Not until my parents were nestled comfortably in the family crypt did I attempt my first murder. If nothing else, I wanted to spare my mother’s reputation. Ladies who lunch frown on women with homicidal progeny.
The moment I formally inherited the estate, I fired our cache of servants. From the cook who crafted the world’s best crème brûlée to the maid who practically raised me, their tears over the unceremonious dismissal haunted the hallways long after the rooms went vacant. But at least free-range servants had a sporting chance.
The chauffeur examined me over his glasses. “You’ll be sorry you let us go, Miss Beverly.”
“And you’ll be sorry if you stay.”
The door bolted behind him. At last, the place was mine.
Devoid of proper attention, the house hurried into a state of disorder. On quiet days or rainy ones, I enjoyed listening for clues of the decay. In the foyer, a floorboard learned to creak. A book in the library welcomed the speck of dust that obscured its title. A light bulb surrendered in the chandelier. The place settled around me and with me and in spite of me.
And it was beautiful.
But I had little time to squander. Like an eager debutante on the eve of her premiere, I arranged the details of my inaugural homicide with aplomb.
On the fainting couch in the downstairs study, the satin dress and cape I planned to wear waited next to the fireplace.
In the hallway that snaked between the two wings of the house, I evaluated my reserve of footwear. I craved something stylish yet appropriate for racing from a crime scene–racing only if needed, of course. A lady doesn’t want to draw excess attention.
I tested each pair of shoes, starting at the doorway of my bedroom–the stand-in crime scene. To escape the make-believe authorities, I had to reach the top of the stairwell in under a minute. There stood the suit of armor that my mother always begged my father to banish.
“It takes the servants an entire day to polish it,” she’d say.
With no one left to varnish the oxidized iron, a mouthful of spider webs welcomed me every time my itinerary ended.
Most of my shoes had no chance. Heels? I tripped twice before rounding the first corner. Sandals would be fine for a summer kill, but anytime between September and May was too chilly. And under absolutely no circumstances should an assassin ever wear suede. Even with an agreeable drycleaner, the blood will never come out.
Black ballet flats persevered as the all-around winners. Like an Audrey Hepburn of death, such unbridled elegance would offer my future victims a final bit of mortal comfort.
My great-great-grandmother’s choker added one last dash of style. I preferred pearls, but my mother never gave me hers, and though I had access to her jewelry box, I touched nothing in the house that wasn’t explicitly mine. Domestic theft was an unthinkable offense.
A woman in distress is the ultimate lure for a do-gooder, so I found the perfect back alley in the nearby town of Midwich. The area even came equipped with a delightfully mangy rat that dashed in and out of potholes, a fidgety Greek chorus to accompany my crime.
After singing a few scales to prep my voice, I screamed for the bulk of an hour. Yet for some reason, no one came. I hollered louder and made a few choking sounds for effect. About twenty minutes in, a police siren blared in the distance, but the blue and red lights ratcheted past me in pursuit of other diversions.
“Chivalry is dead,” I said and envied the person who’d killed it.
In the corner, the rat giggled at my plight. Wrenching the cape from my face, I stuck out my tongue to scare off the vermin. The creature nibbled a piece of trash and twitched its nose.
“You win this time,” I said.
To comfort myself on the way home, I cut the brakes on a dull boat of a car. My killing outfit had made an appearance, and I couldn’t subject it to an entirely blasé evening. Besides, the car owner probably heard my screaming and did nothing to help. The individual was a murderer by proxy and an indolent one at that.
“I might harbor homicidal tendencies,” I said and snipped a handful of wires, “but at least I have initiative.”
A tiny spot of oil stained the hem of the satin, and I pretended it was blood.
The next morning, my defeat still mocking me, I answered the door. The knocking had persisted for several minutes, but my ingrained reliance on the staff to conduct the domestic bidding rendered me oblivious as to what the incessant noise could be. Out of idle curiosity, I trekked to the front of the house to find out.
Armed with a bag of charlatan goodies, a man about my age loitered on the doorstep.
