Queen – Friday Flash Fiction

Queen – 131 words

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The woods weren’t there anymore. Trees failed to sway to the music of the birds and the ground was unsheltered from a harsh red sun that seemed ever closer.

Elizabeth crouched down close to the ground, the faint booms of bombs and explosions still being blasted in the distance. Everything was gone. Everything had been taken by this final war.

The air was still around her; the sky above had been plundered of its blues and greys by the smoke they had caused. Blood reds and black smoke in the sky mirrored her war. All because of her.

Elizabeth stood. It was time. They’d hunted her down like animals, tearing apart the ones who defended her. Now it was time, time she let them find her.

And then fought back.

Crime Writers and Other Strange Creatures – How writing doesn’t have to be a solitary profession

By the time I started writing stories my peers had already accepted that I was not of the norm.  I was ten.  I lived in a northern town full of mills and factories and when mentioning a desire to go to university my mother responded with ‘you have to be very clever to that.’ As it happened, I did end up at university, as did several of my peers.  As a ten year old I preferred to read books in the playground and spend my free time writing.  My (still) best friend and I would create radio stations and pop bands, writing annuals and magazine and song lyrics on our Saturdays, in between trips to the library to borrow Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams books.

 At secondary school, I would write stories for my friends and include them as characters.  By the age of fourteen, I’d planned out and handwritten the first 100 pages of a book, had been indulged by my rather wonderful English teacher and was determined to be published by the age of 21.

 Unfortunately, university and a degree in analyzing other people’s writing put me off my own.  In fact, after graduating, I managed a good three years of reading nothing but crime fiction, as it was one genre I avoided pulling to pieces in an essay.  Fanfiction found me and I discovered not only writing again, but other people who also had voices in their heads but didn’t necessarily need medicating.

 This was somewhat of a revelation.

 An online writers’ circle encouraged me to finish my first original novel, may it Rest in Peace, and several 100,000 word fanfiction stories, each becoming – in my opinion anyway – better.  Then of course, real life interfered again and I wasn’t settled enough to use my imagination, especially as my own life was a little like a soap opera at that point anyway.

 Twitter became my outlet of choice and I found other crime writers all of whom were snatching moments of time to compose stories, kill off characters and figure out the finer, scientific details without becoming a medical textbook.  At last!  I had found a group of peers where I didn’t stick out like an arm on a beach from a washed away corpse.  I wasn’t a freak!  Well, that’s still up for debate…

 Just before New Year I met with Mel Sherratt, best selling author of Taunting the Dead and the Estate series.  Mel lives not far from the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke, one of my places of pilgrimage, and we had a lovely lunch, talking about our characters as if they were real; how we develop plot and character; where ideas come from… The sorts of snippets of conversation 140 words on Twitter can tease you with were developed into agood old chat that ended up reigniting my flame for writing after a very consuming NaNoWriMo. Mel also gave me a couple of pointers on self-publishing, things I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.  Hopefully I was of some use to her, even if it was as a future victim in a novel!

 All writers have people inside their minds and stories that come from nowhere.  Crime writers may have what could be considered slightly more gruesome imaginations.  After all, we don’t just give birth to our characters, we kill them too.  Friends, upon informing them of what sort of tales I write, generally respond with ‘I’d better stay on your good side then’, which is sometimes almost upsetting.  I struggle to kill a fly in real life; I save mice from my cats and I’ve even learnt to let woodlice live!  If I didn’t like bacon so much I’d be vegetarian, but I can cope up with some strange and, let’s face it, ghastly, ways to die.

 So meeting up with Mel was somewhat of a revelation.  Here was someone who understood that just because I could come up with these, let’s call them ‘events’, it doesn’t mean that I am any ‘odder’ than your average person.  And I went home feeling invigorated.  Talking to someone else who loves their craft made me remember my own passion for telling stories, because occasionally, we do need reminding of it.

 I’m not yet published; I’m planning to self publish ‘We Were Never Alone’ at the end of May this year, so I’m not entirely sure what right I have in doing this, but I’d like to set up a few dates where writers – not just crime, whether published or not, can get together and have our Twitter conversations in real life, over a nice bite to eat.  I know there are many writers’ groups, but this isn’t one where we read each others stuff, just to have a chat, whinge, moan, wax lyrical about a new character or talk about shoes or football.  A get together where if you get your notebook or tablet out in the playground that is the pub/restaurant, you won’t be that weird kid with the strange imagination!

