Them At Number Seventy-Four
by Lindz McLeod
When body number four is discovered, Mrs Patterson thinks that surely now she and her husband will be caught. Days creep past, then a week.
Their excitement and relief begins to fade. Once again, the desire blossoms, delicate at first, but growing bolder as the hours and days pass. Over a dinner of chips, peas, and gammon steaks, Mrs Patterson ventures a suggestion that perhaps it’s time they do another. Her husband chews for a moment, points out that there’s another James Bond marathon on this weekend they won’t want to miss. She cedes the point. Seeing her disappointment, he suggests he can’t rule out the possibility they might kill again sooner, if someone suitable pops up. Play it by ear, he says. Pass the salt, please.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr and Mrs Patterson have resigned themselves to an early evening. They’re driving towards Aldi to pick up breakfast items—soft, white bread, margarine, sausages, and eggs. Tonight, they weren’t planning to do more than order a Chinese takeaway and have a glass of red wine while watching Gogglebox, but as their car passes the petrol station, Mrs Patterson glimpses dark hair—wild, untamed, unparted, as if Moses had never even heard of the sea—and something snaps. She pats her husband’s arm and he swerves instantly, parking on the other side of the road. Mrs Patterson points at the young woman striding into the station. They wait until she emerges again, tugging the collar of her faded denim jacket up against the wind, and slides back into her blue Kia.
They follow her in the car for a couple of miles, staying a respectable distance behind. The Kia shudders into the driveway of a semi-detached house. The young woman carries a tattered, bulging shopping bag from the boot into the house. She reuses plastic bags— that’s good for the environment. Mr and Mrs Patterson are religious about the reuse of plastic bags.
They cruise along the street, peering out at the house. Only one car in the driveway. No toys in the garden. An absence of children. The grass is a little overgrown, with a few weeds swaying in the wind. An absence of husband. They park at the end of the terrace and pretend to study a paper map. Mrs Patterson points out that the house is the last one on the end of a terrace, which provides easier access from the road, as well as reducing the amount of potential witnesses who might hear a struggle. Mr Patterson notes the lack of security cameras or neighborhood watch signs. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. Looking good. Can’t be too careful, though, he says, and Mrs Patterson agrees.
After making a mental note of the house’s location, they return home. They consult the map again—flimsy, thin paper, easily destroyed, should they ever need to dispose of such a thing quickly—to determine whether or not the house is too close to their own home. It’s close; cutting it very fine, but Mr Patterson thinks it will be suitable. Mrs Patterson is more cautious. She was the one who spotted the young woman, and while she’s keen to bond with her husband again, she’s reluctant to dabble with danger. They decide to mull it over. Mr Patterson places an order with the local Chinese restaurant over the phone, and while they’re waiting for it to arrive, they switch the TV over to Countdown. A consonant please, Rachel, Mrs Patterson mouths along with contestant A, and frowns when contestant A requests a fourth vowel. Far too many. Three’s all you need.
Mr Patterson concurs. Four is greedy. Over-egging the pudding.
Subsequently, Contestant A overreaches, and is soundly beaten by contestant B. When it’s time for the numbers game, Mrs Patterson stares vacantly into space and tries to picture what the young woman’s home decor looks like, while Mr Patterson solves the game out loud and gets within one digit of the correct answer. When the host shows her working on the whiteboard, he sighs and berates himself for missing a trick. Mrs Patterson consoles him.
They peck on the lips. The takeaway arrives moments later.
On Friday night, clad in dark clothes, they slip out of the back door and under the loose piece of fence. The hills between their village and the slightly larger town are pockmarked with warrens; they move at a steady pace, smothered in starlight. It takes them just under an hour to get to the house. Mrs Patterson uses a small lock-picking kit—an excellent bargain from a local charity shop—to unlock the back door.
They sidle inside, checking each room carefully before entering. On the ground floor, the lights are off. A cursory examination of the living room proves there are no toys littering the carpet, nor any chew sticks or bones. The shoe rack by the front door contains only one size of shoe. The jackets hanging on the pegs are feminine. Mr and Mrs Patterson watch a lot of crime shows and they have learned several important lessons: do not check out the crime scene beforehand, do not return to it afterwards for any reason, get in quickly and get out quicker. Do not photograph or otherwise film the house or victim. Leave your mobile phone at home lest the police use location data to track you.
