. When she was once more able to speak, all she could say was ‘Why do you and Nana Kate hate me?’ No amount of reassurance to the contrary was able to console her and that night she packed a rucksack and ran away to take refuge with her mother.
And that was why that slightly overweight, law-abiding, single father and occasional wedding DJ, Mark Keynes, decided that his soon-to-be-ex-wife had to die.
Well, not just that. But it was the catalyst, the final straw, the last nail in her coffin, so to speak.
The penultimate nail had been the one that, innocently, had led to the death of the ill-fated baby rabbit. On a certain day, which happened to be both Emmy’s twelfth birthday and the last day of the summer term, Celia had unexpectedly picked her daughter up half an hour early from school and whisked her off for two weeks’ holiday in Lanzarote, pausing only to phone Mark from East Midlands to tell him his daughter hadn’t been kidnapped. The gift, delivered some twenty minutes before this call was received, was instantly forgotten — not that Mark realized there was any reason to remember it; his mother had not intimated what the contents might be and the small, sweet, fluffy baby bunny had done nothing in those few minutes to alert him to its presence.
That night, in the pub, he and Thumper, oblivious to the frantic scratchings of the real rabbit back at home, had drunk more than was good for them and sworn always to be there for each other, the cringe-worthy line ‘bros before hoes’ seeming at once beautiful and profound.
And that — well, that and a secret that Thumper had rather foolishly shared with only his best buddy— was why that slightly dodgy but really not very criminal welder, Richard Gascoigne, whose nickname had gradually evolved from Bamber to Bambi to — following some fisticuffs at a wedding reception — Thumper, found himself somewhat reluctantly involved in a plot to murder Celia Monroe-Keynes.
Celia Monroe-Keynes had had a lovely holiday on Lanzarote with her daughter. They’d swum and played on the beach and eaten too much, and generally had a lot of fun. Celia had long felt that Emmy would be better off living full time with her, but for the present, she and that waste-of-space Mark had shared custody, and Emmy spent half a term with one parent and half with the other. To avoid moving her too many times, Celia and Mark had agreed that Emmy should remain with Mark for the first three weeks of the summer holiday and then move to Celia’s for the second three weeks and the first half term of the new school year; but then this amazing Lanzarote deal had come up, and Celia felt it was just too good to miss. Mark wouldn’t mind having Emmy for weeks three, four and five instead of one, two, and three — and if he’d already made plans and that wasn’t convenient, then Celia would enjoy the extra time with her child. It was a win-win situation, she felt.
Of course, Mark was characteristically grumpy when she dropped Emmy off there after the holiday, but that meant nothing. Probably just heartburn from eating too much too fast. Back home, she immediately rang her new man and invited him round. She was really looking forward to the divorce being finalized so that she and Rick could go public. She hoped Emmy would be cool with it.
It was good to see Rick again after a fortnight apart, and they were just about to adjourn to the bedroom when he remembered he had to make a phone call.
‘Well, that was weird,’ he said, staring at his phone in bewilderment.
‘What was?’ asked Celia. ‘What happened?’
‘I’m not really sure. No sooner had I said hello, than he said “What the fuck?!” and hung up.’
‘Do you think he knows about us…?’
Of course, Celia eventually found out why her imminently-ex-husband had reacted in this manner when he phoned her later that night to warn her that Emmy had run away from home and was on her way. Emmy was, it must be said, an organized and considerate child, and she had written a neatly printed and remarkably well-spelt note before her flight, stating ‘I hate you and I hate Nana Kate. You knew I wanted a rabbit but you gave me a dead one. I cannot live with you anymore. I’m going to mummy’s.’
The version of events, however, when described by the traumatized child were not quite how Mark had explained them; and once they had been processed by the mother’s fervid and fertile imagination, they bore no relation whatsoever to anything anyone might have told her. Indeed, they formed just another brick in a wall of abuse and injustice to which her former partner and his harridan of a mother had apparently subjected their innocent child. Not that she’d had much success in persuading the authorities that he was an unfit father, alas. Rick didn’t believe these calumnies either, but he pretended he did because, well, you don’t tell a woman she’s barking and then expect to get laid, do you?