 If you’re interested, let me know either via this blog or @writerannie on Twitter  

How Far Away the Stars – Part 5

Final part, people!

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Part 5

“Twenty seven years ago, or nearly that, I moved back to Pennsylvania.  By this time I had been married four times and widowed four times, all of my husbands finding an early grave in one way or another,” I said, remembering each of their faces, Edward’s with the most fondness.

“How many did you kill?” Louisa says.  “And what happened to the ones that you didn’t?”

“Shall we ask for more coffee?”  I say, and she gets up to buzz for Susie, or whoever has taken place of her as I suspect Susie’s shift has now ended.  “I killed two.  My first was Harold Baker.  He’d been married before and cheated on his wife many times, spending her inheritance to finance prostitutes and refusing to share his own earnings.  I saw him make her life a living hell, and I vowed to take revenge after she took her own life.  It was from him that I inherited enough money to mean I didn’t need to remarry.  Edward, you know about.  My third husband died of cancer, a natural death if it can be called that.  He was a lovely man, but he drank and smoked, and regardless of what the doctors told him, he continued.

“My fourth husband – John Peterson – drowned, not by his own hands of course, and it certainly wasn’t an accident, although that was what it was deemed to be.  He was swindling money from his workers through their pension fund.  I spent weeks tracking down his finances before we were married – he was a clever man, but he lacked coordination so he’d never learnt to swim.” I sigh, recalling the nights it had taken and the smiles I had had to force in order to play the part of la belle femme who knew nothing about accountancy.   He fell for my seductive act, and it was easy to persuade him to take a midnight swim.  “He was my penultimate kill – victim if you like.”

“You didn’t call them victims earlier,” Toner says.  “Are you starting to believe that they were?”

“Well they were certainly victims of murder,” I say.  “I can justify to myself why I killed each one so I don’t think that they were true victims.  They certainly weren’t randomly chosen.”

“My last kill was a man named David Davis who lived with his mother in Troutville, the place I had moved to after John had drowned.  He lived with his mother in the house in which he had grown up, unmarried and unemployed, doing jobs as a handyman for the families and residents in his neighbourhood…”

 …It all seemed a little too perfect at first, the very picture of suburbia. I was in my late forties by this point, and looking for somewhere to settle.  After the initial quiet of the place, Troutville seemed ideal.  I worked in the local high school teaching domestic science three days a week, and occupied myself for the rest of the time with the various hobbies I’d picked up over the years, including writing letter to some of the friends I’d made in the places I’d lived.

 For the first time in what seemed like forever, no one bothered me.  I had no would be suitor trying to wheedle their way into my bank account, knew of no wrong-doings that were going on and just enough contact with the world as it was to keep me from going stir crazy.

 I lived at the end house on a quiet road which led to farmer’s fields.  It had previously been owned by a professional couple, with a taste for the old worldly, so there had been little to do to make the house seem like home.  My closest neighbour was separated by a tall wooden fence with climbing roses crossing it.  It was too high for a ball to be kicked over, and the size of the gardens meant it was rare for me to hear the children playing out.  In short, it was idyllic, and I thought that I had finally found the place where I could settle for however long I had left.

 And then David Davis moved to Troutville, and that changed everything.  The first time I saw him he was working in a garden, erecting a picket fence to stop the small children that lived there from running onto the road.  His hands were swollen and mottled red; his stature was too big for his frame; it looked as if his arms and legs had been pumped with air and his face was as smooth as a sheet of ice.  He smiled at me as I passed, showing an array of perfect white teeth that contrasted sharply  to the rest of him, and I shuddered even though it was the height of summer.

My neighbour told me he had moved back to town to help care for his mother, who was now in her late seventies, and she seemed quite pleased with the fact.  Comments had been passed previously about Mrs Davis, the state of her house and the fact that she was now failing to manage as well as she had.  I’d stayed out of the conversation, knowing that in becoming involved in someone else’s business meant that your own would be up for discussion as well.  David Davis also provided cheap labour, taking on jobs that husbands were too busy to do, or didn’t have the skills for, at minimum pay, but he still made my skin feel as if a thousand spiders were dancing over it.

 I didn’t trust him, but then, there were few people I trusted immediately nowadays.  I wasn’t the vibrant, outgoing girl I had been in my teens and twenties.  I had too many secrets to become friends with people, and I’d leant over the course of my sixteen murders that although most people are exactly what seem, others have been touched by evil, and I was all too proficient at identifying them.