“I don’t need a vacuum,” I said. “I’m told we have a dozen in the attic. And they can rot there for all I care.”
The man sighed. “Ma’am, if–”
“And no Bibles or any other religious memorabilia. We have every didactic text known to man already half disintegrated in the library.”
The worn satchel quivered in his grasp. “Please, if you’ll only–”
“And I certainly don’t need any snake oil,” I said. “So you’d do well not to mention that charm either.”
I swung the door closed, but his foot wedged in the sliver of an opening before I could bolt it. I shoved my body against the barrier. He shrieked in pain.
A playful grin upon my lips, I peeked at him through the crevice. “Perhaps you’d do better not to pester people.”
“Ma’am, I’m just here to review your utilities to see if I could save you some money.” He gulped. “Please?”
His pallid face begged to be relieved of its misery.
My smile blossomed. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
I waved him toward the study where the fireplace was already lit. Compared to the previous night’s alley, the setting was a bit too well-manicured, but the Victorian ambiance added a dash of classic murder mystery flair.
“If only I was wearing my satin dress.”
The man galloped after me. “Did you say something?”
“I asked where you’re from.”
“Nowhere really,” he said. “My company is out of Seattle, but I’ve traveled most of my life.”
“A transient then?”
He fidgeted. “I wouldn’t call myself that.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I love transients. No one ever comes looking for them.”
“Why would someone come looking for me?”
He positioned his paperwork on my father’s old desk, and I cringed as he rearranged a few pens. Short of the tinder in the fireplace, I had left everything in the room undisturbed.
“For demographic purposes,” he said, “how old are you?”
I scowled as he shifted a chair. “A lady never tells her age.”
“I’ll jot down forty then.”
“Scoundrel,” I said and reached behind me for a fireplace poker. Not because of the age jab, mind you, though the insult didn’t bolster my opinion of him any. “If you must know, I’m thirty-two.”
He grinned. “I would have gone with twenty-five.”
“Too late for flattery.”
In my hand’s blind search, I jostled the rack against the mantle. The noise alerted him, so I clasped my fingers in front of me with a ladylike flourish as though I was about to curtsy. The gambit worked, and he again regarded his stacks of bureaucracy.
“About how much do you spend on utilities each month?”
“How in the world should I know?”
With the cold poker pressed against my spine, I peered toward the nearby door. The silent voices within beckoned me, demanding to see my artistry at work.
I smiled. “Would you like to see my animal collection?”
One eye closed, the man nodded. I led him into the adjacent room. A hundred stuffed coyotes greeted us.
“Did you do this?” he asked, the overhead light glinting off his forehead as if to mark the perfect spot to purge.
“I killed them if that’s what you mean,” I said. “But I didn’t stuff and mount them. My mother had a taxidermist on retainer.”
He poked one of the frozen animals on the nose. “What’s the point of it all?”
“I like to see what death does to bodies,” I said. “The writhing. The rot. But after a day or two, a corpse has little left to tell you. So I have to do it again.”
“And you seem like such a nice girl,” he said, grinning.
“I wonder what you’ll look like tomorrow.”
“What’s tomorrow?” But the man didn’t get an answer. Unless the curly point of the poker embedded in his skull counted as a retort.
If the coyotes’ paws were free, they would have applauded.
There was so much blood. I should have known that a head wound would wreak such scarlet mayhem on my mother’s cashmere rug. But the man seemed to lack a discernible brain, so part of me assumed he lacked other anatomic necessities as well.
A veil of saccharine sweat on my face, I dragged him down the hallway. The trail of blood left a stunning marbled design on the hardwood floor. Provided no one came inquiring about his whereabouts, I decided the burgundy stain could remain as a reminder of my good work.
The dining room table accepted his body with delicate reverence. His hands at his sides and body on its back, I posed him to one end, leaving enough space so I could continue to take my meals there.
I pressed my ear to his chest. No heartbeat. I jolted him with my elbow. The body gurgled with macabre merriment.