And that was why that law-abiding single mother, Celia Monroe-Keynes, decided that her soon-to-be-ex-husband had to die.
And that — well, that and a secret that Rick, aka Thumper, had rather foolishly shared with only his girlfriend — was also why that slightly dodgy but really not very criminal welder, Richard Gascoigne, whom Celia called Rick because she considered the notion of a grown man having the nickname of a cartoon rabbit to be singularly unsexy, found himself somewhat reluctantly involved in a plot to murder Mark Keynes.
Poor Thumper Gascoigne. When he’d drunkenly sworn that ‘bros before hoes’ vow to Mark, he’d meant it. Unfortunately, when he’d told Celia that she was the woman of his dreams and the love of his life, he’d also meant that too. But that was in the days before he’d realized that his best mate and his girlfriend were unhinged homicidal blackmailers, or at least a tad psychotic and not the type of person in whom one should confide secrets.
Because Mark identified his daughter’s finding a dead rabbit in a cage as being what galvanized him into taking action against that evil scheming bitch, he decided that that animal’s demise should be the model for Celia’s end. It had to be slow and agonizing. His intention was to purchase a large dog cage, such as those used for transporting mastiffs and great danes, somehow entice his former wife to enter, and then leave her there to perish. With this in mind, he visited breeders of large dogs and expressed an interest in purchasing a pup. He also mentioned this, somewhat ad nauseam, down the pub. Indeed, Emmy had often said she’d like a dog, and it might go some way to making amends for the dead rabbit incident. As he expected, the breeders advised crate training, and showed him a number of suitable cages and boxes. And this was where Mark saw the flaw in the plan. For it to work, he would claim that Celia had entered the cage of her own volition, in his absence, and that the door had accidentally locked behind her. He would return a couple of weeks later, find the body, and alert the authorities. Unfortunately, the breeders and a subsequent search of the internet revealed to him that self-locking cages seemed not to exist. However, as mentioned above, Thumper was a welder… When Mark next met his bro in the pub, he asked him to construct a suitably proportioned cage, into which he would lure and lock his intended victim. Thumper initially tried to dissuade him on ethical grounds (‘she doesn’t deserve this’ and ‘murder is wrong — I didn’t think you meant it’), then on practical ones (‘where would you put such a construction?’ and ‘how would you persuade her to enter?’), and finally on temporal ones (‘I won’t have time this week cos I’ve got a big job building some garden gates’). However, Mark reminded him of that secret that he just knew he’d rather not have publicized, and Thumper left that evening saying he’d work something out and get back to him.
Celia, however, lacked Mark’s whimsical nature. Prolonging her victim’s suffering was totally unimportant to her. She just wanted him out of her and her daughter’s lives. Divorce wouldn’t be enough — he’d still interfere and have to be consulted about stuff; and he’d be bound to react negatively when he learnt that she and Rick were now an item. No, much better to get him out of the way permanently. And Celia knew just the way to do it.
Ever since Emmy was born, Celia had had difficulty sleeping. At first, she’d lie awake listening for her baby’s cry; by the time Emmy was sleeping through the night, this nocturnal vigilance had become a habit and she had never quite broken it. When it got too bad, she took zopiclone for a few nights and that usually sorted things out again, at least for a while; but she always made sure she had a supply of the little blue ovoids at the ready.
Conveniently, too, she had also recently come across a letter Mark had sent her when they were in the midst of separating. By some stroke of luck, after detailing all her faults and the reasons she was to blame for the matrimonial discord, it ended with the words ‘… I’ve had enough. I’ve considered all the options and none of them seem to work. Ending it seems to be the only solution.’ Of course, the ‘it’ Mark mentioned was the relationship, but there was no reason it shouldn’t be his life.
