Jonathan Crawford’s blood pooled around my feet. It was happy to leave him; the blood hurried out, pouring from his neck like a gleeful little waterfall. I folded the blade and placed it in my beaded purse. Sometimes I wished I had a knife instead, with a thick wooden handle. I could notch it. But the blade and I were travelling companions, and it came from my old home. They say home is where the heart is, and many hearts had bled on this blade. I liked sharing my home.
I could hear Robert fidgeting behind the apartment door. The scent of his Marlboro wafted in, messenger of his impatience.
Now this motherfucker, Crawford, had pointed his pistol at me. The bulge in his pocket a surprise that I quickly dealt with. In the end, and like all the others I reeled in, Crawford didn’t know how to really hurt a woman. God knows those types exist in droves, but I avoided that brand of human trash. I had standards to uphold, goals to attain, and I trusted their comeuppance would be meted out elsewhere.
Maybe Crawford could have taken down some lice-ridden tramp, but not this doe-eyed girly, with my trembling lips and legs tucked in a tight pencil skirt. Men couldn’t help themselves; they wanted the angel who would be willing to fuck the devil. Crawford wasn’t the devil, though, not even close. He was just some handsome John I picked up in Lincoln Park. Robert I found in a place less likely, and he was a real keeper, for now. The smell of Crawford’s fresh blood was to me like the scent of roses, harbinger of memories and tender feelings, and I had to admit, the past months had been good in Robert’s company.
Last winter I’d been taken in to the station for drinking along with a dozen other customers from the gin joint. I looked young and vulnerable and was given my own holding cell. At midnight they changed guards, and in walked Robert. The lower half of his face was like a bowl of cold porridge, and his nose had been broken more than once. He was only thirty, but he could have been sixty, and he was nobody. Men and women alike looked at him once in disgust and then promptly forgot him.
“What happened to your face?” I asked, slinking toward the iron bars.
“My Pa threw an oil lamp at me, long ago. Why do you care?”
“It’s a good conversation starter, that’s all.”
“I’m not supposed to talk with inmates.”
“Oh, I won’t be in here for long.”
By morning I was out, and so was he. We went to his one-room apartment in the basement of a crumbling brownstone. Rookie cops weren’t paid shit, so the room was bare but meticulously clean. His metal-framed bed was covered with a red and white quilt, and above the bed, the Virgin Mary stared at us with sad eyes through a yellowed painting. The kind of eyes that had seen things the Bible wasn’t ready to admit. I always liked that Mary.
“You have the same eyes,” Robert said, and cupped my giggling face in his hand.
“My name is Virginia, but I’m not a virgin, so you just call me Ginny.”
I liked to fuck ugly men. You can’t hide anything behind that kind of face, and when Robert pushed himself inside of me, I could see every thought and feeling on his mangled features. I would capture him, consume him. I’d suck him dry ‘til there was nothing left.
It was cold and wet. I lived the months away in his apartment, hibernating. Robert left only for his shifts and brought back food: canned sardines and peaches, black coffee, sometimes cheap cuts of red meat. During a thaw in March, he convinced me to go out for a walk. He lent me a long trench coat that fell to my ankles while he wore a thick wool sweater that chafed the raw flesh on the tip of his chin. A young man on a bicycle called out to us from across the street, and when I noticed his copper skin and fine golden hair, I felt a stirring in my chest, like a thousand black moths clamoring to escape. It woke me up: spring was here.
The blond’s name was Danny. He was a messenger boy, and a few weeks prior some thugs had robbed him and roughed him up bad. Robert had patiently helped the illiterate kid fill out his statement, and Danny was grateful the way only a very young man can be. It was finally payday, and he insisted he buy us some drinks. Virgins of course.
“How sweet. I’d love that,” I said, giving him a peck on the cheek, close enough to his ear for him to feel my warm breath. “Instead, why don’t we go to Robert’s place and have something a little stronger?”
Danny blushed, and Robert shot me a sideways glance. It held only a hint of curiosity. The world ignored Robert, and Robert was accustomed to ignoring it right back, but I offered more than his usual fare alright.
Back in the basement, I poured Danny his inaugural drink –moonshine to melt your retinas– and on his first taste he bowled over in a coughing fit. I laughed and rubbed his back.
“A few more sips and it’ll go down smooth. You’ll see.”
I winked and unbuttoned the two top buttons of my blouse. Robert sat in the corner on his one rickety chair, watching us, looking like some specimen from a monster statuary. Our eyes met, and the corner of his lopsided lips opened in the faintest of grins. I smiled like I hadn’t in months and felt the warmth between my legs travel to my head. Stronger than moonshine. I turned toward Danny and shoved him onto the bed. Only one drink in and his body had already started to go limp. I climbed onto his lap and put my mouth to his before he could even register surprise. His lips were soft like petals and his cheeks had barely a stubble, but boys that pretty already had a past. I let him come up for air and placed my head against his chest, my auburn curls enveloping him.
“Have you ever had a woman, Danny?”
“Yeah, yeah I have,” he said. He seemed to have completely forgotten that Robert was there, just a few feet away.
“Who? Tell me,” I cooed.