 So I kept my distance; not even interfering when a student in one of my classes confided in me that she found David Davis creepy, that he kept staring at her while he was doing some odd jobs for her mom.  He was a strange man, and his gaze did linger too long in places it shouldn’t, but I put it down to learning difficulties, or being retarded, as we called it back then.

 But I watched him.  I began to pay more attention, to listen more, and I noticed that the houses he accepted jobs at generally had children there.  He would entertain the children, play with them, make them toys and the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand like soldiers every time I heard his name.

 Four or five months after he had moved to Troutville, my neighbour went into hospital to have a caesarean and her sister came to stay to look after the two children she had already.  The sister, Julie, was younger than my neighbour by a good ten years, and the two were only just becoming close.  Julie had no children of her own, and no younger siblings, so she knew little of what to do when one of them had a temperature, thus I found her on my doorstep at nine o’clock one evening, looking flustered.

 I’d never been able to have children, which was a blessing as I’d never felt the need to be someone’s mother, but I’d learnt a great deal as the eldest of several brothers and sisters.  Within half hour, the youngest boy was asleep, and Julie had poured us both a glass of wine.  Ten minutes after polite conversation the topic turned to David Davis, Julie’s face growing pale.

“He’s part of the reason I agreed to look after my nieces,” she said.  “I’m in college, and I’ve had to beg for time off my studies, but I had to come.”

 “Why?” I said, my glass of wine still full.  “Because he’s moved here?”

 I looked at her, waiting for her to speak, to divulge more information.

 “He likes children, young girls.”

 “You?” I said.  I didn’t think so; victims of such crimes rarely speak about them.

 She shook her head.  “My friend and her sister.  They both moved away and I didn’t hear from them after.  Their parents told the police but I think they didn’t want the girls to have to give evidence, so they left instead.  This was years ago, more than a decade, but he still looks the same with that baby face.”

 “How did he manage it?” I say, putting the wine down.  It’s never been a drink I favoured, preferring bourbon still.

 Julie is quiet.  “He befriended them, and their parents.  He was helpful and nice, made them toys and they trusted him.  He even began to babysit them when their parents went away.  I don’t know how long it went on for before they told, or their parents found out, but they moved suddenly, and then he moved after, as the rumours started.  My dad and a group of his friends threatened to go round and make sure he didn’t do it again, but his house was empty.  We didn’t tell my sister.  She’d moved away by then, had graduated college and met Clive, so when she said his name she couldn’t understand why I was quiet.”

 “You haven’t told her?” I say. “You’ve not warned her?”

 She shakes her head.  “No.  It was only ever rumour.  The parents never said anything.  I just remember Marsha saying to me as her parents loaded the car that David Davis had touched her and her sister, and that was why they were going.  Marsha was always a drama queen, and she liked to stir up trouble.  The rumours started separately, so I always kind of believed them, no smoke without fire and all that, but if I say something here, and he’s innocent then…”

 “This is the first time you’ve heard of him since you were twelve?” I say, trying to play down her fears.  She was right, what she had to say could cause a vigilante attack, and that, among other things would make him a martyr.

 She nods.  The sound of the church bells echo across the fields, their last chimes before the end of the day; one of time’s many demarcations.

 “Then your friend may have been making it up, and it would be easy for a careless word about why they moved to provoke anger against him.  Look after your nieces,” I tell her.  “And say nothing as yet.  We’ll see what else comes about.”  I stand, thanking her for the wine she hasn’t noticed I’d not drank, and then I leave.  There was work to do.

I spent the next few weeks travelling to the various places David Davis had lived since leaving the village where Julie had grown up.  Finding out information was easy when you had the money and the time to do it, and I quite enjoyed my foray into the world of private detection.

 The same story was given three times.  David Davis left places abruptly, disappearing in the middle of the night, leaving tales of touches that should never have been made behind him.  In one town, the police officer I spoke was aware of his name, and allegations had been made, but then withdrawn.

 I asked why he hadn’t been investigated further, already knowing the answer: not enough evidence and Davis had left, the problem solved.  And so David Davis had continued, fleeing before he could face any charges, leaving a trail of discreet destruction in his wake.  There were those children who had spoken up, and then there would be those who had remained forever silent. 