All that remained was to get Mark to ingest the zopiclone, plant the note, and leave the rest to fate. That night, when Emmy was at a friend’s sleepover, Celia asked Rick to help her. Rick initially tried to dissuade her, again, on ethical grounds (‘he doesn’t deserve this’ and ‘murder is wrong — I didn’t think you meant it’), then on practical ones (‘why would he let you into his house?’ and ‘how would you get him to take the tablets?’), and finally on temporal ones (‘I won’t have time this week cos I’ve got a big job on building a kind of dog cage’). However, Celia reminded him of that secret that she just knew he would rather not have publicized, and Rick left next morning saying he’d work something out and get back to her.
Emmy was, her protestations notwithstanding, spending a fortnight with her Nana Kate. Mark wanted her to rebond with his mother, and, as it would — if all went according to plan — be the last time the older woman had any contact with Emmy, Celia raised no objections.
The cage was built and installed in Mark’s garage which was also sound-proofed as he used it for preparing sets for his DJ-ing activities. Strewn across the floor were Celia’s family photo albums, the ones that, through sheer bloody-mindedness, he’d previously claimed to be unable to locate. He had, however, the day before, phoned Celia and said he’d found them and, if she wanted them, she’d better come over the following lunchtime. These were the bait. Celia wouldn’t be able to resist crawling into the cage to retrieve them, and once inside — clang! All he had to do was slam the door and it would lock immediately.
Mark would then, as soon as it got dark, drive Celia’s car back to her house from whence Thumper would pick him up. Mark would then drive his own car to a wedding reception in Chesterfield, where a whole wedding party would be able to attest, if not to his skills as a DJ, at least to his presence at the venue. Thumper, meanwhile, would park Celia’s car on Mark’s drive, thus making it appear that she had arrived and let herself into the property whilst her former husband was elsewhere and totally innocent of any involvement in her bizarre desire to look at family photos in the cage he’d bought for the mastiff pup everyone knew he intended to buy. (It would have been a lot simpler if he could have gone to Chesterfield and then left Thumper to do the luring and caging, but he was a firm advocate of ‘if you want a job doing properly…’ and so didn’t ask; besides, Thumper’s secret wasn’t really so damning, when it came down to it, that he could force murder upon him.)
Celia’s plan was not quite so finely tuned; but when she received the call from Mark, she felt that this was the perfect opportunity to put it into action. She, unlike Mark, had no qualms about delegating, but when she’d asked Rick to slip his mate a lethal mickey, Rick aka Thumper, had refused. Even the threat of revealing his secret had left him unmoved (it wasn’t so damning, after all, not in this day and age); he would help her cover her tracks, but no more than that. Disolving the zopiclone in a bottle of Jack Daniels had been Celia’s original plan; but whilst Mark might have drunk a few shots in Thumper’s company, he’d be less likely to do so in hers. But he’d still be a greedy pig. So — to thank him for finding the photos and show that she bore him no ill-will — she baked him his favourite blackberry and apple pie (with added sleeping pills), fairly certain that he’d scarf the lot. All Rick would need to do would be pop round later that evening, check the pie consumption, and leave the ‘suicide note’. But Rick needn’t know any of that until her part in the scheme was a fait accompli — she couldn’t take another Thou Shalt Not Kill lecture. For now, the less he knew the better. She’d given him the note, but the finer points could wait.
Thumper was a nervous wreck. His hands were shaking and his heart was pounding. His stomach was also rumbling as he hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s breakfast, such was his anxiety. He could hear Celia and Mark making small-talk in the latter’s kitchen. In a moment, he hoped, they’d come through the connecting door into the garage, where the cage and scattered albums were waiting. In his pocket was Mark’s ‘suicide’ note, carefully trimmed to remove anything other than the relevant words. On the rabbit hutch Mark had bought months before his daughter’s birthday lay two pairs of handcuffs, two short spreader bars with ankle cuffs, a spider gag, and a ball gag. In his hand was a second world war revolver. Celia wouldn’t be too shocked to see the restraining devices, though this unaccustomed context might surprise her; and the Webley would come as no revelation to Mark, although he too might wonder why Thumper was brandishing it in his garage and interrupting his plan to murder his almost-ex-missus.
There was a noise. The door opened.
