…That Friday night I went to the dance with a boy named Ben. We danced and laughed. He drank some of his dad’s whisky that he’d smuggled out, but I refused. At first it made him worry, that I was prudish, but I showed him that I was not. All the time I was thinking of what I was going to do once the sun had set properly, and it made me feel alive. I was the most powerful person in the universe at that moment, and nothing could change that.
I left Ben and the music, and started to walk to Angela’s house. Her father was a regular at one of the bars in town, but I knew what time he would be home; it was the same every Friday night; she would leave whatever she was doing with me to run back home and be there for his arrival. I knocked on his door, noticing that the light was on, and he opened up looking dishevelled and drunk.
“Why are you here?” he said, and I felt his eyes travel across my skin, appraising what Ben had been feeling only an hour earlier. It didn’t disgust me, although it probably should, because I knew I knew what I was feeling was wrong. Girls my age didn’t do this. Not nice ones.
“Why do you think?” I said, widening my eyes, and pushing my chest forward.
He licked his lips. “You’d better come in then.”
I put my purse down on the kitchen counter before he began to paw me. “You gonna tell anyone?” he said. “Tell Angela?”
“No,” I said, once his mouth started to travel down my neck. He could barely stand, and I knew other parts of him weren’t working either. I knew too much for my age, but then I guess I’d been born old. I had my first proper boyfriend at fourteen, a summer romance. He’d been a ranch hand two miles away, and good with his hands. “What would people think if I told?”
“That you’re easy?” he said. Even if he wasn’t so drunk, I doubt he would have said anything else.
I let him continue, before breaking off, allowing my breath to have become slightly quickened.
“What is it?” he said, his hands at the top of my legs.
“You’re too drunk,” I said, stating the obvious. “Why don’t I cook you something to sober up? I don’t need to be home till morning. We have all night.”
He gaped at me, as if he couldn’t believe his luck. I smiled, running a hand through my hair, and pulling my dress back down to a decent level. My hair was mussed and I could feel that I was flushed. It wasn’t him, it was the power, the control, the knowing.
“Okay,” he said. “Can I ask, Marguerite, why d’you come here?”
Flattering a drunken male is never difficult. “Because I wanted a man. You go sit down – I’ll cook you some eggs and mushrooms.”
He was half asleep when I brought him his supper. He ate greedily, gazing all the time at the patches of uncovered flesh I had left on show. I gave him a mug of coffee, heavily laced with my grandmother’s sleeping tablets, and watched as he finished.
“I think I should marry you,” he said. It wasn’t a strange thing to say. It was the 1950’s and there was no reason why in a few months I shouldn’t marry. Although spending anything more than a little killing time with a monster like him was unthinkable.
I smiled, watching as he started to drift off to sleep, everything eaten. I left the plate and mug where they were and slipped out of the house through an open window, having made sure the door was locked from the inside.
The woodland was never as welcoming as that evening. The waning moon was clear in the sky, and everything was lit as if with magic. I felt no shame or guilt, just happiness and a sense of achievement that no perfect score at school had ever given me.
Angela was asleep on the sofa when I got home, my younger siblings tucked away in bed and my parents still out at another neighbour’s where my dad was playing poker and my mom drinking gin. I woke her up and told her to stay the night, go home in the morning to give her dad her babysitting money my folks had paid, and then we’d go to the lake for the day.
It never bothered me that I knew what she would find when she got home. Symptoms from ingesting amanitas took about five hours to show, but by that time his liver and kidney tissue would be destroyed, and he wouldn’t have even been conscious. If he did awake, he would find himself in a pool of vomit and diarrhoea, shaking like he had never done from whisky, and excruciating stomach pain. And there would be no one there to help…
“That night,” I continue. They hadn’t interrupted yet and I wondered what they thought. “That night I slept like a baby. When I went with Angela later the next morning, he was already dead. The doctor said he must have made himself a late night snack, having picked up the wrong sort of mushrooms that were growing wild. I’d made sure to leave a couple of amanitas uncooked so they would know why he had died, save them looking too closely. He’d been drunk, and made a simple mistake. Angela’s mom heard and came back for her, and I lost my friend. But that didn’t matter. I didn’t kill him to keep her my friend forever.”
