I learned the art of deception early and well. If a person is to flout the law, one must behave sensibly. Above all, one must be unremarkable.
The house was charming in an immaculate sort of way, with carved shutters and decorative shingles worked in a fish scale pattern. The trim around the eaves was robin’s egg blue.
I’d been to fifteen addresses by then, and all were distasteful. The kind of people looking to take on a lodger are not generally the kind of people one cares to live with.
The Ross Street house was quite different. There were no unused gardening tools lying to rust in the yard and no indolent, flea-bitten dogs. The lawn was small and tidy, with manicured flower beds and a flagstone walk flanked by rose trees.
The woman who answered the bell was easily in her seventies, but sturdy, pleasantly pink in the cheeks. She told me that her name was Mrs. Kersh and she had advertised the room because her house was just so big and she did like to have some company every so often. She currently let rooms to two boarders, a man and a woman, although they generally kept to themselves, and did I mind that she didn’t allow cats? She kept finches, you see, and didn’t want them agitated.
When she inquired as to my line of work, I told her that I was a chemist, which was not a lie. I was very good with chemicals of all kinds. In the basement of a vacant warehouse near the loading docks, I manufactured the cleanest methamphetamine in four states.
Mrs. Kersh only smiled up at me, a doddering, oblivious smile, and exclaimed that I must be a very clever boy, although it had been years since I’d seen the near side of thirty. I gave her a week’s rent on the spot.
There is no structure more satisfying than a well-kept Victorian. From the first, I enjoyed my life in Mrs. Kersh’s house. The floors creaked in a companionable way, and the quality of light was always a buttery yellow.
Mrs. Kersh liked to cook. She made peanut bars and banana bread for school fundraisers and rummage sales. She made hard candy so delicate and brittle you could cut your hand taking it out of the tray if you weren’t careful. She mixed seafoam and fudge and divinity with a touch so light and deft that the sugar never burned and the thermometer was barely even a formality. In her own way, she was every bit the chemist I claimed to be.
We of the rented second floor were a motley trio, pursuing our own interests in our own inimitable fashions.
Valerie Shaw was a seductress. She liked to get her claws into rich, lonely business men, and bleed them slowly. She was an expert at taking them for their money and their adoration and their dignity, and sometimes their warm, literal blood. I’m given to understand that a handful of successful men crave that sort of thing. However, I’m inclined to think most of Valerie’s gentlemen did not, and the revelation of her blood-lust must have been shocking to say the least. She kept a porcelain cup by the sink in the bathroom, in which she soaked a set of eight steel cat’s claws in alcohol to take the smell off.
Carl Burton liked to start fires. The proof of this was evident in his blank, piggy eyes and burned fingers, and in the distinctive odor that pervaded his clothes—kerosene, smoke, sulphur. His favored implement was the strike-anywhere match.
We lived in relative peace for two months, before a pair of moon-faced detectives came for Valerie. In a shocking turn of events, they charged her not only with fraud and infliction of emotional distress, but with the perverse and horrifying crime of bleeding several local children and leaving their bodies in a nearby wetland. Valerie was led away in tears and handcuffs, hurling denials at the sky.
I watched from the veranda until the squad car had driven off down the street and turned the corner. Then I went back inside.
Mrs. Kersh was in the kitchen, patting out a round of shortbread dough. “We will have to put in another ad,” she said, reaching for the flour canister. “Perhaps on Monday.”
“For a lodger?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, dusting a sheet of waxed paper with fingers dipped in confectioner’s sugar. “This house is just too big for the three of us, and I do think it looks rather improper, an old widow lady living with two bachelor men. And the impression one gives is so important.”
“Aren’t you at all surprised about Valerie?” I said. “I mean, this really doesn’t seem like something she’d do—murdering children. Other things, yes, but not that.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I expect they’ll convict her just the same. You see, dear, Valerie is a very difficult woman to believe. At this stage in her life, lying has become second nature. Only a fool would believe her now. And she did have such a very particular proclivity for sadism. Deviant to an almost obvious degree. Would you like to help me cut out these butter cookies?”
The dough was dense and oddly fragrant. I leaned closer to the countertop and breathed deeply. The smell roared up, luscious and familiar, making my head swim. It was the distinctive bitter almond smell of prussic acid.
“That’s poison,” I said in the lightheaded rush that followed, trying to sort my addled thoughts. “You can’t hand out those cookies. The sugar—I think the sugar has cyanide in it.”
Mrs. Kersh smiled and nodded. “I don’t care for children,” she said, sorting through a tin box of cookie cutters. “No, I don’t care for them at all. On that account at least, it is so nice to have a chemist in the house.”.