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…The agents are still saying very little. They haven’t interrupted me in the entire time I’ve been speaking. I’d expected them to bombard me with questions, to leave no stone unturned, but that hasn’t happened. I’d like to know what they’re thinking, but Toner is as unreadable as a code without a key.
“How did you make sure Clara was planning to kill her step mother?” Louisa says. She’s eaten five sandwiches now. She reminds me of how I was with my appetite, yet never put on an ounce of weight.
“I watched her,” I say. “I had to make sure, otherwise I was doing something far more wrong than what I intended, and I knew that if she planned to tamper with Mama’s medicines, she’d have to do it gradually. I also knew she was desperate. It didn’t take much – just a few drinks – to get her husband to explain how he was about to lose all his money, and possibly their house. I liked him, however much he talked to my chest, and tried to brush his hand against my thigh, he would never have done anything more unless I’d instigated it. I knew Clara had a good life insurance policy, so he would be alright.
“Clara began to visit Mama more often, something Victor and Edward both noticed. They thought it was down to remorse, that her outburst that Sunday had caused her to think more kindly about her stepmother, and I didn’t correct them.”
“Did you look forward to what you were going to do?” Toner says. He’s not eaten yet, and I wonder if he’d prefer something warm instead. I doubt he snacks, he’s too regimented for snacks. Three regular meals a day, and fruit in between. He needs to indulge sometimes. I hope she teaches him that.
“Of course,” I say. “I’m a murderer, Agent Toner. I guess you’d classify me as a psychopath now. It was all I could think about when I was on my own, what I would do. I didn’t like her, and I’d seen the hurt she’d caused, particularly to Mama. My looking forward to it helped me to plan. I made sure I was around Mama’s a lot, checking the medicine cupboard after each of Clara’s visits. I knew what each pill looked like, and I could see that when Mama was having a bad day – and there were days she wouldn’t know who we were or that her husband was dead, there would be extra pills, or ones I didn’t recognise in her pill box. I corrected it, made sure they were always correct, and I saw Clara become more and more frustrated at Mama’s too slow decline.
“Her husband was away in New York, and I called him to ask how long he’d be away for, requesting he bring me back a gift from Macy’s. He needed to have a tight alibi, as I had no intention of making Clara’s death look like an accident…”
…It was March, and spring was coming late. Winter was still at large in the air, and plantation owners and farmers were worrying about late frosts. On a Wednesday, Clara had a bridge night at the house of an affluent friend. It was a regular occurrence, and whatever the weather, she would go, returning shortly before eleven. I knew this well, as it had become a time for me to see her husband. I missed sex, having become used to its presence in my life, and being Edward’s wife meant it wasn’t available as it used to be, so I began an affair with Charles. He was a nice man, and he served a purpose for me, and I him.
With Charles away, and both Victor and Edward in New Orleans on business, there were few people to be implicated in what I was about to do. I was staying with Mama, having claimed my own home felt too unsafe with Edward away, and there had been several robberies in the area where people had been hurt, a useful happening for me, anyway.
I helped Mama to bed, and asked if she would mind me sleeping on the chaise longue in her room. We’d become closer over the past few months. She’d been lucid when I’d had the news that my own mother had passed away, and she had become my confidante on the days when she was well enough.
“I’ll be here all night, Mama,” I said, my heart pounding as I pretended to read a book. I waited for her to go to sleep, then left the house with the bag I’d already packed through an open window and ran to Clara and Charles’ house, a mile and a half away. The night was cold, yet I didn’t feel it. I was inhuman at that point, something had awoken within me, and again I was untouchable, just like the night when I had killed Angela’s father.
I used a brick to break the glass of the door that led out onto the garden, and went through the house, pulling down pictures and breaking their frames, knocking over ornaments and lamps, and pulling out drawers. I didn’t enjoy the untidiness of it, the mess. I already preferred my killings to be neat affairs, with little aftermath, but this one had to be different.
I took a sharp carving knife from the kitchen and hid in the shadows by the main door, the door which Clara always used. A million scenarios flipped through my head as I waited; what if she brought a man back with her? A woman? What if she didn’t come back or Charles came home early? And then I heard the key twist in the lock and the door pushed open.
Her gasp echoed through the hallway as she saw the disarray in front of her, and then fear seeped in, so much I could almost hear her heart pounding. Her eyes were wide and her feet were too heavy on the ground to move. I shifted silently from the side, slipping behind her without her noticing. Her eyes were stuck on the photograph of her own mother, now on the floor, a man’s footprint staining it.
I yanked back her hair and she screamed, but the house was too far away from her neighbours for them to hear.
“Please, please,” she said, begging. “I’ll give you anything you want…”
I put the blade to her throat, feeling adrenaline flow through my bloodstream in a current as fast as a tsunami. We were the same height, and she was bigger than me, but I was lithe and muscular, fitter than she was and nimble. “I don’t want anything,” I told her.
“Marguerite?” Her plea was desperate. “Why are you doing this?”
I didn’t respond. The blade was freshly sharpened and I didn’t need to apply much pressure as I slide it from right to left with my left hand, the opposite of what I would have done naturally. She fell to the floor, just alive still, and looked at me with eyes that were becoming as vacant as Mama’s on a bad day.
I used the old men’s shoes I had brought with me, found in someone’s garbage a few days ago when I had been to deliver the brownies, and walked through the blood that was still pouring from her. Bloody footprints stained the floor, and I heard a last gasp from Clara as I walked her blood into the cream woollen carpet she was so proud of.
