I told her what I would do, or rather I hinted at it. It was a technique I used on my fifth, who had a similar issue to Susie’s father. It wasn’t a painless method, for him anyway, but the slow torture he went through in the hours before his death began to make up for the agony he’d caused others during the past thirty seven years of his existence. I felt life tingle in my toes as I suggested in a story sort of way, what she did. I almost regretted my second to last act on this earth at that moment. My last being what was scheduled to happen in a few days.
Susie’s next shift was three days later. When I saw her, she’d had her hair dyed and she was wearing a little make up for the first time ever. She smiled at me from across the yard where we were doing our daily exercise, or in Martha’s case, our daily gossip, and gave a single wave. I knew Susie’s nightmares had finished, and that Amie’s would never begin.
“I can cuff her if you like,” Susie offers the two FBI agents. The male, whose skin looked on the verge of being haggard, as the muscles used to smile were now as flaccid as a retired wrestler’s, looked at me with interest. I would have been different to the photos he would have seen in my file, or in the newspapers at the time, as they would have been twenty-five years out of date. I was old now, although I would have been old twenty five years ago in comparison to his companion.
“It’s fine,” he said. “I think we can leave the cuffs off.”
Susie nodded and gave me a smile. “It’s my last week,” she said. “I’ve got a place at college.”
I felt tears prick at the back of my eyes, and I said nothing as I smiled back, just giving the smallest of nods.
“Congratulations,” the female agent says to her. I wouldn’t have said she was pretty, she wasn’t young enough for pretty, but she was good to look at with her chestnut hair and clear, porcelain skin. I watch, interested, for it’s not often enough that we get new folk in to pay attention to. “What are you going to study?”
“Criminology,” Susie says and catches my eye. “The buzzer’s on the wall near the door. Press it when you’re done, or if you need coffee. Or if Marguerite is misbehaving.”
Then both these agents look at me, and for a moment I see what they see. I’m withered now; inches shorter than what I was in my prime; my hair is downy, almost like a baby’s in its fineness, and the weight I’ve lost in the past few months has reduced my body to bone with empty flesh sheathing the innards. I am no longer attractive, now I am like a butterfly awaiting death.
But this is my final flight, my last dance around the light.
A chance to count the stars.
“You’ve asked to tell someone what you did,” the female agent says. “We’ve come to listen.” She introduces herself and her companion. He sits back, arms folded, appraising me with dark eyes. I struggle back a smile. He needs to laugh more and I wonder what life has offered him so far. What kind of a man is he? How many people has he killed with the guns he has carried over the years? With his hands? For a woman or a child? For himself? Will he answer my questions? Maybe.
“I had a way with men,” I begin to tell them, trying to ignore the stories behind his own eyes. It doesn’t matter whether I’m aware of their business or not – what does it matter to me? I’ll be dead in three days.
That certainty of knowing exactly when one will die is both terrifying and exhilarating, like standing at the top of a mountain and seeing the world around you, knowing that in a moment you will fly. I had no regrets, and I had no reason to make amends. No god I believed in would condemn me for what I had done, and as there was no proof of hell, unless I was there already, I had nothing to fear.
“I had a way with men,” I repeat. “Ever since I was a small girl I knew how to charm them. I guess I was a bit like Lolita. I liked their attention, I liked the way I could manipulate them, but they could never do the same to me. I saw men as a different species, less intelligent. They lacked the finesse of women and girls. Their bodies were awkward, as were their minds. They lacked empathy and the ability to understand why a person may act as they did. I felt sorry for them.”
I glance at him, the agent, and he’s listening intently. He’s intelligent, enough to not be insulted by what I’ve just said as he knows I am generalising.
“But I also detested them. I saw their baseness from an early age. They were driven by sex and power. My father would come home after getting his pay on a Friday afternoon and make me go out to play with my friends or go see my grandmother who lived a mile away. One day I didn’t do what I was told, and instead I hid in the garden, which was overgrown with shrubs and trees and sat with the spiders and beetles, listening to the animal noises that came from within the house.
“They scared me at first, and then I began to recognise their tone. I heard my mother scream and realised that any pain she was in was pleasurable, and that there was pleasure to be found in pain. Then I heard my father laugh a few moments later and I dug my finger nails into the soil. This was why he was happy all weekend; he had claimed his woman, brought home the money to keep his home his and he was in charge. And my mother got whatever she wanted.