He was wonderfully, impeccably dead. I had never been so proud.
Although I knew nothing about him, he still deserved a wake. Not a formal one, of course, but a quick little affair where I could eulogize his questionable accomplishments as a door-to-door salesman. Even one mourner is better than none.
My pretty angora sweater reduced to a common butcher apron, I retired to my bedroom for more acceptable attire. While in my closet, the satin dress saw what I’d done.
“I know,” I said. “It was supposed to be you and me. But I wouldn’t mind if another murderer invited you to an impromptu slaughter.”
The pink fabric rippled against a sudden draft from the radiator.
“Keep complaining, and I might not wear you the next time either.”
High tea was served at four in the afternoon, on schedule in the dining room as usual. I poured a cup of chamomile while drafting a proper epitaph.
“This roving man was a fool, but a good fool who allowed me to live my dream. He did not die in vain.”
The body lurched forward.
“I can omit that part if you’d like,” I said. “Though it’s true you didn’t die in vain.”
Bloat was a normal part of the decomposition process. The coyotes had taught me that much.
While I deliberated if I should battle rigor mortis to reposition the man, he turned, his narrowed eyes as alive as ever in their wrath.
I sipped my tea as he glowered at me.
We remained silent for almost an hour. The eulogy went on hiatus until I could be sure whether or not it was necessary.
When all the scones and crumpets and biscuits were gone and the teapot needed a refill, I stood from the table. “Do you prefer Darjeeling or peppermint?”
His sullen gaze remained fixated on my face.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m making peppermint. If you don’t like it, too bad.”
The man looked unimpressed when I returned from the stove and nudged a teacup at him.
I sighed. “I just knew you liked Darjeeling.”
I finished my drink and poured another cup. Once that one was gone, I drank his. He clearly wasn’t interested in tea. All he wanted to do was glare.
I collected the porcelain trimmings. “If you’ve got something to say, you’d best get on with it. I have things to do.”
“You’re a murderer,” he said.
“Apparently not a very good one. This isn’t supposed to happen.” I scrunched my nose. “At least I don’t think it should happen.”
“You don’t know for sure?”
I shrugged. “I’m not much experienced with the whole homicide racket.”
“That’s surprising. Judging from the way you wielded that ax, I took you for an expert.”
“It was a fire poker, not an ax,” I said, “but even so, thank you. The coyotes helped me with technique. That’s why they asked to watch you die. To see how far I’ve come.”
He scowled, and a piece of flesh topped to the tablecloth. “The coyotes talk to you?”
I brushed the skin to the floor. “Not exactly. But I know what they’re thinking.”
The man scoffed. “Do you know what I’m thinking?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m guessing it’s not very nice.”
Back in the kitchen, I placed the saucers and teapot next to a throng of unwashed dishes and insects amassing since I dismissed the servants. The man appeared at my side, and on arcane instinct, the swarm of flies vacated the sticky crumbs from high teas past and flocked to the sweet aroma of death.
I groaned and swatted a gnat. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t have you hanging around, mucking up our family heirlooms.”
“Where am I supposed to go?” He glanced at his soiled attire. “I can’t go out like this.”
“You would probably fit into my father’s clothes,” I said. “Pity we can’t touch them.”
“I don’t want your father’s clothes.” He wrenched his body after me as I trotted to the hallway. “I want you to undo this.”
“I can’t undo death,” I said and waved toward the front door. “Go now. I can’t help you, and you’ve overstayed your invitation.”
His colorless complexion flushed for an instant. “What if I call the police? You could go away for murder.”
I studied the stain on the hardwood floor. Now that the blood had dried, the design wasn’t so beautiful anymore. “But you’re alive,” I said, “or what qualifies as alive anyhow. Honestly, I don’t know what you’re so upset about.”
“I leak everywhere I go.” He pointed to a trail of yellowish goo leading from the kitchen.
“Some spackling could fix that.”
He folded his arms and stomped one foot like the spoiled child that once stood in that spot and answered to my name. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You could stay in the carriage house,” I said over breakfast the next morning.