“Esther, back in my home town, behind her grandpa’s barn.”
“My little cousin, Lucy.”
“Did she like it?”
“I guess. She cried a lot.”
That was the first time Robert had witnessed a kill. With his heavy lids partly closed and hands gripping the armrests, he looked as if he were concentrating on a difficult but worthy task. When Danny was done with his death throes, Robert tucked his spindly arms and legs into the rolled-up rug that had once tied the room together so well. The next day, I bought Robert a new one: cerulean blue to match Mary’s dress. I don’t know where he took the rug and its passenger. I suspect there were plenty of dumping grounds to choose from. Coppers in Chicago weren’t known for their kindness, nor were the Pinkertons. Some would say Danny was just a kid, doing what kids do, but he was already eighteen, and I say better cut the root before the weed grows. Robert understood it was my way. I liked that about him, his ability to take in people and events for what they were.
“Why do you do what you do?” he once asked after we returned from a fruitful summer evening walking along the lake. For all the female corpses floating about Lake Michigan, heads down and backsides to the moonlight, I had at least provided a few male companions.
“I don’t like men, isn’t that enough?”
I bent towards the cracked mirror above the dresser and plucked another hair from my brow. I patted the blood away with a tissue as I watched Robert’s reflection. He was having a rare lightning bolt of thought.
“But you like me. I’m a man.” He grabbed his crotch to remind me.
I laughed and went back to my task. He was wrong, of course. That’s not what made a man. A man had identity, presence. Something others could recognize and relate to. Men congregated, patted each others’ backs, and encouraged endless cycles of bullshit and violence. Robert was just a shadow lurking in the shadows of men. That night I actually spoke to Robert; I told him real things, not the petty stories and lies I fed to my prey. His empty eyes could take me in, and I felt confident that the void that traveled with him would envelop my own story, and I would remain hidden. Sprawled on the bed, we smoked and smoked; I spoke, he listened.
“I grew up in a sanatorium. What do you think of that?”
“Not much,” he said. “That’s where they put crazy folk.”
“Like me?” I asked in mock hurt. Robert shrugged. He really didn’t give a rat’s ass.
“I wasn’t one of the crazies, dear. My family ran the place. It was like a strange playground, and so many odd friends…like Alice in Wonderland.”
“It’s a book I read when I was a child, about a girl’s adventures in a world where all the creatures are completely insane. Where up is down, and wet is dry, and a red queen wants to chop off your head.”
“That doesn’t sound like a children’s book,” said Robert, frowning.
“You’re not wrong about that, but that’s what it was like in my sanatorium.“
“Did anyone want to chop your head off?”
My laughter rang in the small room like mourning bells. “No one had their heads on to begin with, silly.”
Thick knuckles rapped on the door.
“Ginny, you done?” whispered Robert.
I could hear other people coming and going in the stairwell, and Jonathan Crawford’s eyes lit up, widening at the sounds. He was dying slow, too slow for my taste. It was a risky move to begin with, bringing him here during the middle of the afternoon. Robert had been out on patrol and the tenement house was bustling with end-of-month evictions.
Earlier that afternoon, when I sat next to Crawford on the park bench, he had been reading a messy stack of papers while peering through an old-fashioned pince-nez, his crumpled bag lunch between us. The perfect illusion of male innocence. A forty-something dunderhead with one of those generic, handsome faces that seems familiar to everyone. Perhaps I would have moved along if not for the topic of his papers: childhood psychosis and female hysteria. Maybe he was square, but in his position –some kind of psychiatrist or hack practitioner, no doubt– he was liable to go buck wild with his patients. The temptations were too great, the women and children too vulnerable. I couldn’t not do something, and besides, I really, really wanted to…
Now Crawford was sitting on the cerulean rug, his back against the bed, one arm extended and still grasping the metal frame. Blood ran down his neck and shirt, and then spiraled the length of his other arm. It was limp and lifeless, but the fingers of his hand still twitched and grasped at the air like the talons of an eagle. Crawford hissed.
“You…you…” he managed to whisper.
He should not have been able to speak, not the way I slit his neck after kicking the gun out of his hand. Deep, I slashed at muscle and ligaments. You don’t want them to scream, and they need to expire fast. I’m not cruel, no matter what others might think. I’m as a hunter culling deer that would otherwise ravage fields and gardens with their endless appetite for fresh greens. They eat and eat, they fuck, and they leap across roads, free, blind, and stupid. Chaos, that’s what they are at their best.
I approached Crawford, lifted my skirt, and straddled his legs. He gurgled at the weight on his knees and at the proximity of my face to his wounds. I saw that one good slash tore through muscle, but the other was shoddy work and didn’t even hit the main artery. I shook my head in disgust as I watched the trickle of blood finally slow to a near stop.
“You might yet live, darling, if a kind soul were to take you to a surgeon.” I slapped his bearded cheek with my gloved hand. “But what’s the likelihood of that?”
Crawford stared, opening and closing his mouth like a fish.
“Virginia Grace Parker,” he said, spittle wetting my cheek.