“At least he thought he was in charge. What he didn’t know was that my mother was having an affair with a man who came by once a week. He was a photographer named James Phillips, a nice man who brought me candy. My mother smiled after his visits like she never smiled on a Friday. I didn’t understand why until my third husband.”
I pause for a moment, watching the agents again. They are both so young, and so unknowing. I don’t doubt that they have seen areas of life others will never even consider, but there are experiences they have not yet tasted. The sweetest peach on the hottest day; the touch of a lover’s skin when there is nothing else to consider except the snow outside; the look in the eyes of the person you love just before –
“How many men did you kill?” the girl asks me. It’s what they all want to know. I confessed and gave proof of only one, but told the judge in court that there were several others. I studied the law beforehand, and knew exactly what I needed to show to be given the death penalty. But they wanted more than my confession. I look at her pale skin, her dark eyes contrasting with her complexion. The eyes could have sullied her skin, but there was a depth in them that allowed a reflection of her thoughts. She was not a complex girl to read, but I figured that the man next to her still found her an enigma.
“Seventeen,” I tell her, the first time I have revealed this number and the word tastes as sweet as a cherry.
“Do you remember them all?” he says. He has a quiet voice, one that is good to listen to. One that would be good for uttering all the words a woman wants to hear. He’s genuine one though. Those words would never be weapons.
“Each and every one. And yes, I still think about them, I still relive what I did like watching a favourite scene from a movie, or looking at a photograph album.” I laugh, my lips curled in irony. It’s a serial killer trait, to want to go over your crimes in your mind. “I’m no different to the other killers you have spoken to in that respect, Agent. I enjoyed what I did, and that’s why I knew they had to lock me up.” My eyes dance, and I know he can’t decide whether I am sane or not. I enjoy his confusion.
“Let me tell you how it started,” I say. “But first, we all need a coffee.” He does as he’s bid and I see her eyes dance at him as he gets up to buzz Susie. I doubt Agent Toner, as he’s called, is used to taking orders, and it’s amused her that he is taking them from me. But like I said, I have a way with men.
“How long have you been in the FBI for?” I ask Louisa.
“A decade or just over,” she says. “I’ve been a profiler for four years.” She doesn’t quite understand me yet. She knows what I’ve done, but she’s not sure why, and she’s not scared of me. Why should she be? I never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it.
Louisa stands up and walks over to Toner. They stand close, closer than colleagues should. Most people keep a distance of around eighteen inches from each other; get within a foot and there’s something less than platonic going on. They weren’t aware of it; their guards were down as they wouldn’t stand so close in front of their colleagues, or their boss. But I was irrelevant. Who was I going to tell? They knew I could keep secrets.
Susie comes with the coffees, and a plate of sandwiches that she has somehow persuaded the cook to make. I raise an eyebrow – or what remains of it as my hair is so thin now, and she smiles. “They’re fine,” she says. “I have no reason…” She gives a dramatic shrug for comic effect and I wonder how long it will be before she’s lost weight. She has no reason not to now.
“Who was your first victim?” Toner asks, and I know he has chosen the word victim to get a reaction so I laugh and give him one.
“Victim? None of them were victims,” I smile, remembering the first kill. I don’t dress up what I did, I killed them. I didn’t put them out of their misery, because it wasn’t their misery I was putting them out of. “I was fifteen, almost sixteen, and his name was Benoit Robles. He was the father of a girlfriend…”
…and the leaves had already begun to be plundered by Autumn; their yellows and reds a reflection of the late afternoon sun. We had homework, an essay to write, but more importantly I had a dress to make up for the dance that coming Friday, and sewing was not my strong point.
Angela excelled in dressmaking. Even at sixteen she was being asked by the women of the neighbourhood to make skirts and dresses for them, and she was making a fair few dollars from her talent. Her father took the money, we all guessed that, because she could never afford any material for her own clothes. Some of the women had realised this and now paid her in cloth instead.
I had discarded my shoes and walked barefoot along the long woodland path that joined our two homes. I didn’t care much for the ladylike conventions. My hair was too long and tangled, and there was mud spattered up my leg from playing with my little brother. I had a tear to the front of my skirt that needed mending for the third time, but there were more interesting things to do.