He gnawed on a dried biscuit. “Aren’t there horses in there?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But either way, I doubt they’ll mind the company.”
“Maybe I’ll mind. Maybe I don’t want to live like an animal.”
“Why not? Aren’t you a zombie?”
“Of course not.” He scowled and took another bite of biscuit as proof.
I leaned across the table and poked him like he’d prodded the coyote in my collection.
“You’re not a ghost either,” I said. “So exactly what are you?”
“What’s a Lev?”
“That’s my name,” he said. “And what do I call you?”
My fingers rearranged the confections on my plate. “Your highness.”
“Do you have a less formal name, your highness?”
I giggled that he used the title at all. “I’m Beverly Essex Notchimine of the East Coast Notchimines.”
His complexion more ashen by the minute, he peered into his porcelain teacup. “There’s a cobweb in here.”
“Adds fiber.” I broke my sponge cake in two and spooned a generous helping of clotted cream over both sides.
“You should do something about this place,” he said. “It’s a wreck.”
I shrugged. “I can’t.”
“Because it’s not mine.”
“I thought this house and everything on the property belongs to you.”
“According to the law,” I said, “as if that matters.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then what does belong to you?”
I glanced about the place settings. “The dishes are mine. I’ve used them for years. Same with the food the staff stockpiled for a dozen soirees that will never happen.”
The teapot vibrated against the mahogany grain in the table.
“And the faucets are mine.” I said. “That’s how I get tea. But not the sink in the kitchen. That belonged to the cook. I told him to take the accoutrements with him when he left, but he refused.”
Lev raised an eyebrow. “You tried to give the cook the kitchen sink?”
“Well, it sounds ridiculous when you say it.” I rubbed a skin of dust from an English biscuit. “But I’m no thief. I use nothing that’s not mine. If you want the house to look nicer, you can polish it.”
So he did. The dozen vacuums descended the stairs and roared to life. The opaque window panes became clear again. And I learned there were no horses anywhere on the estate.
“The chauffeur probably stole them,” I said bitterly. But the creatures must have belonged to him anyhow. They certainly weren’t mine.
Two days into Lev’s cleaning binge, the property looked as new as a centuries-old estate ever can. I almost felt sad at how hard the house had worked to descend into disrepair and how easy it was for Lev to undo its tireless effort.
“I had to scrub twenty teapots,” he said over an alarmingly hygienic dinner. “You just let them pile up after you’re done.”
I frowned. “What else would I do with them? I told you I can’t use the sink.”
“From now on, you’ll wash your dishes when you’re done.”
“I’ll do no such thing.” I searched the table for a blunt object, but the best I could find was a spoon. I jabbed him with it, but he swatted my hand.
“This is my home,” I said, still brandishing the spoon. “You don’t issue the orders.”
“Whatever you say.” Retrieving our plates for the dreaded wash, he brushed past me and whispered in my ear, “Your highness.”
I wanted to kill him again, but I doubted it would do me any good. So I donned my satin dress and grabbed a cloak instead.
“I’m going out,” I said. “Tonight I’ll commit a real murder.”
At the top of the stairs, Lev shifted the suit of armor, which moaned in protest. It resented the newfound sanitation as much as I did.
“Getting bored with your first victim already?”
“You never excited me in the first place,” I said.
“And what if your next victim reanimates?” he asked. “You don’t like having me hang around. Murder enough people, and even this mansion won’t be able to house us all.”
My hand gripped the iron glove, and I imagined yanking the whole thing onto him. “I’ll just leave them where they die.”
He polished both heels on the armor. “That’s a genius plan. So if they do reanimate, they can identify you to the police?”
I stared at my black ballet flats. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You haven’t planned this out very well, have you?”
“I have so,” I said. “But even if I didn’t, you sure fell for it.”
“I fell for it alright.” He glanced at me and smiled.
I kicked him in the shin and charged for the front door.
