by Tom Fabian
Top of the morning to you. I hope whoever is reading this is enjoying their day. I, on the other hand, have had better days—you see I haven’t been feeling too well lately. But poor health and all, there comes a time in every man’s life when he must sum up, and that’s what I’m doing.
I suppose I should start by saying I was always a loving husband and father, and that those objects of love were taken away from me much too soon. That, however, is not an aspect of my life I wish to go into at the moment—if you are really interested in finding out my full story, you’ll have to take a trip to the nether world and ask my wife and son. It’s the other facets of my story, my character—which I’d kept hidden from those nearest me, hidden even from my dear Stella—that come to mind as I sit here with little to do but think about the past.
Dear Stella, who loved me because I was dependable and, yes, maybe even because I was boring. Stella needed stability in her life and found it with me. I had to keep certain things hidden from her. I was the family man who would come home from work and take care of the usual mundane tasks, then after dinner settle down with the paper or watch the game on television. As far as my wife and son were concerned, the days went by in a quiet uneventful fashion. And we were happy like that. “George has no interests, no hobbies even …” I once overheard my wife saying quite happily. And a neighbor once: “George’s as empty as a shell.” It didn’t bother me a bit.
The fact of the matter was, I did have a hobby—a very special hobby. One I could only share with a select few. You see, I kill people. Or I should say, I used to kill people. I know what you’re thinking: thrill-killer. Those nasty reprobates Leopold and Loeb come to mind. The bastards should have been sent to military school at an early age. Not enough parental discipline! Or you might be thinking I’m a killer in the vein of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, a sociopath who kills to get ahead. No, I used to kill in order to help people; it was sort of like charity with me. I would see people having a hard time and I’d use my talents to get rid of, say, a nasty father, a vicious wife, an exploitive uncle. You’re probably thinking I’m some kind of a maniac who is making his vice sound like a philanthropic enterprise …
Truthfully my hobby went both ways—it is, after all, as important to give, as it is to receive. There was always a beneficiary to the crime, and, in that alone, I always took the greatest satisfaction. But the challenge, the planning, the calculation, the anticipation, the peculiar sensation of looking into the eyes of my prospect and sizing them up—that’s where the real thrill was. And, of course, the knowledge that I had rid the world of a particular vermin. The actual killing? There was really no joy in that.
I’ve written only a page, yet I feel I’ve come across poorly. So maybe I should explain a few things about myself. Ask anyone about George Blake and they’ll tell you he’s a gem of a man. He never ran a red light, was quick to lend money to his friends, never looked at another woman while he was married, went to church every Sunday, and was always willing to talk a colleague out of divorcing his wife or having an affair. In short, by most standards I was a model citizen.
But I digress; back to the task at hand. I took on my hobby just short of my 29th birthday. I used to stop off at a bakery on 3rd Avenue every morning on the way to work. The owner was a squinty-eyed Belgian who used his wife and children as indentured servants. A few times, I caught him bellowing at his wife for making a mistake on the register, and once from where I was standing at the counter I saw him slapping her around in the backroom.
I’ll never forget going in there the morning after I was fired from my job. I’d been up all night, hadn’t showered or shaved and walked in completely disheveled. Mrs. Gruen was behind the counter. She took one look at me, and the next thing I knew I was sitting at one of the tables with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Danish in the other, telling her of my troubles. Then her husband came out and spoke roughly to her in Flemish. She quickly got up and returned to her work.
On that wet and dreary Wednesday morning, I had an epiphany. I stared into my coffee and thought: what would happen if this man were to die? His wife and kids would inherit the business. No more bellowing, no more slapping, no more indentured servitude. And then the idea came to me.
It didn’t take long to plan. I monitored his actions, became his shadow. Every night while his wife and kids were at the bakery preparing everything for the morning rush, he would go to the bar down the street, get drunk and stumble home through the alleyways. One night, I parked my car in the alley and waited for him to appear. When he did I ran him over—twice for good measure.
It’s always special the first time you do something.