Angela had moved to our town two years ago, and living so close in comparison, we had become good friends. She always came to mine though, saying her father didn’t like to be bothered by her, and didn’t want the noise of her and her friends. I didn’t think too much of it, until I made my way through the trees and their undressing of leaves, to the small house where Angela lived.
She was slouched like an abandoned doll on the bench outside, her shoulder shaking. For a moment, I stood and watched, working out what might have happened. I heard the sound of chopping wood, an axe falling through the air and slicing its target. As I walked closer I could see red marks around her neck, marks that would mean she’d miss the dance on Friday.
When she noticed me, she looked startled; ashamed then afraid. “You need to go,” she mouthed. “Before he sees you.”
I shook my head. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never seen any reason to be. “What did he do?” I said aloud.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just go.”
“No.” I knew what he had done. “Is this the first time it’s happened?”
Angela laughed quietly and shook her head. “It’s why my mother left.”
“Why don’t you come stay with me?” It wasn’t a stupid offer. My mom wouldn’t mind as long as she helped around the house and with my brothers and sisters, and my dad was better natured now than he had been in years thanks to the success of his business.
She stared at the ground, her feet frozen to it and I knew she was hurting in more ways than one. “No. I can’t. I’ll help you with your dress later. I’ll come over to you.” She stood up and disappeared into the house.
I watched her go in, the material dripping down from my hand onto the floor creating a yellow pool. Then I heard a man’s voice.
It didn’t scare me, it fact, it made me stronger. I knew what he was.
I turned around and looked at him. He strode towards me, almost a foot taller than I was and broad. I didn’t move.
He grabbed me between my legs through my torn skirt and pushed his face close to mine. “If you say anything…”
I stared at him coldly. “I won’t say anything,” I said. He let go and backed away, still staring at me. I waited until he’d gone before I started back along the path, a battle between us as to who would go first and I think my lack of fear scared him. I could hear the chopping of wood again, cold against the warm heat of the autumn sun. Birds sang, and rabbits scrambled between the bushes.
I could tell my father, who would no doubt take his own axe around to Angela’s father’s, but that would create problems for my own family. I climbed up a tree to the fifth branch and sat down; I was too light for it to even sway gently and no one would see me up there, unless they looked up, which they never do. People rarely look in any place bar the obvious.
That evening, after Angela had been round as promised, and helped me get started on the dress, I began to lay out some plans. I persuaded my mom and dad to go out that Friday, letting Angela look after my youngest brother and sister. Mom had seen the red marks on her neck, and cast me a knowing glance, so she agreed without question. I guess I learned a lot from my mom.
And then I went hunting, seeking places that only a girl brought up in the woodlands would know about…
The agents’ eyes were brimming with questions, but neither of them said anything. I sat back a little in the chair, and studied them. Without looking, I knew that their knees were close enough to be touching under the table, but not quite. I liked her; she was straightforward, I could tell. She would fight on the side of those who needed it, and nothing would even persuade her sense of right and wrong to be moved. But would I? It didn’t matter if I didn’t or I did.
“Have you heard of amanitas?” I say, looking at both agents.
The man nods, and I figure there’s not much he hasn’t heard of. “Amanitas are mushrooms,” he says. “Commonly known as Destroying Angels.”
I bow my head and smile, like a teacher would do to acknowledge a correct answer. “They are one of the deadliest forms of fungi to be found. One cap can kill a man. My grandfather picked mushrooms; he lived very much off the land, and when I was small he’d take me with him. Amanitas are easy to confuse with other – edible – mushrooms, which is part of the reason you rarely find an old mushroom hunter. I learned early on what one looked like and I knew never to pick it.
“But that evening, after mom had agreed to Angela looking after the little ones, I took the dog for a walk through the woods and found where the amanitas grew. I didn’t pick them, the fresher the better, but I began to feel confident in what I had planned.”
Louisa shifts forward some. “Did you ever feel guilty? That what you were doing was wrong?”
I laugh. “No, why should I? If you’re dead you don’t feel anything. Angela wasn’t dead but she felt like dying every day because of what he was doing to her…”