 I had lost some of my drive to kill.  It no longer gave me the same thrill as it had done twenty years before, although I knew I would never be caught.  However, the urge tingled, and I spent the next few weeks fantasizing just how I could dispose of David Davis, and make sure this pattern he had created was permanently ended.

 What stood in the way was his mother.  Mrs Davis was a nice lady.  I’d met and spoken with her several times in the local shops, and she reminded me a little of Mama Jones.  To kill her only child in a horrific way would have killed her too, and since David’s return home, she’d been looking much better, better fed and dressed, and the house had been much improved too, mainly down to the extra money he gave her from his odds jobs that supplemented her small savings.

 David Davis’ death was planned in more detail than anything I’d done before, even my third wedding.  I pushed aside the fantasies I had about castration and slow strangulation, poison and drowning, all but the first being tried and tested methods already.  I didn’t want the mess, and I didn’t want this to be discovered as an accident, or some horrific murder, which, in truth, I thought he deserved.  What David Davis needed to do was to disappear, that way his mother could still receive some small income and maintain the memories she had of her son.

 I waited for the rumours to start, which they inevitable did, and also inevitably they began by floating round the high school.  Sian Tanner was teased at the end of one of my classes for being one of ‘Lame’ Davis’ girlfriends.  I pulled her back, under the pretence of needing a job doing, and asked her about what the boys had said.

 She was quiet at first, then after studying me for about a minute, she began to speak.  “It’s not me he’s hanging round for,” she said, keeping her voice low so no one else could hear.  “I think it’s my sister.  My mom thinks he’s wonderful as he helps with all the maintenance jobs that haven’t been done since my dad left, but I see him watching Alice all the time.  He walked in on her when she was in the bath, and claimed it was a mistake.  Mom said what would it matter anyway, she’s only nine, but it wasn’t a mistake.  Alice was singing in the bath and he could hear her as well as I.  Please don’t say anything, Miss Desmarais, mom will get mad and say I’m stirring up trouble.”

 I nod.  “I won’t say anything,” I tell her, my heart rate slightly risen with the green flag I’ve just received.  “Have you heard anymore stories like this about him?”

 Sian inhales deeply and nods almost imperceptibly.  “Yeah.  He’s called a pervert by some of the boys as they’ve caught him staring at girls too obviously.  Mariah Lucas said he was trying to get her sister to go see the strawberries he’d grown in his garden, but Mariah wouldn’t let her.  A few girls won’t go near him, and apparently Jacob Struthers smeared something awful along his truck the other week.  It’s all rumour – but then, would anyone actually say if he’d…” she shudders, “…done anything to them?”

 I say nothing.  The bell goes for the start of the third hour and Sian gets up to go.  “Thanks, Miss,” she says.  “I know you’ll do something about it that’s right.”

 I remember smiling at her comment.

A few days later, on the Thursday of the week following my conversation with Sian, I asked David Davis as he was passing my house to clean the pump in my pond.  I wasn’t a great fan of ponds, but this one I had inherited with the house, and it needed to be done as the whole thing was starting to smell and possibly wasn’t sanitary.

 My neighbours were away, having taken the two girls and the new baby on vacation to see Julie’s mom, who now lived near the beach.  The trees that surrounded my garden were tall and dense, thick leafy maples and ashes that gave me privacy and acted as a natural barrier between my land, the farmers’ fields behind and the woodland beyond.

 I exchanged small talk with David Davis when he arrived; made him a coffee and a freshly baked English scone with clotted cream and jam, and then showed him the pond.  His back was to me, and the water too dirty to provide a reflection when I lifted the handgun to the back of his head and fired.

 I hadn’t bothered with a silencer.  It would have meant a new gun for a start, and gunshots were not that rare around Troutville, not with the issues with wildlife – plus it was the hunting season, and it was commonplace to hear several shots a day, plenty more in the evenings when the men reverted to their caveman selves, only with modern weapons. 

 He fell onto the netting that had been used to protect the fish from birds, his head sinking it into the water, which washed some of the blood away.  I would have to clean the pond myself, which wouldn’t be a problem.  My looks were in their autumn, but I had retained the wiry strength from my youth and young womanhood, and it wasn’t too difficult to drag the body of David Davis into a wheelbarrow and push it over to a shallow ditch I had dug underneath the trees, next to several shrubs I wanted to plant there.  The body would decompose, giving an extra boost to the soil.