I had found a hobby that I would pursue for the next 20 years. Life went on more or less as usual. I found a new job, Stella and I had a son, and I continued to kill: bankers, lawyers, accountants, brokers, construction workers, salesmen … Poison, gunshots, tampering with car brakes—I tried to mix it up. I mean, these idiots that use the same technique several times simply lack imagination and adventure. They’re trying to laud their stale way of doing this as a trademark … what bullshit.
Then Stella died, and shortly thereafter my son. It was difficult to take pleasure in anything after that. Even killing lost its luster. I wondered if their untimely deaths were some sort of punishment for me.
Then one day, things changed again. I was soon to retire and had purchased a place upstate, in Coxsackie. I had begun to take an interest in life again, which inevitably meant that I’d take up my hobby again, too.
In my capacity as an intelligence analyst, I had access to criminal investigative files. Over the years, the name Jane Masterson kept coming up in connection with mysterious deaths of men to whom she happened to be married. Jane Masterson, the Black Widow who the idiot flatfoots had never managed to nab for murdering three husbands. Jane Masterson, who was now living in Coxsackie. Yes, it would be Jane Masterson who, as Mathias Gruen initiated me all those years ago, would re-initiate me into my hobby. I’d have to find an interesting way of doing away with her. I’d have to take things slowly.
I’d lived my entire life in the city. And it took awhile to adapt to the slower pace upstate. But I’ve always been adaptable—hell, you couldn’t do what I’d done for 20 years and not be adaptable! It was lonely at first, but eventually I made a few friends, and the house and garden was a continuous source of work. On the days when I wasn’t busy planning the demise of Jane Masterson, I kept busy trying to cut down the overgrown yard.
I was planting hedges the day Stanley Leyton came into my life.
“G’day!” he said with a broad smile.
An Australian in Coxsackie? I’ve always hated Australians—uncouth bastards, all of them.
I smiled back, took off my work gloves, offered my hand and received a bone-crushing handshake. “Stanley Leyton,” he said.
I told him my name.
“From Brisbane originally. Used to raise horses there. But I’ve always wanted to live in America. Came up here 15 years ago to visit a friend and decided that one day I’d make this place my home. How about you?” he asked.
“The usual story.” I said. “Worked for a large corporation in the city for 40 years and I’m now retired up here.” I didn’t want to divulge that I’d worked for the government. I was hoping he would shove off, but he continued.
“We’re always glad to welcome new neighbors. Took some time to get to you though. Peggy and I have been wanting to have you over for dinner one night. You’d be welcome to bring along that charming young lady friend of yours,” he said, with ill-concealed humor.
Not much gets past the residents of a small town. I’d only just begun seeing Sue O’Leary, who was 20 years my junior.
I was about to invent an excuse when Leyton, ever the pushy bastard, said, “We’ve already spoken to Sue and know you haven’t got any plans tomorrow, so tomorrow at 8:00.”
When I got up the next morning, I realized the fridge was almost empty. God how I missed my dear Stella. While in town buying the necessary staples, I took the opportunity to find out more about the insufferable Leyton and gather more information about Coxsackie’s Black Widow. Margaret, who owned the store, was at the counter when I brought up my eggs, bread, coffee, butter and sugar.
Maggie had been married to a brute of a husband who had died of natural causes years before I moved to town. It’s a pity I couldn’t do her a good turn by getting rid of him. As usual, she had a cup of coffee waiting for me.
“What’s new?” she asked.
“I’ve made a new friend,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“He’s been asking all about you.”
“Oh, who you are, what you do, what you’ve done. Nobody in this town minds their own business. But Leyton takes the cake!”
“Well, I’m there for dinner tomorrow. Maybe when he realizes that I’ve spent my life tallying tax records he’ll decide to obsess over someone else.”
We heard car doors slam. Maggie turned her head to look out the window. “It’s that fortune-hunting Jane Masterson.” Maggie loved talking about Jane. I never even had to prod her. “Did you know she’s out to pry Jerry Lawson from his wife.”
So poor old Jerry was to be her next victim. I wondered if maybe I should speed up my efforts at ridding the world of dear Jane and save a marriage and an innocent man’s life. Maggie could have no idea what was going on in my mind and I merely said, “Poor Cynthia Lawson doesn’t stand a chance.”
