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.

How Far Away the Stars – Part 2

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Comments welcome!

Part 2

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.

 “Marguerite?”

 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…”

If a rose wasn’t called a rose would it still smell as sweet?

Depends if you like roses to start with, I suppose. I have the privilege – or sometimes pain – of being a teacher. One of the first things pupils come a cropper on when writing a story is what to call their characters. They will spend a good ten or fifteen minutes procrastinating over which friend to name them after or celebrity or even themselves, before Miss Killjoy comes along and tells them that their delightful protagonist will be call Maggie Cameron and their hero Tony Milliband. Faces fall, but pencils are soon picked up and the planning, writing or gazing out of the window resumes.

Being an educator of our young generation means I have no shortage of resources for names, especially with the wide and interesting variety that parents choose to bestow onto their young nowadays. I haven’t met a Michelle I didn’t go to school with and Paul is almost a name of the past. I’ve had the joy of teaching a Summer in winter, a Star in the daytime and Paris in Manchester, amongst others. None of those names have found their way into my stories yet; only because the character they deserve hasn’t crept out of the shadows and into the limelight yet.

My main character is Daniel, and he’s had this name for around six years. I’m not entirely sure why I became so fixated on it, maybe because of the associations with bravery- Daniel in the lion’s den – and there was a song out a couple of years ago that fitted beautifully with his back story titled ‘Daniel.’

His surname I was less attached to; I found it in a cemetery this summer on a warm, sultry Sunday. I’d just finished a rather gruelling kettlercise class and the nearby graveyard with its old monuments and weathered church were glimmering in the sunshine. It’s a village church on the edge of Derbyshire and the views from it are rather sumptuous but it wasn’t those I was tempted by.

Some people would say it’s a morbid fascination, slightly odd maybe, but I like graveyards. Churches too, and the older the better, but graveyards intrigue me; so many untold stories, and, when I need it, names.

That Sunday, I was in need of names. I’d known Daniel’s first name for years, and Rachel had been christened a couple of years back, but surnames were a different matter. I mooched around the cemetery, noticing a grave with my first and middle name, slightly eroded amongst other memorials of different size and shape and then a saw two graves together, both similar. Clough and Newton. They just sounded… right.

Other characters’ names have been fairly random; they’ve been what ever has fallen into my brain at the time of writing. Sometimes I’ve considered a name and then discarded it, knowing it just wouldn’t suit. Sometimes I’ve had to change a name because it’s just a little bit too much like someone I may know. One name was a combination of two Twitter friends (@keithbwalters and @milorambles) after I threatened to make Keith a victim. Keith Miles – the character – is now unlikely to die. Whether his fate has anything to do with his name, I do not know, but he’s a nice bloke all the same.

So what comes first? Do we define our names or do our names define us?

One family I knew years ago changed the name of their daughter as they thought it was adversely affecting her personality. Another friend opted to use his daughter’s middle name instead of her first as it ‘suited her better’.

How do names shape our characters or do we choose their names based on what we want them to be?

So how did you decide?
How did your parents decide what to call you?
And would a rose still smell sweet if it had been named cowpat instead?