The young woman is upstairs. Footsteps creak on the landing. As soft slipper-treads can be heard on the stairs, Mr Patterson offers Mrs Patterson the opportunity to strike first. She declines. She did the last one. Fair is fair.
They stand either side of the kitchen door. The young woman makes it precisely one step inside before Mr Patterson stabs her. After the knife slides in and out again, the young woman judders a couple of times, collapses face-down onto the floor, and stills. A faint bubbling, probably a collapsing lung. Red tinging her lips. Not much fanfare, but then again, they aren’t dramatic people.
Mrs Patterson wouldn’t say they’re professionals. Not at all—very amateur, in fact, although she’d admit that they’re both keen enough to improve—but after the fifth time, something shining and golden emanates from both of them as they stand over the body of the young woman. Glancing around, Mr Patterson remarks on how clean the grouting is between the kitchen tiles. Mrs Patterson agrees, and adds that the skirting boards are likewise free from dust and grime. Kept a nice house, so she did. They stare down at the body, and hold hands like they did when they were courting. Tightly, with coiled, anticipatory energy.
They’re back home in just enough time for a rerun of Pointless.
On Saturday, they do some gardening. Mrs Patterson loves her hanging baskets. When the storm comes, the rain pelts the flowers, knocking petals and leaves to the ground with casual cruelty. Mrs Patterson watches, tears brimming in her eyes, until Mr Patterson braves the wind, fleece pulled over his head, and slides the babies under the patio table to shelter them.
Dinner is a shop-bought lasagna and garlic bread. Dessert is fruit, because Mrs Patterson thinks her favourite jeans are getting a bit tight around the waist again. Mr Patterson, whose expanding and contracting stomach is rarely a source of consternation for him, dutifully agrees to commit to a diet in solidarity.
Television is good on a Saturday night. They watch all their favourite shows and in between, relive the memories of the previous night. They compare the kill to the others in minute detail; Mrs Patterson’s favourite was the second, because she felt that the first one was a bit of a faff, especially when the victim wriggled out of Mr Patterson’s grip and almost escaped. Mr Patterson agrees that the second kill was cleaner than the first, but admits that the fourth kill was his favourite. Why is that, Mrs Patterson wants to know. Because it was the first time you smiled afterwards, he says. She rolls her eyes. Oh, you’re an old romantic.
You know you love it, he says.
On Sunday their son comes for dinner with his fiancee. Mrs Patterson cooks a beautiful roast chicken and juliennes carrots while Mr Patterson ably handles the creamy mashed potatoes and makes the same old jokes about lumpy gravy. During dinner, the fiancee compliments the food, the house. Mr And Mrs Patterson like her immensely. The conversation switches to celebrities. Their son makes a reference to the time a high profile comedian cheated on his high profile actress wife. For a long moment, the only sound is the scrape and clink of cutlery. The fiancee doesn’t notice. Later, when the son and his fiancee leave, Mrs Patterson does not bring up this moment. Instead, she puts on the kettle and busies herself with wiping the countertops. Mr Patterson assumes it’s best left alone. He pours milk into the mugs, then dries the dishes while the tea brews.
They hold hands on the sofa, watching a chat show host interview an actress about an upcoming science fiction film they’ll never see. Afterwards, they watch the first twenty minutes of a film, before realising they are too tired to continue. They brush their teeth together, recounting the evening’s events. The conversation leads, as it frequently does, into a brief discussion of the son’s previous girlfriends. As always, they decide that some were more tolerable than others but the fiancee is easily the best, prettiest, kindest, most well-suited one. Their son seems very happy; this pleases them. The decision soothes them with its familiarity.
Mr and Mrs Patterson kiss goodnight and go to bed in separate rooms—he snores, she has restless legs, and they firmly believe that one of the keys to a successful is marriage is a good night’s sleep.