The hair on my arms stood on end at the sound of my name. Mine. Spoken by this strange yet familiar man. The door crashed open, hard footsteps to my left, and then Robert stood above me, anger flashing across his usually sedate features. I retrieved my blade from the purse and placed it against the still intact side of Crawford’s neck, but Robert grabbed my hand and jerked me up, both of my wrists in his thick, meaty paws. I was a small woman after all, with less physical strength than a boy child. I wanted to howl in frustration, at this life and my inadequacy, but I wouldn’t show such weakness. I bared my teeth and clenched my jaw.
“You promised not to use the apartment anymore for your games, Ginny. And now, in the middle of the fuckin’ day…He even knows your name. ” Robert jerked his head at Crawford, who sitting in a pool of drying blood and piss, patiently watched us unravel.
“You always enjoyed the games. My dear Robert, what’s the sudden change?”
He let go of my wrists and shoved his hands under my nose. They were black and stained, and smelled of ink and soot.
“You see this? I spent hours rewriting reports about murdered or missing men, burning the originals, hiding evidence. I’m not smart like you, Ginny. I know that, but it’s just a matter of time before someone else figures it all out.” He shook his head. “It was fun while it lasted.”
He pulled out a sheet of crumpled paper from his coat pocket, and for the second time in a few minutes, my name was said out loud, each syllable a blow to the stomach.
“ ‘Ms. Virginia Grace Parker, age 19, escaped from St. Pelagius Sanatorium. Approach with care, could be dangerous,’ ” he read in his slow, dull voice. “The memo dates from just over a year ago.”
I snatched the paper away and tore it to pieces.
“Lies! I left by choice a decade ago. I’ve travelled the country alone, back and forth, exterminating vermin. I’m a banshee, a succubus, an avenging goddess.”
With each word my voice became louder, shrill, beyond control. I truly became a howling banshee as I thrashed against Robert, my head whipping back and forth. I pushed him hard against the wall and the basement room shook, sending the frame of Mary crashing to the floor. Robert grabbed at me, and I continued to wail. I was calling on Death, my faithful friend and companion to take my hideous, treacherous lover. Maybe He would come for me, too, but I was damned if I’d go down alone. Anything was preferable to going back to that place.
“Don’t hurt her!” Crawford’s voice silenced mine. The force of his words sent him into a coughing fit. Red phlegm spewed across the room, and yet, he still tried to speak.
Robert held me in a firm embrace, my back pressed into his chest. His fingers dug into my skin, but I could tell it was only out of necessity. He loved me still. I could see it from the tears streaming down the crevasses of his maimed cheeks. I had given him the best year of his life, full of sex and violence. What more could a man like him want?
“How do you know her?” asked Robert.
Crawford spoke between bouts of coughing, his good hand pressed against his neck.
“I work for her father, an eminent doctor at St. Pelagius. I watched her change from a beautiful child to a deranged young woman,” he said, then gazed at me with those stupid, pain-filled eyes. “You dyed your hair, Virginia, and look so grown up. Forgive me for not recognizing you. Won’t you come home with Johnny? All is forgiven. Your father will be so happy.”
“Don’t speak to me like I’m a child,” I spat.
I remembered him now, my father’s employee. He did not have a beard then, but he always wore his pince-nez and some sickening expression of kindness. Fake. It was all fake. There was no goodness in that place, only psychotic murderers, sexual deviants, and worst of all, their captors.
On wobbly legs, Crawford stood and shambled to the corner of the room where he picked up his pistol. Yes, kill me. Let this be over now. But no, he put it back in his pocket and came to us with trembling, outstretched hands. The torn skin on his neck flapped with the movement.
“It was our fault for letting her roam free and interact with the patients. She read our papers, listened to their depraved stories. She was so clever and precocious, we didn’t notice her vulnerability.”
Crawford shook his head, and he too let drip fat tears, streaking his blood-stained face. He was a reptile, warming to the environment, while Robert panted like the dog he was. I could feel his tensed body, hear his cracking joints, as he tightened his hold over me. A whimper escaped my lips.
“Why did you follow her to the apartment?” asked Robert. Good boy, ask questions like a proper cop for once.
“Alas, I am but a sinner. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Crawford’s shoulders slumped in a pantomime of shame. Robert sighed and grabbed my cheeks with one hand, forcing me to look back at him. He was searching for something in my face, but I’ll never know if he found it.
“You’re like all the others,” I whispered to him. “I should have done away with you when I had the chance.” I then felt a shift in Robert, a cool detachment in his leaden grip.
Crawford edged closer and proffered a hand red with dried blood.
“Sweet Virginia, this world wasn’t meant for you,” he said through an angelic grin. “You’ll have the prettiest room with a view on the garden. Tea and biscuits every day at eleven. Daydreams of Mr. Darcy. Come with me, butterfly.”
A profound dread crept into my body as Robert loosened his grip and pushed me forward. It was too late to fly away, my dark wings were caught in the net.
As a trained archaeologist, Natasha’s field experiences provide a unique source of inspiration. Unseen places, forgotten histories, and the dark recesses of humanity populate her stories. French-Canadian born, she now lives in the Boston area and is writing her first novel. You can find more stories online at Literary Orphans, Beat to a Pulp, and Luna Station Quarterly.