How she got into her car, let alone drove it without causing a serious accident, will forever be a mystery, but somehow she lurched her small hatchback through the dark streets in the direction of the only person she could think of to turn to. She mounted the kerb in front of his house, narrowly missing a lamppost and was soon on his doorstep pounding at the wood with both fists and screaming his name like a banshee.
Hearing the commotion, Charlie heaved himself off his sofa and went to open the door, not knowing what he'd find, but from the screams fearing the worst. As soon as the door was open, Duffy pushed her way inside, shutting the door behind her and steeling her back against it as though she was expecting something to burst through behind her.
Charlie stood bewildered in front of her. Her dress was part undone, torn at the seams, one strap hanging uselessly down her front; her tights were laddered, her hair was tangled and along with the black pools of mascara on her face were marks that looked a lot like blood.
"Jesus, Duffy, what the hell is going on?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She opened and closed it a few more times, panting for breath and shaking all over. He took a step towards her and it was all the encouragement she needed to jump into his arms and bury her head in the crook of his neck. He held on to her as tightly as he dared as she fought with herself to get her breathing back under control.
Eventually she composed herself enough to stutter in his ear, "I killed him Charlie. I killed him!"
"I didn't mean to," she whined pathetically, as yet more tears rolled down her face.
He didn't understand and he certainly didn't believe her, yet she looked more panicked than he'd ever seen her, or anyone else for that matter. He made quiet shushing noises as he stroked her hair and manoeuvred her into the living room. She sank into the sofa and huddled herself into such a small, protected ball than she practically disappeared. Charlie flicked off the television and knelt on the carpet in front of her.
Now he had her in better light he saw the deep purple bruises that were beginning to show up on her arms and neck. She refused to look at him, and he tried to get her attention by gently lifting her hands off her lap and holding them. He felt the sticky residue of the blood before he noticed the staining.
"Shit! You're bleeding. Where?" She shook her head at him, but all her energy was spent and there was no force behind the movement. "Duffy! Where are you hurt? I have to call an ambulance!"
"No!" she shrieked, finding her voice at last. "No ambulance. Promise me, Charlie. No ambulance: they'll call the police!" She looked deep into his eyes, pleading with him.
"Duffy, what happened?"
"I told you," she whined, "I killed him!" She looked down at her filthy red hands, and stretched them away from her as if she didn't want to be associated them.
"Who? I don't understand. Duffy, you aren't making sense..."
"Philip. He was... he was trying to... he wouldn't stop... I hit him... he's dead."
Charlie tried to make sense of her garbled explanation, the bloodstains, and the wild fear in her eyes, not liking the conclusion he came to.
"No ,Duffy, no. No!" He shrank back away from her instinctively.
"I didn't mean it," she whispered again before dissolving into tears. "What am I going to do?"
"Call the police. I'll call them. It'll be fine. You didn't mean it, so it'll be fine."
"You can't. No please, they'll take my kids away, I'll go to prison..." She rasped the words, her throat sore from screaming and crying.
"It was self defence yeah?"
"Yeah. But what if they don't believe me?"
"Why wouldn't they believe you?"
"I don't know. There were no witnesses, it'd be my word. Oh god, this isn't happening, this can't be happening!"
Charlie scrambled off the floor and sat on the arm of the sofa, pulling her still trembling body toward him. He let out a ragged breath, fighting with his conscience. He had to call the police, didn't he? But then he only had Duffy's word that a crime had even been committed. It wasn't his problem.
He glanced down at Duffy. Like hell it wasn't his problem, she'd made it his problem. He had to help her, she needed him and that's all there was to it.
"Duffy, listen to me. You listening?" He felt her nod softly into his chest. "Right. This is what we'll do..."
It took almost two more hours before Duffy was in any fit state to be left on her own, but after Charlie had done his best to calm her down, taken her up to his bathroom and run her a hot bath, he had realised that he'd have to go and investigate the scene of the crime; her house.
She had pleaded with him not to go, but eventually had conceded to Charlie's line of argument, something had to be done. It wouldn't go away all by itself.
He took her door keys from her bag and drove back through the quiet midnight streets, his brain screaming that she must have been mistaken, but the hideous sick feeling rising from the pit of his stomach telling him different.
Through her sobs and whines, Charlie had managed to extract the majority of the story from her; and it boiled down to a few simple facts. One, this Philip person had tried to rape her in her own home, and two, she'd struck out in self-defence. However a third fact lurked in his subconscious; when there's an accident, you call an ambulance, and/or the police. Duffy hadn't done that and coupled with the fact that she's a trained, experienced nurse and yet made no effort to save him meant that there was a chance of some form of prosecution against her.
He parked the car and bounded up the steps to her house, unlocking the door and steeling him self against whatever it was he was going to see as he entered the building. The living room she'd said, so that's where he went, casting a wary eye across the abandoned room. It was a mess, that much was for sure, but no body.
Feeling a little braver, he conducted a more in depth search of the room. A suspicious bloodstain lay by the coffee table, a solid wooden carving of an elephant was discarded a foot away, as was a scarlet soaked rag. Clear signs of the struggle were all over the room, but still no body.