Maggie looked up and smiled at Jane Masterson as she entered the store. The Black Widow was a slight woman no more than five feet tall. A blonde in faded jeans who herself was beginning to fade in terms of looks. Still, compared to Cynthia Lawson …
I savored the moment—the hunter surveying his prey. She had an insolent 7-year-old boy at her side who could have used some gentle disciplining. Instead, when he snatched a candy bar off the shelf she smacked him across the face. The child began to wail. I thought, another point in my favor—finishing her off would mean a lot to the boy as well. Can you imagine growing up with that for a mother?
My Hobby (Part II)
by Tom Fabian
That night, Leyton was waiting for Sue and I on the porch. “Nice evening,” he said as we approached. He shook hands with me and kissed Sue. Never understood these bastards who slobber over casual female acquaintances.
He showed us inside. The furnishings revealed much of what I had already suspected about the Leytons. The furniture looked as if they had purchased it as brand new sets from a showroom. The paintings on the wall were of the kind you’d find at a tourist stop “art gallery.”
He led us into the kitchen where his wife, a heavy-set lady, was putting the finishing touches on the meal, which apparently was some kind of lamb roast.
She smiled up at us. “I’d shake your hands but my hands are greasy,” she said shyly. “I’m just finishing up. Stanley, take them out to the porch for some cocktails and appetizers.”
“I’ll help you,” volunteered Sue. Leaving me in the clutches of asinine Stan.
I followed Leyton to the porch, where the evening breeze had blown Mrs. Leyton’s cocktail napkins everywhere. While I helped him pick them up, he was already inundating me with questions. Was I a Yankees fan? What did I think of the Knicks? Had I ever been married? What exactly did I do for a living? My replies were short and curt. It was none of his business and I wanted to make sure he disliked me enough to never invite me over again.
Sue came out all smiling to announce that dinner was ready. In the dining room the lamb roast was the center of attention.
I’d been a vegetarian ever since I ran over the Belgian baker. “I’ll take the wild rice and vegetables,” I said.
“What about some meat?” Leyton seemed perplexed and looked to his wife for guidance.
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Wow George, I could have sworn you were more of a hunter,” he said.
How little he knew.
Throughout that woeful meal, the Leytons proved that they were desperately trying to assimilate into the American way of life. They spoke about catalog-shopping, baseball, reality television and the latest celebrity gossip. When we were finished, Leyton yawned and after punching his own chest announced, “I think I had too much.”
We started to make our way to the living room. I’d be damned if I was going to undergo another of Leyton’s almost too-friendly grillings. “I think I’d already mentioned that we’d have to call it an early night,” I lied. “I’ve got to go back to the city early tomorrow. Some unfinished business to take care of.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Mrs. Leyton said. She turned to Sue: “Are you interested in limited edition figurines?”
“Love them,” idiot Sue said.
“Come back into the kitchen. I have a collection I’d like to show you.”
Leyton showed me to a chair: “I wasn’t going to let you out of my grasp that easily.”
I laughed, but his face remained unexpressive. He turned around and walked over to the liquor cabinet. “I’m not always this bubbly. I suffer from depression. Started when my brother died.”
“He died when I was in Australia and he was in New York.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He smiled. “Yeah. Pity I never got to know him better.” He handed me a drink.
“I’ll show you his picture.” He retrieved a framed photo from the bookshelf.
There he was, the face of one of my—I’ll call them victims for want of a better word. I had hoped he didn’t detect the surprise in my face.
“No, Georgy, it isn’t a coincidence.”
“What are you talking about?” I got up.
“Don’t play silly with me, Georgy.” He pushed me back into the chair. “Reggie had written home about his friend George Blake. Unusual for Reggie to even have a friend, come to think of it. Now years later when I’d heard that George Blake had moved into this town from the city, I wondered if you could be the same George that Reggie had been so fond of. I started asking questions.” He stopped and smiled down at me. In the distance I could hear Sue and Leyton’s wife talking and laughing.
“Peggy and I introduced ourselves to Sue and then one day she just happened to mention your antique revolver collection. Well that got me thinking . . ..”
He took a gulp of his drink.
“You see, Georgy, the police said my brother was shot by a Valentin Christoph Schilling, a very rare revolver.”
