THE COOL BAG • by Maureen Wilkinson

Connie placed a purple-and-red hand-knitted scarf around her neck and took a last look at her reflection before she opened the door of her cottage. The mirror showed a plain woman of sixty, with fine mousy hair, and a sticklike figure that men hadn’t seemed to find attractive. Her small stature — barely five feet — and girlish voice gave the illusion that she was still a child. Friends treated her with condescending affection that infuriated her.

Satisfied she looked neat, Connie walked briskly to her front gate and into the lane beyond. The quiet village where she’d lived all her life had changed with the influx of second-home buyers and lately there’d been several unsolved murders in the locality. Wary residents locked themselves in at night, and anyone new to the neighbourhood caused a stir of suspicious questions.

Connie’s friend, Edna had warned Connie many times about her independent attitude. “I wish you’d call me, before you wander off on your own.”

Connie replied with an irritated snort. “I can take care of myself. I’m not a child, I don’t need an escort.”

A cold north wind whipped at the tree tops and sent flurries of dead leaves sprinkling like confetti across the gravel path. Connie had only taken a few steps when a car drew up at her side and Sam Hart — her new neighbour — tapped on the window and mouthed something she couldn’t hear.

Sam wound down the glass and pushed his head out into cold night air. “Hi Connie, need a lift?”

Connie frowned at the familiar use of her first name from a newcomer. “No, just popping to the store.” She flapped her shopping bag in his direction.

Sam peered at her through the gloom. “You shouldn’t be out on your own after dark, Connie.”

Her breath hissed between clenched teeth. Now people she didn’t even know were telling her what she should do.

“I’ll be fine.” Connie said in an abrupt tone as she strode away from the car.

The lane was a dark grey ribbon, and trees on either side of the path appeared menacing in the half light as she hurried towards the store. Clasped tight against her stomach, a plastic cool bag was a silver square in the emerging moonlight. Connie pulled her woollen scarf tighter about her neck to keep out the sharp wind. Somewhere in the distance an owl gave a mournful cry and her eyes darted in the direction of the sound. Breath rasped in her chest as she bent her body against the blustery weather. She narrowed her eyes and squinted through the line of trees that shielded the supermarket from the road. The bright lights welcoming shoppers looked very far away, and she wondered at the wisdom of venturing out on a winter night.

I haven’t come far, perhaps I ought to go home and make do with what’s in the fridge.

A slight scuffle on the path behind made her heart lurch, and she cocked her head to locate the sound. Gravel crunched underfoot. Connie’s small hands clasped her bag tight to her chest as she whirled around. From the shadow of the lane, a burly figure moved towards her, the face an indistinguishable white blur above a set of broad shoulders.

Adrenalin pumped through her veins. “Who’s that?” she called in a sharp voice.

“It’s Sam — I thought I’d better come anyway; you never know who’s lurking about.”

She looked over his shoulder at the empty path behind. “Thanks, but you shouldn’t have bothered. I decided to leave my errands ‘til tomorrow.”

“I’ll walk you back, then,” he said.

She bent her head and fished in the bottom of her cool bag with an exasperated sigh. “Now I can’t find my house keys — I think I’ve lost them.”

“Here, let me look.” Sam stepped in close. She smelt his cologne, faint, like a field of lavender, and her body tingled.

Warmth from his breath, white in the frosty air, eddied around her face. She lifted her chin and looked into dark eyes inches from her own as he leaned over her. For a moment she wondered how old he was and why he hadn’t married. Connie dropped the bag and her skinny arms jerked forward. A small sound came from the back of her throat.

Surprise filled Sam’s eyes. He looked down at the knife protruding from the base of his stomach. Connie smiled, grasped the knife in both hands, and pulled upwards. It ripped through the softness of his gut and he sank silently to his knees. Steam rose from the mess as a slow stream of organs slopped onto the dirt.

Connie gave a short grunt, scooped Sam’s insides into the cool bag, and wiped her bloodied hands on his grey hair.

“Suppertime — better get home before they get cold,” she said and clasped the bag to her meagre chest.

Maureen Wilkinson writes in Norfolk.

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