I’d opened a window, and exited through that, leaving the shoes behind and ran barefoot across the fields through the dark camouflage of night. Smith Mountain Lake was a fifteen minute run through the woods, and I didn’t feel the scratches of dead branches on my legs and feet as I galloped along the path like a gazelle. I felt exhilarated, the rush of blood warming my body enough so that I was numb to the icy fingers of the water as I dived in, soaking my clothes and my skin, ridding myself of any visible evidence. In a couple of days, at Mama’s, I would put the clothes on the incinerator, let them burn. Until then, I would store them under Mama’s bed, a place no police officer would think to look. The water was still, and I moved through it like a fish, keeping the lake’s skin uncreased.
The cold of the March air didn’t sting my wet skin as I ran back to Mama’s. I slipped back in through the window, and changed in the room that had become my own, towel drying my hair. I had washed it before helping Mama get into bed, so no one would question the wet pillow case. Mama was still fast asleep, her face gentled by the night and her breathing steady and deep. I had no idea how long she would have left in this house, for how many months she would remain on this planet, but it would be for longer now.
Sleep came easily, far easier than it should, and I didn’t recall my dreams when I woke the next morning. I helped Mama get dressed and then we walked outside to celebrate the start of a good day for her, and I noticed the first true flower of spring raising its head to the sun that seemed to be shining a little brighter…
…“How long was it before Clara’s body was discovered?” Louisa asks, her fingers entwined together as she studies me.
“It was three days later. I didn’t know at the time, but she had cancelled her daily maid service and had a cleaner coming in twice a week instead to save money. No one had expected to see her, at least, not enough to raise an alarm,” I say, remembering the day, and the reaction from my husband and Mama. “The postman dropped by with the mail, and smelt something odd. He looked through the window and saw the mess that had been left, then contacted the police. They put it down to the robberies that had been happening in the nearby city, especially when they saw the shoe print that was the same size and pattern as one left at another scene. That was a useful coincidence – I think I may have picked up the shoes worn by one of the culprits from the crimes I was mimicking.”
Toner raises his brows to me, as if questioning what he’s hearing. For all they know, I could be making this entire thing up; an elderly woman’s last grasp for attention, my last chance to mark my time in the world, and it doesn’t bother me if he does think that, for who is he to judge? “What were the reactions of your husband and brother-in-law?” he asks.
I look down at the table, remembering them like far away views from the top of a mountain. “I think it was relief. There was little discussion and few tears. Even Charles was stoic about the whole thing. We went through the motions of giving her a funeral. Charles received the life insurance without a problem and moved to New York. The house was sold, and I persuaded Edward to rent our property to a man and his wife who had just been employed to manage the part of business there in Virginia. Edward was spending more and more time in New Orleans, and as much as l loved it there, I didn’t want to spend weeks away from Mama at a time, so I began to care for her full time, with the help of the nurse.”
“For how long did you live there?” Louisa asks. Her coffee has gone cold. We must ask Susie to bring us more.
“You mean, for how long did she live?” I smile. People hide behind euphemisms. I prefer to stand in front of honesty. “Three more years. I stayed with her up until the day she died, and then long enough to help sort her belongings. We sold the house and auctioned its contents, and I moved to Chesapeake to be closer to my sister. Edward returned home every time he needed a shoulder to cry on, or had business to attend to in the area, but we lived separate lives, except for our finances. He was generous, as was Victor. I had cared for Mama, and Edward said once that he could never have given her grandchildren, but he gave her the daughter she always wanted. That meant a lot to me. I left Chesapeake three months before Edward died to go to New Orleans and nurse him. His body had succumbed to some horrific illness not long after Henrique had become sick and died quickly, but Edward died peacefully in the city he loved, and then I moved on, wealthier than I had even dreamed, with no dependants and the rest of my life to do as I wished.”
How hopeless those words now sound, having spent the last quarter of a century without the freedom to choose what clothes I wear that day. The irony of it is not lost on my two agents; their gaze has changed somewhat now. They are unsure and know not what to say.
“You were never caught,” Toner says. “You turned yourself in and gave the police and judge enough evidence to sentence you to death. Why?”
I study him, and I can see by the way he holds every muscle in his face so still that my stare is irking him. He doesn’t know how to deal with me yet, like most men. He knows he would never have to use force with me, yet I am a killer, and he is used to having to consider using some violence with the killers he has met, even those who are in jail. “Agent Toner,” I say. “Have you ever killed someone?”
He nods. “It’s part of my job.”
“To protect someone – your colleagues probably?” I say. I can see Louisa wince. I’m close to home here. He identifies with me and that’s what has silenced his usual questions.
“The public, and my children,” he says. I wait. There is more but he doesn’t say. He has never even said it to himself.
It is a confession, yet I am no priest. I can give no one solace and I have no intention of trying. “Then you and I are not unalike. Did you enjoy it?”
I know he is going to be honest here. His face has lost some of its anxiousness and a little of that introspection has been turned outwards. “Yes,” he says. “What I remember of the time. Afterwards I felt hate that I had to take a life, but I never felt guilty.”
I nod. “I’ve never felt guilt. I’ve never felt sad that I took a life either –maybe that’s why I’m a serial killer and you’re an FBI agent; it’s the remorse that makes us different. There’s one more murder I’d like to share with you – the last one. The one I confessed to. Do you have time?”
Louisa glances at the watch that Toner has given her. She’s well dressed, and her suit is of good, but not the top, quality. The watch, however, is one of the best money can buy. It’s discreet rather than flashy, practical yet delicate enough to sit on a slim wrist, but it’s bulletproof. She’d never have picked it for herself, or spent that amount of money, and my guess is that it’s instead of an engagement ring. I make sure she sees me looking at the watch and then I look at her. She smiles, glancing fleetingly at it this time to admire the memories instead of the time. “We do,” she says, not explaining what has just had to give to hear one more story.