On Monday, Mr Patterson plays squash with ex-colleagues. Mrs Patterson has lunch with two long-standing friends, then spends an hour swimming the calories off in the local pool. At home, they have a coffee and catch up on the events of the day. Dinner is leftover roast chicken and chips. Dessert is clementines, which Mr Patterson peels and divides into segments, eaten during The Chase. By the time Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is on, they’re ready for another coffee. Mr Patterson answers several questions incorrectly in order to make Mrs Patterson laugh. They retire to bed, pleased with their productivity.
On Tuesday, their daughter phones for her usual weekly chat and inquires after their security measures. Mr Patterson assures her that they lock the doors carefully every night and have an alarm system. Their daughter mentions the recent murders. Mrs Patterson repeats her carefully rehearsed lines about the victims; all different genders, sexualities, and races. No known links between them. The daughter persists, but as soon as Mrs Patterson begins to quote the Sun newspaper, she changes the subject by habit, as they knew she would. They finish up the phone call with cheery goodbyes, safe in the knowledge that they are the last people in the world who would be suspected of such crimes. They were witnesses at their gay neighbours’ civil union over a decade prior. They frequently lend a hand in the bi-annual village fair, although they do prefer to keep to themselves. They’re frequently seen on the nearby hills, walking Mrs Patterson’s sister’s beautiful Alsatian. Mrs Patterson would like to have a dog, but Mr Patterson has pointed out that a dog restricts your freedom.
Mrs Patterson likes to feel free while staying firmly in her comfort zone, so a dog is off the table. For now.
On Wednesday, they drive out to the shopping centre and have tea and scones before browsing the clothing stores.
Mrs Patterson wonders how they ever got so much done before they retired. Mr Patterson reiterates the point, detailing how every day seems so full of activity. She does not mind that he remakes her points as if they were his own; conversely, she feels rather important that by producing a baseline, she can encourage him to embellish, to make something bolder and more exuberant. She likes being his foundation, and she is happy to believe she is more of a backstage person.
Several years ago, when their marriage had been rocky, other people had plenty of suggestions: counselling, couples retreats, all that new age mumbo jumbo. After weeks of talking it over, they decided all they needed was a fresh start. A proper clean slate. A new shared hobby. They’d been watching a BBC box set—some Danish crime drama, which Mr Patterson wasn’t particularly keen on because of the subtitles—when the idea had struck both of them at the same time. An exchange which at any time might have been superfluous and easily forgotten had caused a sudden spark of interest.
At first, simply talking about the plan had been enough to bring them closer together. Yet they’d craved more; more intimacy, more physicality. Past middle age, they wanted to create memories. Experiences. Adventures beyond frequent holidays to the Spanish and Portuguese islands. The first victim had almost been their last, but things had worked out perfectly. No one was any the wiser, and the marriage was stronger than ever. As the rain drums a blues rhythm against the conservatory windows, Mrs Patterson thinks that, all in all, it was really rather perfect.
On Thursday, Mrs Patterson goes to the post office to pay their bills. In the queue, she listens to two elderly women discussing the murders. They’ll catch him, one says. No doubt in my mind. They all get caught in the end. Mrs Patterson busies herself by admiring the range of holiday and occasion greeting cards, and selects a couple of suitable options to keep in the stash at home, in case she has forgotten to pop any upcoming birthdays or anniversaries in the diary. She wonders why people always assume a murderer is a man, and why they think he has to be working alone. She and Mr Patterson are different. They’re a team, she thinks, and is comforted by the idea.
When she returns, Mr Patterson makes tea and ham sandwiches. Afterwards, they each have two chocolate digestive biscuits, and discuss how long they should wait before killing again. He thinks it might be sensible to strike immediately but hide this body in a more secure location than the last. He suggests a local wooded area. Mrs Patterson blinks, puzzled. She points out that they hid body number four there and it was found far too quickly. He stares down at the map and hesitates before stabbing a spot with a thick finger. There. It’s a fine suggestion.
Mrs Patterson puts the kettle on again.