He smiled again.
“That Sue is certainly a sweetheart,” he said. “When you went down to the city, she was such a bonny lass, cleaning your place so that when you came back it was all neat and shiny. So we got friendly with her and I’d pop by and borrow sugar or bring some homemade biscuits that the missus made for her. It wasn’t hard to find a moment to pick up your Valentin Christoph Schilling. If you ask me, I think you’re a bit sick, to have kept that old German pinfire all these years.”
I tried to stop myself from shaking. This was a game of control—a mind game. I had to play it cool: “You’ve done a great job. Very, very good. The stuff of an Agatha Christie novel. But you know as well as I do that a court wouldn’t listen to this bullshit for five minutes.”
He poured himself another drink.
“Let us not get into any unnecessary details involving courts just yet.” He took a long breath. “I don’t hate you for killing him. I’m not out for revenge. Wouldn’t do me any good if you went to prison. But I do need something from you.”
“You can’t prove any of this,” I said, and got up to leave.
“If that’s how you want to be about it mate, all the better for me. I was trying to do you a good turn. I could probably make a killing if I went to the police and then secured a book deal—‘distraught man brings brother’s killer to justice,’” he laughed. “And just to show you how serious I am …” He walked over to the side table near the wall and picked up the phone. “Yes, dear, may I have the police please?”
I panicked. “Wait,” I said. I realized it was futile to deny it. If I had to, I could always rid the world of one more pushy Australian, but I had to buy time. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? Security, Georgy, security. The Leyton boys were born chancers. It’s been moving from one place to another and always finding myself up to my ass in debt. I had to leave my country and go to Kuwait—that didn’t work out, so Canada, and now here.”
“I’m not a blackmailer, in the classic sense of the word, Georgy, so I am going to show you my bank statement and you can make an offer and I’ll either nod yes or no.”
“I don’t want to look at your bank statement. Tell me how much and I’ll speak to my broker in the morning.”
“Ata boy, I knew I’d grow on you,” he smiled. “You tell him to sell, you tell him to sell, Georgy.”
I sat up late that night thinking. I couldn’t kill him myself. There was motive there. The police would be onto me in an instant. There went all my planning on Jane Masterson—couldn’t do her in anymore. Forget her, Leyton was the priority.
After a restless night, I sat in my kitchen slumped over a cup of coffee. I had to find someone who could do away with Leyton. Then it came to me. We had the Black Widow herself living just a few miles away. If anybody could help me it was she.
I spent the rest of the day planning. There wasn’t a trace of dread from the night before. I had my path ahead of me and I knew what I was going to do.
As part of my planning for “Operation Jane Masterson,” I had discretely been tailing her for a few weeks. It turned out she was a creature of habit. She’d drop the little monster off at school everyday, then stop at Reds for breakfast.
The next day I got up earlier than usual. I was waiting for her with a cup of coffee when she came in. I put up a hand and waved, got up, introduced myself and asked her to join me. She laughed and said, “Well I’ve had breakfast with uglier guys.”
I smiled and said, “I hope you’re not fond of heavy breakfasts.” I didn’t want her to throw up when I gave her the news.
The waitress took our order. It turned out she had a huge breakfast every morning.
“Weren’t you the guy talking to Maggie at the store the other day. You look familiar to me.”
“Yes, that was me. You may not know this but I’ve been waiting for years for a chance to meet you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“Phoenix, 1983, gun goes off at your home and you’re minus a husband but you inherit a lot of wealth. Miami, 1990, your second husband chokes on a medicine bottle cap, another dead wealthy husband. Need I go on?”
She stared at me coldly. “Why are you bringing this up? What the hell do you want?”
“If you want to cut to the chase, it’s not money I’m after.”
“Is this some sick joke?” She asked.
“I need a favor from you. I want Stanley Leyton.”
“Huh? What are you some kind of a weirdo? You want Stanley Leyton—what have I got to do with that?”
“I want you to do to Stanley Leyton what you did to your three husbands.” I couldn’t bring myself to use the actual words.
“You’re crazy. First of all, I’m not admitting to anything. For all I know you may be a cop trying to set me up.”
“I’m not with the police.” I smiled.