Toner sits back, stretching slightly, and I realise how much time has passed in the telling of my first time. There isn’t time enough left for me to explain each death like this, not before it is time for my own. “Did Angela know it was you?” Toner says.
I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe. Does it matter if she did? She was never any different towards me before she left, except sometimes I caught her starting at me, so maybe she did have an idea.”
Their hands are close to each other, both lying palm down on the table, the others around their coffee. I smile knowingly, making it obvious enough for them to notice and Toner looks at me with questions.
“You’re together, happily so. You should let those scars heal now, you know, maybe smile some,” I say, not caring if I speak out of turn.
Louisa laughs now and looks at Toner. He remains as straight faced as when I first saw him, and Louisa tries to curb her laughter.
“You killed seventeen men altogether?” He has taken his notebook out now. I’m relieved to see it as I want this recording, but not on one of those dictating machines.
“No,” I say. I know where he has the mistake from. “I killed seventeen people, but two of them were female.” I list the names now, giving him time to write each one down, and telling him the place where they had lived. Few of these deaths would be unsolved murders. Most were registered as accidents.
He puts down the notebook at looks at me with honest eyes. “Why have you decided to discuss what you’ve done twenty five years since you were incarcerated?” he says. “There may be a stay of execution while further investigations are carried out, but without much evidence, it’s unlikely to take long.”
I smile again, this time wistfully. “I don’t want a stay of execution – I have no need to live any longer, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to hurt the relatives of these people I killed,” I tell him, taking a sandwich. It’s ham and I wonder if either of them are Jewish. “People have always asked, and I’ve never wanted to tell. I didn’t kill these people to become famous, or to get my name in the papers.”
“Then why did you kill them, Marguerite?” Louisa says. I see her looking at the sandwiches and I push the plate towards her.
“Because they were causing so much harm,” I say, and I feel a shake in my voice. “And I enjoy killing people.” I feel cold saying it, but it’s the truth, the lovely warm truth about the little old lady sat at the table, eating a ham sandwich. I’ve answered her next question already, too. She would have wanted to ask why I never simply went to the police – that would have taken the fun away, and besides, the police may not always have the evidence, in which case a whistle blower causes more harm than good.
“Let me tell you about Clara Jones,” I say. “I don’t have time to tell you about them all, and I’m sure you have other places to go anyway, but let me tell you about Clara.”
Toner nods, his shoulder brushing Louisa’s and I remind myself to ask them about their relationship before they go.
“Clara was my sister-in-law,” I say as Louisa picks up a sandwich. She must be hungry, as there’s few people who can eat at the same time that murder’s being discussed. “My second husband’s elder sister. I was twenty-three and by this age I had killed three people, none of which had been murder enquiries, although the second – David Holland – had been touch and go for a while. Clara was older than my husband by eleven years, making her forty seven. Their parents had been plantation owners in the south and in North Carolina, and had ended up with enough money to make them comfortable for the rest of their lives and a few years beyond that.
“Their father died too early, and Mama Jones suffered greatly after his death. She had a mild stroke which left her confused and needing looking after all day and during the night…
…“She’s eating away at our inheritance. We should fine a care home that’s cheaper than this live-in nursing thing – or even better, have Marguerite take care of her!”
It was Clara again, the same thing being said again on yet another Sunday evening. Her voice was as brittle as dried wood and it echoed around the room that had been furnished beyond my imagination with expensive furniture and ornate decorations from fifty years ago.
I loved this room, the drawing room, and I would sit here for hours on a hot day, soaking in the shade as I sketched. Mama Jones would sit with me, enjoying the silence, and gazing out of the window at nothing in particular.
Now though, it was filled with Clara’s cries for Mama Jones to be taken away from her refuge, her prime concern money, as it always was. I glanced at my husband, husband number two as I had been widowed at twenty, and hoped he would gain the backbone to say something against Clara’s proposal.