Relief hit him like a thunderous wave, and Charlie dropped to his knees, his head drooping down to touch a clear area of carpet. Sighing a deep sigh, he felt the bile rise in his throat and fought with himself not to give in to the temptation to be sick.
No body meant no murder. Corpses don't have the luxury of upping and finding a more convenient place to be discovered. She couldn't have hit him as hard as she thought she had, and after she'd left he must have got up and walked off of his own accord.
He dragged himself to his feet, angry that he'd allowed himself to believe that Duffy, his best friend, and the nicest person he'd ever met, could possibly have committed murder. Of course she hadn't, it was ridiculous, preposterous, comical. He let out a bitter laugh, rubbing his head in an effort to stop it from exploding with raw emotion.
The bloodstain on the floor was still staring up at him, taunting him, forcing him to remember that whilst no murder had been committed, an act of violence had been. It providing him with a hundred more 'what ifs' that he didn't want to contemplate. He found himself walking to the kitchen and pulling every cleaning material he could find from under the sink, then he set about removing any trace that Philip had ever been in Duffy's house.
Charlie's drive back to his own house afforded him a moment to relax. The cleaning went as well as he'd expected, although he'd dragged a rug in from the study just in case. The blood-soaked tea towel and the wooden weapon had been disposed of under a pile of rotting floorboards in a skip he'd passed and all he had to do now was tell Duffy the good news.
As he entered his house, he shouted to her that he was back, realising only after that it was two in the morning and hoping that he wouldn't have woken her. He checked each room in turn, until coming to the bathroom and finding the door locked from the inside.
"Duffy? Duffy, it's all right love. It's OK, you didn't kill anyone...Duffy? You in there?"
He heard the sound of the bolt being drawn back and the door slowly opened, to reveal Duffy wrapped in Charlie's old towelling robe, her hair borderline damp, and massive red rings around her eyes.
"You've been gone ages! I thought they'd arrested you. I've been so scared. You said you wouldn't be long!" Yet more tears slid down her cheeks making them shine. She looked like she wanted to throw a tantrum but just didn't have the strength.
Charlie reached for her, pulling her into a hug as he explained what he had, or rather hadn't, found. He could feel her fingers digging into the skin of his back, but the frantic gasps for breath in between sobs softened as his words sunk in.
When she was calm enough to speak, she asked the exact same question that Charlie had tried very hard indeed not to ask, "So where is he then?"
"It doesn't matter," Charlie replied, sounding a good deal more positive than he felt, "He won't dare come after you again, and no one else'll ever be able to trace his injury back to you - to us".
"Us?" Duffy reiterated, "Charlie, you didn't hit him, I did."
"Maybe, but I don't want you to think that you're in this on your own." He hoped that didn't sound too soppy because it was important that she understood he'd stand by her.
She managed a small smile as she pulled out of his embrace and held his hands in hers, and Charlie noticed for the first time how cold she felt.
"Come with me." He guided her to his bedroom, letting go of her hands for just long enough to give the room a hasty tidy up. "Here, you're freezing and I'll bet you're tired too, so you can sleep in my bed and I'll stay downstairs on the couch."
Duffy wanted to protest, but the king size double bed looked so inviting, and he was right, she wasn't only tired she was thoroughly exhausted. She let him fold back the thick grey-striped duvet and sat on the sheet underneath.
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Mind? I insist!" She pulled her bare feet up beside her. "If there's anything you want just call OK?"
He made his way to the door and flicked of the light switch so that the room was only illuminated by the light from the landing, "Goodnight, Duffy"
He was about to close the door when he heard her say something in a soft, sad voice. "What's wrong with me, Charlie? Why is it that nothing ever goes right for me? I feel like I'm being continually dumped on from a great height. What did I do to deserve all this?"
Charlie listened, stunned, still in the darkened doorway to the room. He'd never really thought about it before but even the most cursory look back over her life revealed a string of personal disasters. He always thought of her as the sort of person who bounced back, the sort of person who dealt with her problems as they arose, then got on with it. Not like him and his patented 'stick your head in the sand until you have a nervous breakdown' method. Now he started to wonder if there was a point when even the strongest of people can't take anymore.
He wished he could see her face; he thought he could hear the telltale tremble in her voice that signified she was crying, but something stopped him from turning the light back on. There was something about the darkness that made honesty easier.
"You don't deserve it," he whispered in response, "No one does, but especially not you."
"Once upon a time I believed that. It was all case of bad luck; could happen to anyone, but did happen to me. Maybe that's not it at all though. Maybe it's me. I'm a walking catastrophe, and a bad luck charm to anyone stupid enough to come near me."
"I don't think you're a catastrophe or a bad luck charm, and I'd say I'm closer to you than most. You're anything but; you're my best friend, I care about you and I don't think that makes me stupid."
"Absolutely. Now, try to get some sleep."
There was more she wanted to say; she wanted to tell him how much his actions that night had meant to her, but even in the half-light of the room she could see Charlie struggling against a yawn. Although she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep, she owed him the opportunity to do so. She lay back onto the bed and snuggled into the duvet as she said "Goodnight."
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