“Then stop harassing me, or …”
“Or you’ll call the police?” Suddenly I started to relish the role of blackmailer. “Call them. They’d be very interested in the information I have about the role you played in your husbands’ deaths.”
The Black Widow stared at me coldly. “What’s Leyton to you?”
“Let’s just say he’s being a bit un-neighborly,” I replied.
Our breakfast arrived. To my surprise she picked up her fork and knife and attacked the plate. Between mouthfuls she asked, “If I do this, what guarantee do I have that you’re not going to be hounding me till I die?”
“My word as a gentleman.” I extended my hand to her. She waved me off.
“Okay, but let me tell you something Mr. Blake. I’m lethal; if you try anything I’ll be after you.”
I didn’t say anything. What do you say in response to that?
She took a few dollars out of her bag, placed them on the table. But I had to say something—when you’re in the blackmail business it does no good to your reputation to appear tongue-tied. “Make it short and sweet, Ms. Masterson.”
“Don’t worry. I have daddy’s old WWII revolver—no serial number—that’ll do the trick.” She was so decisive, so different from Stella.
We met the next day at Reds again. I supplied her with the details. Gave her the day and time of Peggy Leyton’s Bridge evening, and a drawing of the layout of Leyton’s home; told her that he takes a nap in the evening as he watches the underachieving Yankees on television. Being a fair-minded man, I gave her a week to complete the job. I planned a trip down to the city for that time. I told Leyton I was having a meeting with brokers, of course.
In the city, I caught a few shows, went to a couple of museums and visited some old friends—my ironclad alibis in case something went wrong.
On my way back upstate, I was looking forward to being home. It was a glorious day—and I’d be rid of Leyton.
As I drove up the street to my house, I saw an ambulance and two police cars driving in the opposite direction. Had she left it to the last minute? I let myself in. When I opened the front door, I heard the vague murmur of voices coming from the living room. I realized it was the television; it sounded like a baseball game.
The room was dark, lit only by the flicker of the television. I could make out a hunched figure sitting on my favorite armchair. He turned when he heard my footsteps: “Enjoy the city, Georgy?” He said. “Hope you don’t mind but I picked up your keys from Sue’s purse the other day. Thought I’d make myself at home.”
My mouth was dry; I couldn’t form any words.
“Lazarus is walking,” he said, then cocked his head toward the front door. “No, that wasn’t my body being taken to the morgue. It was Jane Masterson—she decided to come over and take a shot at me!”
“That women is mad,” I blurted.
He rubbed his eyes, then started to scratch his abdomen. His shirt was dotted with fine bloodstains. “Right while I was taking my evening nap, I find this crazy lady over me with a pistol. She fires and bang, she’s dead. It didn’t turn out as you expected, did it?”
“What are you talking about?” As I said this, Jane Masterson’s words were ringing in my ears: “Don’t worry, I have Daddy’s old WWII revolver—no serial number—that’ll do the trick.” The damned idiot didn’t know she had to clean the revolver.
“I know you set me up, Georgy,” he said with a deliberate nod. “And the stakes are higher now.”
It was checkmate for me.
Yes, you could say Stanley Leyton helped me fall off the habit. He was a pretty reasonable blackmailer, and as the years went by I developed a grudging respect for him. His shy wife died shortly after and soon it was just a question of giving him handouts. For the past couple years, we’ve been in the same nursing home. Stanley and I would play dominoes and laugh at the overly patronizing nurses. But poor Stanley died last year. I’ve been stuck in this place for a long time and my memory is failing me—I mean short-term memory. What I did yesterday, I can’t remember today.
I don’t think I’m very welcome here anymore. It seems they can’t wait to get rid of me. My hearing is still stellar and the other day I overheard a few nurses saying, “He just won’t die. Can you imagine how much the government is paying to keep him alive? What’s the point?” But I’m not going anywhere.
She walked into my room: fake smile—sweet as saccharine. “Hi Mr. Blake, honey. How are you feeling this morning? Are you in pain? Would you like some pain meds? You know, maybe you should speak to Dr. Craig about stopping treatment. It’s probably time, you know …”
Looking at her, I realize it’s never too late to rekindle an old hobby …