“Clara,” Victor said, the middle of Mama Jones’ three beneficiaries, and perhaps the one with the most sense. “There will be enough money for everyone, even if we make sure that Mama has the best level of care. She could live for years yet. Could you really live with going to visit her in a home once a week, knowing you’d taken her away from the place she loved best?”
My sister-in-law’s face contorted with something that should have been shame, but I read correct as her reaction to being caught out. Clara had no love for her mother; she had been a daddy’s girl, and had resented the attention her father had given his wife. She was also Mama Jones’ stepdaughter, her own mother having died shortly after childbirth, and even though there had never been any difference in Mama’s eyes, Clara had always borne umbrage towards her.
I turned my eyes away from the book I was reading and looked towards Victor. He was playing chess with my husband, Edward, only he was half concentrating while Edward was fully immersed in trying to beat his elder brother. “I don’t think Clara would have an issue with visiting Mama in a care home because she’d be too busy spending the money to visit,” I said, making sure my voice was clear.
Edward looked up at me, cigarette in hand. He coughed a little, smoke spilling out into the blue of the room. “Now, Reet,” he said. “I’m sure that’s not entirely true.” He looked towards his sister who sat surly on the large sofa, her legs curled behind her in a manner that looked most uncomfortable. Clara hadn’t liked me from the start; I had always been too much of a threat to her. That, and she suspected that my marriage to her brother was a sham.
There was a note of sarcasm in Edward’s voice that was unmistakable, and Clara look at him with wasps of fury in her eyes. “I only want what’s best for mother, and ourselves,” she said, shooting out her words like bullets. The first part of her sentence sounded hollow, and even Victor looked upset. Clara was like a dog with a bone when she got an idea into her head, and she would pester both her brothers until they gave in, just for a peaceful life.
She didn’t work; never had to. Cosseted by her father, and then married to a wealthy business man, she had far too much time on her hands having never had children. Instead she organised various women’s events and took classes in music and painting, in neither of which she excelled. After I returned from my marriage to Edward, I tried to get to know her, to form some sort of relationship with her, despite the difference in age. But she had found me repugnant; my youth, and probably the teenage-like slenderness of my limbs and body showed up what she had become. She detested my sketching, and disliked the fact that I could hold a decent conversation with almost anyone, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t had a good education.
“Look,” Clara said. “No one wants to look after Mama…”
“Neither Edward nor I have the time,” Victor said. “Which is why we employ someone Mama is happy with. I see no reason to change the status quo here, Clara. Unless Mama gets in a way where she is unable to function here even with help, she stays in the house that she loves, with her belongings and her family nearby. And it’s out of the question to ask Reet to look after her. Mama is not Reet’s responsibility.”
I wouldn’t have minded. As Edward’s wife, I was not expected to work. Instead, the hopes were that I would conceive quickly, and carry on the family name. Both Edward and I knew that it was unlikely to happen. Clara was correct in her assumption; the marriage was a sham, an agreement between two people who did love each other very much, but it was a love that friends shared, not lovers. I needed a shield, having inherited a rather large sum of money from my first husband who died in circumstance that weren’t apparently suspicious, and Edward needed cover. He had a lover, one in New Orleans, named Henrique. Henrique was a sweet boy, gentle and kind, the same age as myself, and we had spent a joyous fortnight with him on our honeymoon, enjoying the music, the food and the drink.
And the nights. While my ‘husband’ and his lover had disappeared to bed, I had discovered my own religion; the soft sounds of the saxophone and the way it made me move, the easy acquaintances and those long hours of darkness, more colourful that the days . Those two weeks have always stayed with me, never fading memories, a picture that has never lost its hue.
Clara stood up uncomfortably, straightening the dress she had worn that was a little too tight. “We have to think of ourselves, you know,” she said. “We can’t always think of Mama.”
Edward looked up from the chess board, his forehead creased with a frown, as if he had just realised something. “Clara,” he said. “Is there a problem at home? Do you need money? If that’s the case, we can always sort something out for you.”
I looked back down at my sketch book, bracing myself for the thunderstorm that was about to break. I had speculated to Edward before that Clara’s husband wasn’t doing as well as he had been at work, and she was struggling to maintain the lifestyle to which she had become dependent.