‘OK, turn round,’ said Thumper.
‘Rick?’ said Celia.
‘Thumper?’ said Mark.
‘Go away, ‘ hissed Celia.
‘Not now,’ muttered Mark.
‘I have a gun,’ said Thumper as they seemed not to have noticed. He had expected more quaking with fear than was being evinced.
‘Is that — is that the Webley?’ asked Mark, a hint of weariness entering his voice.
‘And is it — um — loaded?’
‘Oh, of course it isn’t,’ said Celia. ‘Guns are prohibited. It’s a toy.’
‘Oh, it’s real all right,’ said Thumper. ‘And, yes, it’s loaded.’
Celia started to say something, but the look on Mark’s face persuaded her that this might not be time. Mark, of course, knew all about the revolver because the secret that Thumper had confided in him was that he was in possession of an illegal handgun — which he knew how to use.
‘Now we’ve got that straight, you two, you might want to concentrate on the fact that it’s pointing at you. I’m going to throw these handcuffs to you, Celia, and I want you to put them on Mark. Behind his back. And no funny business.’
‘Rick! Darling, what are you —?’
‘”Darling”? Thumper? Did she just call you “darling”?’
‘Yes, I did. What of it? He’s more than a man than you ever were, you fat bucket of lard.’
‘Thumper?’ Mark sounded devastated. ‘You and her…? But I thought we…’
‘Will you just shut up, the pair of you? Here, Celia — gag him. It’s the one with the awkward catch, so make sure it snaps shut properly.’
‘Ooh, I like this one,’ said Celia. Rick’s interest in BDSM was, of course, his other secret.
‘Oh, OK, put that one on yourself, then. Mark can have the spider instead.’
‘On — me?’
‘On you. Let’s get one thing straight — I’m my own man, here; I’m not helping either of you. Well, I am, but not in the way you think.’
And so, with much less co-operation and comprehension than one is led to expect from the movies, and Thumper had seen a lot of movies, he eventually managed to get his girlfriend and his best friend shackled and gagged.
‘Right,’ he said, ‘now crawl into the cage. There should be enough room for both of you, though it’ll be a bit cosy.
‘Good. Are you sitting comfortably? Hehe. Excellent. I’ll begin. I care about you both very much, you stupid idiots, but you are a pair of lunatics. I have no idea what’s gone wrong in your brains, but plotting each other’s murder —‘ (there was a rattling of handcuffs and general squirming as the still-married couple assimilated this information) ‘— is not a nice thing to do. And expecting me to help you is even worse. I’ve gagged you so I can say this, because I know what you’re both like for interrupting every ten seconds, but I’ll let you have your voices back in a minute.
‘OK, this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to twist your heads so I can undo the buckles of the gags through the bars of the cage. No, I’m not letting you out, and I’m not joking here. This is not funny. Then I’m going to take Celia’s car and go and do a bit of shopping and go to the cinema. In the meantime, I’m going to leave you two here to talk through your differences. Hopefully, you’ll be able to think of a way of being good parents that doesn’t involve killing anyone. I should be back in about three, maybe four hours.
‘Mark, move your head this way…’
‘You bastard!’ exclaimed Mark as soon as he could speak again. ‘I trusted you!’
‘Yeah, yeah, now shut up. If you’re going to continue being a dickhead, I’ll have to shoot you after all. And then Celia will have won. You don’t want that, do you?’
‘Fuck you!’ said Mark, but then held his tongue.
‘Why, Rick?’ she asked. ‘I don’t understand…’
‘Honestly, Celia, you’d understand a lot more if you actually listened for once. Anyway, Mark’ll explain while I’m away. I need to be off or I’ll miss the 14:25 screening. Where are your car keys?’
‘They’re in my pocket. Hah!’
The cage was far too snug a fit for him to reach in and get them, and he had no intention of removing his captives’ handcuffs — he didn’t want to risk either of them throttling the other. He was taking a big enough risk leaving them ungagged — what if they got all bitey?
‘Mark, where are yours?’
‘Kitchen counter,’ mumbled that prisoner.