The alleyway in Midwich was empty except for a boy and girl necking in an unlit corner. Young and unsuspecting, they were ideal fodder, but when I reached for my knife, it wasn’t there. Countless glass chards murmured on the concrete, telling me they would work just as well as weapons. But their disembodied voices meant little to me. For the first time, I wasn’t in the mood for murder.
To assuage my sadness, I tossed a few rocks at the couple’s heads. They screamed a thread of charming profanity at me before fleeing to another make-out spot.
The cloak still pulled to my face, I retreated home. The satin dress was furious.
Lev greeted me at the door. “I got another injury while you were away.”
I kicked my flats onto the mat next to his abandoned bag of snake oil. “How?”
“The suit of armor fell on me.” He wrenched his shirt and revealed a grapefruit-sized welt.
I stooped to get a closer look, my fingers caressing the blackened flesh. “I think there’s drywall in the garage,” I said brightly.
Lev sighed. “Can we please pretend I’m still human and use medical supplies?”
In the bathroom, I smeared a dollop of drab ointment across his back.
“Should we embalm you?” I asked, mesmerized with the crusted scabs and flowing pus.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure.” He fiddled with a case on the sink. “Is this makeup?”
“Don’t touch that!” I slapped his hand.
“It belongs to my mother,” I said. “And it’s bad luck to touch it.”
“Why bad luck?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why is a black cat bad luck? It just is, that’s why.”
Chuckling, he shook his head. “Does the makeup talk to you?”
“No,” I said, “not all of it.”
While I tried to resist, the thrall of his trauma bewitched me, and I gawked at his wounded body.
“Your gashes are just fascinating.”
He smiled. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
My thumb dug into the cut. He yelped.
“I guess we’ll have to clean it again,” I said.
After his injuries were tended, they didn’t get any worse. They didn’t heal too well either, but provided he didn’t lose a leg or an eyeball, the slight rot became him.
“You could last like this for years,” I said over watercress sandwiches.
“I sure hope so,” he said, and I tossed a steak knife at his chest.
The imprints of murder already at my threshold, I no longer ventured into the outside world. But one Monday afternoon, the outside world came to us.
As with Lev’s entrance, a ceaseless clamor echoed from the front of the house, and annoyed, I investigated its source.
“Miss Notchimine, I’m Officer Malik.”
I permitted him no further than the foyer. His pedestrian tastes wouldn’t admire the radiance of the blood design, now desiccated and peeling from the woodwork.
“A man named Lev Smith disappeared while doing door-to-door sales. His company reported him missing two weeks ago.”
“His route indicates he was headed here next.”
I shrugged again.
“If you happen to remember anything–” He handed me a card.
“I won’t remember anything,” I said and tore the card in two.
He scowled. “There have been other odd occurrences in Midwich this month.”
“You don’t say?” I flipped his information into the air, and the halves fluttered to the ground.
“Miss Notchimine, do you know anything about automobiles?”
“Why would I? We had a chauffeur for that.” The floorboards creaked overhead, and I coughed to obscure the noise. “Why do you ask?”
“A car reportedly had its brake lines cut.”
“Was the driver hurt?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“A little shaken, but otherwise fine.”
What a waste, I thought.
The officer reached for the door, but something behind it stirred his curiosity. He squatted to the frayed rug and returned with the bag.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is a traveling salesman’s case.”
“Then it’s good you do know better.” I caressed a Renaissance ax that corroded on the wall behind us.
“I’d like to search the house.”
“Absolutely not,” I said and freed the weapon with silent ease.
“Then I’ll get a warrant. The judge should have that for us within the hour.”
He turned to the door, and I lifted the rusted blade. It was heavier than I remembered.
“What’s wrong?” Lev asked from the stairwell.
The ax wilted in my grasp as I gazed up at him. He looked alive.
While a knock at the door confounded me, it had apparently alerted Lev about the unwanted visitor. Lacking any discernible self-preservation, he committed himself to a lifetime of bad luck and rummaged through my mother’s makeup case. The thick pancake saturated the deathblow on his forehead and painted his face a more respectable shade. The physical transformation needled me. So ordinary, I grimaced.