She didn’t respond, which surprised me. Instead she left the room, focusing on only the door and slammed it behind her, creating a thud which was enough to knock over one of Edward’s pawns.
I followed her out, not rushing, but my instincts told me that her exit had been too calm for Clara, and something else was weighing on her mind. My feet were bare, as usual, something no rich husband had managed to cure me of, and made no sound on the heavy wooden flooring that was so intricately designed.
Clara didn’t see me as I stood at the kitchen threshold while she looked through Mama’s medication. She was reading the doctor’s notes, looking at the dosage, and I knew then exactly what she was planning to do. It would be easier for Mama to die now and then we could all get our inheritance. Clara’s money problems would never have to be aired and there would be no conflict between her and her brothers to try to win.
I coughed, making her aware of my presence and she stared at me, her hands still grasping the pill bottles. “I was just checking…”
“Her medication is still the same. Nothing’s changed since the last prescription the doctor gave her,” I knew full well that Clara had no idea of what that was anyway, having been around as little as dutifully possible.
She lifted up her chin. “Oh. That’s good then.” She put the bottles back and shut the door. “I need to get home.”
Clara moved the quickest I’d ever seen her, scuttling out of the room like a spider. I didn’t follow her, toying with the notion of telling Edward and Victor what I had just seen, but that wouldn’t stop what Clara had planned, they’d be too static, unbelieving that a person could do such a thing. But I knew they could.
The kitchen table was generally used by the maid and the man-servant employed by Mama. No one from the family sat there generally, accept me. I would walk to the house some mornings and have coffee with Aliyah and Wendell, help make some brownies to take to a poor family who lived nearby, and learn to make Jambalaya. Mama would sometimes join us, when she was clear in her mind, and she would recount stories of the south, of her days in Mexico as a girl, and she would ask about Henrique, Edward’s friend in New Orleans, and if we’d heard from him recently.
She knew. She always knew.
I looked out of the big glass doors out over the gardens, manicured like a queen’s nails, and contemplated what to do. Clara was my sister-in-law, Edward’s sister, and she was loved in a way. Yet I couldn’t let her do what she had planned, what I thought she had planned.
My thoughts were interrupted by the tapping of a stick against the floor, and I looked up to see Mama standing there, her thick greying hair styled in the manner of the 1900’s, looking as gentrified and as beautiful as she had in her wedding photograph, albeit in a different way. Her face was worn but her eyes still shone as blue as the Louisiana sky.
“You’re not smiling, Reet,” she said, coming to the table and sitting down, her hips visibly creaking. “Has my daughter been upsetting you again?”
“It takes a lot more than Clara to upset me, Mama,” I said. “You want coffee?”
She shook her head. “Bourbon. It’ll not do me any harm.”
She had a bottle – or rather several bottles – that her sons were unaware of. Mama liked a bourbon, more than what they knew, and I saw no harm in her indulging in a small comfort. Clara disapproved, like she did of most things, saying it was ungodly, and wrong. She’d tried to take me to task when she found me drinking whisky one evening with her husband, discussing Eisenhower and the recession, her anger focused on the glass in my hand rather than the looks her husband was giving me.
I found the tumblers next to the bourbon and went to the ice house. She didn’t like it too cold, it took away the burn, and eventually watered the drink down. When I returned, she was looking in the medicine cupboard, her cane fallen on the floor.
I put the tumblers down and picked it up for her, offering my arm to escort her back to the table. “She’s been looking, hasn’t she?”
“Clara?” I said, a rhetorical question. “You saw her too?”
Mama nodded. “I heard as well. Some days I hear everything, cher. Some days I hear nothing, and that’s the way the world goes, but today I heard everything.”
She knew. She knew like I did. I studied her, not as an elderly lady, but as a woman. She was dying, slowly. She knew she only had a certain amount of time left before another stroke took her, or some other ailment cut those last strings of life. An ailment possibly called Clara.
“Clara’s not going to do anything stupid, Mama,” I said, looking into those eyes that today saw so clearly. “I’ll make sure of that.”
“You’ll be the first,” she said, taking the tumbler to her lips and sipping at the amber liquid.
And the last, I thought…