 I buried the gun with him, somehow knowing that I didn’t want every shred of evidence of this crime to disappear, and planted the shrubs where he lay.  I felt no remorse, but the joy I used to feel after a kill was not the same, a mere glimmer to the blaze it once was.

 His disappearance was unremarkable.  A rumour circulated that he had taken a job in Chesapeake as a carpenter, a believable story as he had been talented in that area, and little more was said.  Sian began smiling again, and the teasing stopped.  The damage that David Davis might have caused was unknown, but at least it could not be continued.

 I went to see his mother four weeks after he had gone, and asked after him.  She was honest, said she didn’t know why he had left so suddenly, but that he had done it before.  Then she looked down at the floor and told me that she had always known he wasn’t right, but he was all she had.

 The next day, she would have found a deposit of money in her account – she shouldn’t have left her check book on show – and the same each month, the amount varying.  She stayed looking healthy and tidy, the house was maintained well enough to avoid the discussion of her neighbours, and when she died, I believe she left her savings and the proceeds from her house to the junior high school…

…I smile.  I had always been pleased with the outcome of that one. Coffee and cakes have been delivered without me being aware, and Louisa is eating slivers of banana loaf.  I pour a coffee from the flask that’s been left and take a piece myself, savouring the moistness and the taste.

“Why did you confess to his murder three years later?” Toner asks.  “You had gotten away with it.  The place where you disposed of his body would never have been investigated unless you moved away and someone wished to renovate the garden.”

I look away now, for this is the part that is most difficult, the part I have never wanted to discuss.  “Love,” I say.  “People say they would kill for love, I did the opposite.  I refused to kill for it.” I know my eyes are colder now, for these are the memories I can never forgive myself for.

They wait for me to continue.  I drink my coffee.  I am tired of talking now and my throat is dry, but this one last part is important.

“I had a way with men,” I say.  “But they did not always have a way with me.  Throughout my life, I never fell in love.  I liked and loved many men, but never with a passion.  They never evoked that all consuming emotion in me unless I was ending their life.  Robert was fifteen years my junior and he started as a teacher at the high school in the fall after I killed David Davis.  He was talented, and intelligent, but most of all, beautiful, and I fell head over heels in lust with him, and then love consumed me.”

“I didn’t look my age back then.  Not having children or a long term husband had saved my skin, and Robert and I began an affair.  Affair is the right word, as he was married.  His wife was a sweet, pretty creature who worked away during the week in Philadelphia, and Robert began to spend most of his weeknights with me.

“The guard  I had created and secured so many years before had softened, and I didn’t question why I was sleeping better the nights Robert stayed, or why Robert was always awake before me, dressed and smiling, armed with fresh coffee and breakfast.  Not until I checked in with my accountant and noticed small amounts of money having disappeared from my accounts.

“Immediately I knew.  The house he lived in with his wife was small.  It lacked a second bedroom and a garden, and was in an area of town the opposite to mine, not an ideal place to bring up a family, which I guessed they both wanted.  I understood by now that she didn’t stay working away from him because of the status of her job, but because they couldn’t afford her to leave it, there was nothing as good in Troutville and they were carrying debt.

“If he’d have asked, I’d have helped them financially.  I had no desire to stop being his mistress and become something more, and I loved him enough to want him to be happy.  Besides, I had more money than I would ever need, and would be quite happy to share it quietly with someone I loved.

“But he’d been stealing from me; going through my personal documents and piecing together my finances, seeing how much he could get without me realising.  And that meant he’d have noticed that it was me who paid Mrs Davis a sum of money every month, and had had four husbands – something which the town was oblivious to.

“I did nothing for a month, more maybe.  I watched how he was spending the money; not saving it for a better house, or to allow his wife to get a less well paid job here, but buying clothes and fripperies, enjoying expensive lunches.  I guess that annoyed me.  But he was still so beautiful, and charming, and by now, I knew that every person had their flaws, so I could forgive him his.  I suppose I was becoming soft in my old age.

“I stopped drinking the cocoa he made for me at night, and started to listen to where he went to in my house.  Then one night, when he was certain I was asleep, I followed him, watched him take out my check book and write himself one for a small amount, then took a few notes from the cash I kept hidden, along with Edward’s diary that I had never read.