The officer brushed past my weapon and regarded the walking corpse. “I asked Miss Notchimine about you. She pretended not to know where you were.”
“I was wandering the estate,” Lev said. “And this place is so huge she would have been telling the truth.”
The officer glanced between us, his dull mind pondering the specifics of our scheme. Intimating for me to hide the ax, Lev descended the stairs and led the man onto the front step.
My face against the wall, I listened to the echo of their whispers.
“I’m shacked up here,” Lev said like an accomplished conspirator. “And families like hers are always worried about scandals.”
“You’re right about that,” the officer said. “Her father was terrified people would learn about that taxidermy room of theirs.”
“So if gossip starts,” Lev said, “she’ll kick me out. And I couldn’t bear that. She’s a real good time.”
The officer chuckled. “I bet.”
“So are we good?”
“Sure, but tell her next time, honesty would clear this up a lot quicker.” A moment later, an engine roared, and the police car buzzed along the driveway and through the front gate.
A smug smile on his face, Lev waltzed into the room. I swung the ax but missed.
“I’m a good time?”
He wrestled the weapon from my grip, but I was ready to relinquish it anyhow. The fireplace poker was far superior.
“I didn’t say you were a good time in bed.” Lev circled me to ensure I cloaked no other weapons. “I just said you were a good time.”
“You’re wrong.” My hip popped to one side. “I’m not a good time at all.”
“If you say so.” He covered his lips to conceal a grin.
I stalked into the dining room and flung my body into the chair at the head of the table.
“I could have killed him just fine!” When Lev ignored me, I added, “I could kill you again too!”
An hour later, he crept to the doorway. “I thought you’d like to know I have a new fluid leaking from my side.”
I perked up. “Really?”
In the bathroom, I dabbed more ointment on his beautiful decay.
“That was dreadful of you,” I said, motioning to my mother’s supplies strewn across the sink. “And besides, I don’t like you in all this makeup.”
Lev shrugged. “He’d have known something was wrong otherwise.”
“But you don’t need the mask now,” I said.
A downy washcloth purified him of the unbecoming façade. I ran my fingertips across his wan skin.
He reached for my hand, but I moved out of his grasp and arranged the antiseptic creams and bandages.
“It’s a chilly evening,” he said, wiping traces of foundation from his face. “How about I light a fire?”
“Do whatever you want,” I said. “I’m making peppermint tea. If you don’t like it, make your own.”
After a sullen sojourn in the kitchen, I retreated to the study where I placed the teapot and cups on the fainting couch before retrieving my beloved weapon from its rack.
“I’m leaving this right here,” I said as the fireplace poker settled next to me on the hearth rug. “In case I need it… again.”
Lev joined me on the couch and inspected the curl on the end of the metal. “There’s some red there,” he said, “and a bit of my brains too. How about that?”
A searing stream poured from the teapot spout, and I splashed a few drops on him. He yowled.
“When I was young,” I said and handed him a cup, “I didn’t think I’d bleed red.”
With a flail of his arm, the fireplace poker clanged against the mantle, landing within inches of its rightful spot.
“Because people called us blue bloods. So on my fifth birthday, I slashed my cousin’s arm to be sure.” I shook my head, the disappointment still stinging more than twenty years later. “I discovered our blood was as red as a commoner’s.”
“Don’t worry, your highness.” Lev cooed the last word with teasing gentility. “You’re no commoner.”
His arm maneuvered over my shoulders, and I squirmed.
“Be careful,” I said. “You don’t want to spill bile all over mother’s vintage couch.”
“Heavens, no,” he said, smiling. “That would be criminal.”
BIO: Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare, Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Interzone as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She has contributed nonfiction to Pittsburgh City Paper, Horror-Movies.ca, Wanderlust and Lipstick, and her own 60 Days of Halloween, a collection of humorous essays chronicling her autumnal misadventures. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).