The next couple of weeks are quiet. Another storm wrecks the flowerbeds and baskets, so they make several trips to the garden centre to replace the ruined ones. Mr Patterson drives past the usual turn without indicating. Mrs Patterson nudges him, wondering if he’d been so enthralled with the latest chart-topper on the radio that he’d failed to notice. He double-takes, turns at the next roundabout, and swings back onto the correct road. It’s not the first time he’s done this over the last few years, but it’s the first time he’s got lost on a road they travel weekly. Mrs Patterson questions him but he insists he’s fine, simply a little tired. She ceases her questions when his tone takes on an ugly edge. A scarlet streak adorns his cheekbones. His eyes stay firmly on the road.
Driving back from their favourite restaurant, two towns over, Mr Patterson takes a winding back road that Mrs Patterson is unfamiliar with. She shifts in her seat, wondering why he didn’t stick to the well-lit and peopled main road. For the first time, the awareness of the items packed neatly in their trunk—black bags, shovels, one large sterilised knife, hand sanitiser, spare towel—rings an uncomfortable warning. She’d chosen and purchased each of them, yet she’d never quite comprehended the enormity of their presence. The road is lined with unclothed trees, branches shivering in the darkness. She slides cold fingers onto Mr Patterson’s knee, and is relieved to see him glance over, smiling, as if the thought had never crossed his mind. She’s heard of partners turning on each other, of course—it happens all the time on television. Not to them, though. Mr and Mrs Patterson are different. A true team, tried and tested. She gives him an extra kiss before bed, just to be sure.
On a windy Monday, Mr Patterson asks her twice where the jam is kept. He’s baffled when she gently suggests that there might be something wrong, and angry once he realizes what she’s getting at. He doesn’t need a doctor. He’s still in the prime of life.
In their usual supermarket, he checks each aisle’s title—Chilled Meats, Frozen Meats, Home Goods—before committing to perusing the shelves. Mrs Patterson notices this new habit, but has the sense not to address it immediately.
The following week, during a news broadcast of their latest victim, Mrs Patterson peeks around the kitchen door and watches him search through the cupboards again for the jam. It takes him four cupboards before he locates the jar, by which time his bushy eyebrows are kissing in confusion. Lying in bed alone, listening to the silence of the house, Mrs Patterson considers the possibilities. Wracking her brain, she’s certain the jars have been kept in the same cupboard since time immemorial. The jam is, therefore, indicative of a larger problem.
Mrs Patterson rarely puts her foot down about anything, so it comes as a shock to Mr Patterson when he realizes she isn’t going to budge. Tears are the final nail in the coffin; he presses her close to his chest and kisses the top of her head. He agrees to see a doctor.
Mr Patterson is given a thorough examination and booked in for an MRI, which he finds oppressive and strange. Afterwards, the doctor talks them through the results of the scan. Defiant, Mr Patterson argues that he feels fine, this can’t really be all that bad. The doctor has seen more than her fair share of elderly patients. She remains calm and patient. The news begins to sink in.
At home again, in the place where they feel most comfortable, Mr and Mrs Patterson hold hands on the couch. The television has been turned off. Alexa is silent. The only sound is their own breathing, mirrored by the wind outside like the heaving breath of a dying god.
Mr Patterson suggests another outing to cheer them up; Mrs Patterson agrees, and excuses herself to the bathroom before they begin to draw up plans. Life has once again changed shape under her hands. She does not allow herself to cry. Not yet. She flushes the toilet to make the visit seem realistic, and splashes her face with cold water. She must adapt to a new challenge. Teamwork means making sacrifices; she is very used to ceding her own desires in favour of a joint endeavour. What she wants is to keep Mr Patterson with her forever, regardless of his capacity. What they need is quite different. He is, through no fault of his own, a liability now. If it were her, he would reason through things in exactly the same way. He’s always been a very practical man.
She stares into the mirror. The woman looking back knows that her next kill will be her last. She’ll let him believe they have something exciting to look forward to. She’ll remind him that he has been her whole world, and their marriage has been strengthened by their choices. Love is a verb—or so they say. There won’t be any sudden movements, or black bags, or shovels. Just a soft slide into darkness, as easy and painless as falling asleep. It’s the best and last gift she can give him.
After all, Mrs Patterson loves Mr Patterson.
About the Author
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by/is forthcoming in Catapult, Hobart, Flash Fiction Online, and more. She is a member of the SFWA, a Rogue Mentor, and is represented by Headwater Literary Management.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is co-editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.