‘OK, just have to hope I don’t have an accident, then. Not insured…’
‘I thought you said you had your own insurance? You’re not driving the Merc without insurance! But you said… When I wanted you to drive Celia’s car back here after… Oh my God! She’s put you on her insurance, hasn’t she?’
Thumper cleared his throat. ‘Umm — gun,’ he said. Mark shut up and concentrated on scowling instead.
‘See you about half six, then. You’d better have reached a truce by then or I’ll have to leave you in here all night. And don’t think I won’t.’
And with that, he left the garage and went back into the kitchen. Mark’s car keys were where Mark had said. Thumper picked them up. Just as he was about to leave, he remembered how hungry he was. Now his plan had succeeded (or the first part of it, at least), his appetite had returned. But he did want to get to that 14:25 screening. He looked in the fridge to see if there was anything he could eat quickly. Mmm… a pie. And not just any pie. There was no mistaking Celia’s fruity yumminesses. Thumper cut himself a hefty slice and gulped it down as fast as he could. Had he not been in quite such a hurry, he might just have noticed that it tasted slightly strange.
Thumper never did get to the cinema.
The blood tests revealed a high amount of zopiclone in the blood of the corpse they pulled from the car wreck. Mercifully, no one else had been involved in the accident, although Thumper’s face had been turned to unrecognizable mush in the impact with the tree. Typically — Thumper had always preferred cash transactions — he was carrying no credit cards, but the Mercedes was registered in the name of Mark Lee Keynes, something supported by the note in the dead man’s pocket: ‘I’ve had enough. I’ve considered all the options and none of them seem to work. Ending it seems to be the only solution. Sorry. Mark.’
Kate had intended going inside when she dropped Emmy off at her dad’s house on the last day of the summer holiday. Having spent the majority of that time with her mother, it had been decided that Emmy would live at her father’s for this half term. Grandmother and granddaughter had spent the previous two weeks in France, oblivious of the police’s attempts to contact Kate and tell her — albeit erroneously — that her youngest son had wrapped himself and his Merc around a tree. It had not been an enjoyable holiday and relations between the two remained uneasy. Emmy still hadn’t forgiven her grandmother for the dead rabbit incident. When Kate spotted her more-or-less-ex-daughter-in-law’s car on the drive, she decided that it might not be the best time to go calling. The two women had never really got on, and, since Celia and Mark had separated, their simmering hostilities had reached a rolling boil.
Emmy turned her head away from Kate’s kiss and got out of the car. Kate, sadly, watched her run up the drive. She would wait until the child was safely inside — though what mishap could possibly befall her on the path from gate to door was anyone’s guess — but drive off before Celia could come out and create a scene. Mark would understand why his mother hadn’t waited.
Emmy tried the door handle. The door wasn’t locked. She went inside. Kate pulled away. That’s how Kate likes to remember her granddaughter.
When Emmy failed to show up for the first day of school, the secretary was tasked with phoning her (and other non-attendees’) parents to find out if there was a problem. She knew the child’s parents were divorcing, but she was surprised that neither had been in touch if Emmy were unwell. When, by the following afternoon, no response had been made to the many voice messages she had left, something she would later describe as a ‘sixth sense’ prompted her to escalate the matter.
The police said they found Emmy, later that day, clinging to the bars of her parents’ death cell. Although she was dehydrated, she was physically unharmed, but remained unresponsive when questioned. Six years later, she lives in an institution. Kate visits daily and hopes that one day she’ll be able to take her granddaughter home with her. Emmy can walk when guided and swallow food if it’s put into her mouth, but most of the time she remains entirely passive. When Kate reads to her, or sits watching TV with her, Emmy shows no more sign of comprehension than she did when the police officer prised her fingers away from the door of her parents’ cage. But sometimes something goes on in her head — two things and two things only are capable of provoking a reaction: when Emmy catches a glimpse of something stripy, something that could resemble prison bars, she trembles and whimpers. When she sees a sweet, fluffy bunny rabbit, however, she screams and screams and screams.