“He turned around, suddenly aware that I was watching him, and jumped, his mouth agape, horror crossing his face.  “I’m not seeing you because of your money,” he said, and I believed him.  “But you have so much.  I didn’t realise until I saw a letter…”

“I knew what he was referring to; a note from my solicitor concerning the sale of the business run by Edward and Victor.  Victor had never married, living a celibate life, and he had left his life’s work and savings to me when he had died a few months previously.

““Why didn’t you ask?  I would have helped you out, you know,” I said, my words gentle.

“”People don’t do that though, do they?  And besides, I can’t leave my wife.”

““I wouldn’t ask you too,” I said, and then I saw his eyes and read them as easily as reading a book.  He wanted to blackmail me.  I laughed at the thought.

“I could have killed him.  It would have been quite easy in that rambling old house.  There were enough ways to dispose of the body, although that one I would have passed off as somebody else’s murder – there were a couple of serial killers around at the time with very easy to replicate modes of operating.

“But he was so beautiful, crouched down there, the moonlight stroking his face.  Maybe it was weariness, or age; maybe it was something I ate that night, or the passion I’d felt when I had made love to him.  Or maybe it was simply inevitable.  I asked him to leave, and then, after putting on my best suit, and make up, I went to the police and confessed to the murder of David Davis,” I say, my story told at last.  “That way, I could never harm him.  He would be safe.”

They glance at each other, the agents.  The flask of coffee had been emptied, and I imagined that any daylight had now been coloured in dark by night.  I stood up, stretching my legs and feeling the weight of my flesh and bones which I wouldn’t have to bear for much longer.

“Why did you kill them?”  Louisa asked, a repetition of an earlier question.

“Because I could,” I said.  “If I had reported their crimes to the police then they may never have been punished.  The eyes of society would be on them, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to make sure they no longer hurt anyone.  And besides, I enjoyed the kill.  Maybe that was the most important reason.”

“Do you not think that killing made you just as bad as them?” she asked.  It’s a fair question.

“I was never anything to be afraid of,” I said.  “Unless you were doing something to hurt others.  Do I think what I did was right – no, probably not, not under the laws that are upheld in this country and others, and you shouldn’t enjoy killing.  I did, and I would have enjoyed killing Robert, but I loved him too much.”

I walked to the door and buzzed for the guard to come and get me.  “Thank you for your time, agents,” I said as I heard footsteps coming down the corridor.  “Have a lovely evening, whatever your plans maybe.”   I turned around and passed them a smile; they answered my questions without knowing it and I was sure that there is still something good in the outside world.  They were standing close again, almost shoulder to shoulder, and I wondered if they have booked one or two hotel rooms.  One, I hoped, as two would be a waste of the country’s resources as they will only use one anyway.  They seemed like equals, a balancing act perfected between them and I wished them well in their lives, and hoped they could explore that love whose path my life avoided.

I left them in the room, walking down the corridor back to my cell, the place where I received my last meal, two weeks after a stay of execution while the crimes I confessed to were investigated and where I slept my last night, until this, my final hour, now my final few minutes.

They agreed to let me count the stars, and to an evening execution.   The agents are long gone, their investigation ended, my recounts now being studied, giving insights into the criminal mind, of which mine is one.

Three guards watch me as I stand here now and look at the sky, the night sweetly black, spotted with silver light.  Susie has been to say goodbye, and I smiled at her knowingly, silently commending her bravery.  In the past two weeks she has lost weight and began to exercise, the shadows of her past becoming paler with the lights that shone in front of her.  I asked for her to not be here tonight; she has to make her own decisions in the future, and my ending should not influence those.   So no one is here to watch my death, no one cares about the people I killed and I have no family left that I have had contact with.  I have reached the end, and I am glad.  My heart is singing, for I have lived exactly as I wished, counting the stars.

I cannot count them all; I could never count them all, for they are infinite, like a child’s wishes.  I inhale the night air and remember that Friday evening, when I ran barefoot through the woods carrying the mushrooms and the freedom of my own decision, and the exhilaration I felt, succumbing to it sixteen more times before this.  The stars were not far away that night, those nights.  They were close; I touched them with my hands and became one each time.  I loved living, and letting others live, but now is right, the right time for me to die, now is the time to leave the stars behind and I follow the guard inside to where the needle will kiss my flesh, and my heart will no longer be old.

The Highs and Highs of 2012

It seems that the first rule of blogging is to have some form of review of the year, whether that be a summary of a top five, ten or twelve books; Mr Cameron’s three least finest moments or the ten greatest refereeing moments of the past 365 days.  While I could certainly manage the five least interesting games of football (Oldham Athletic played in all of them) or the ten top clangers dropped by Michael Gove regarding the education of our youth, I’d making a conscious decision to give ME some time here, because all in all, 2012 has been a pretty great year. Especially seeing what a complete Titanic 2011 was.  The following are in no particular order except of that in which I think of them:

  • I did NaNoWriMo.                                                                                                                ImageAfter several years of procrastinating upon the idea, I sat down and wrote a novel in 30 days.  Or rather, 60,000 words of a novel.  A novel which is almost completed. I’ve been writing since I was 10, back in the days of Mr Clegg’s Junior 4 class.  School stories were written in journals, detailing the doings of characters called names like Carlotta and Jo, blatantly nicked from the books of Enid Blyton and Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  I disliked the said Mr Clegg, and he didn’t like me much either, to the extent where he refused to give me the journals back.  I moved on and carried on writing.  2013 will see the self-publication of a novel – not the first I’ve completed by any stretch – but the first I’ve wanted the world at large (or maybe a few more people than those I know) to see.  Authors such as Mel Sherratt have made me realised that there’s a lot to be said for self-belief, and will-be authors Keith B Walters and David Bastinani kept me sane during NaNo and proved that writing isn’t a lonely occupation.
  • I ran. A lot.                                                                                                                                Image Woodbank parkrun was somewhat of a saviour last year.  It made me focus on Saturday mornings as a get up and do something time, rather than a lie in bed and wallow in self-pity. I hadn’t managed more than a quick hoof to get into the Radley shop on the first day of the sale until my first parkrun, now it’s part of my staple diet.  I also managed to run 5k under 30 minutes several times, and completed four 10k ‘races’.  I love parkrun, it’s ‘all in’ motto and the people I’ve met through it, because they’ve all been amazing. Runners have a sense of humour – they have to.  Running down a grim street at seven o’clock in the morning when it’s peeing it down, trust me, you have to laugh.  So next time you drive passed some neon coloured, red faced, slightly sweaty runner, don’t pity them, or think they’re mad, they’re actually enjoying it and they’ll be a damn sight fitter than most!
  • I bought a house.                                                                                                                       Image                This should probably be the top thing, and when I look back at 2012 in several years time, it probably will be.  How momentous a thing it is grows each time I think about it, but at the time it was a means to a very long end.  It doesn’t just mean that I have several rooms to decorate however I please, but that I can call my own shots.  It’s changed a lot of dynamics for the better, and I’m not just referring to the dynamics of the Next Home department which has certainly benefitted.  Big thanks to my grandparents who stumped up the deposit – at least you know where your money has gone and that I didn’t buy that flash car and go on those expensively wasteful holidays like I threatened.
  • I discovered Reginald Hill.                                                                                                         ImageCrime fiction has been my genre of choice since I read Cruel and Unusual at the tender age of 14.  Thankfully, I didn’t have nightmares about decomposing, mutilated bodies – school was a hell of a lot scarier – and I became a fan of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and many more, but I never read Reginald Hill.  In all honesty, the TV series put me off and I decided it was too mainstream.  However, I came across On Beulah Height and fell in love.  Love became slightly obsessional and I devoured the rest of the Dalziel and Pascoe series.  The plotting, structure, characterisation and humour were masterful and playful at the same time.  Hill never seemed to become consumed by his own writing.  I enjoyed it, as he appeared to enjoy writing.  The series has opened my eyes on how not to become formulaic and that as a writer, there’s always room for imagination in how you present not just how you plot.
  • I met more people than ever and made so many friends as well as renewingold acquaintances, through running, Kettlercise, work, football, yoga and Twitter.  I like my own company, but I have spent time with people this year whose company I have also enjoyed.

There’s been a lot more: a holiday in Parga, Greece; going to Harrogate for the Theakstons’ Crime Writing Festival; getting a promotion at work; acquiring a new kitten and Oldham Athletic managing to avoid relegation.  I’d just like to say a big thank you to everyone who’s been involved in my year, one way or another.

Unless you’re that bloody interfering bloke from the 10k race yesterday who told me some runners had gone a different way and completely put me off finishing as quick as I could because I was worried about getting lost.  Grrrr.

Happy New Year, one and all.

How Far Away the Stars – Part 4

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Thank you for reading!  Do let me know what you think.  Have a Happy New Year!

Part 4

…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.