Sinners at Eight
by Michael Nethercott
|Art by Hank Blaustein
Five minutes into the cocktail party, Nellie’s nerves slammed together and conspired to kill her. At least that’s how it felt. It had been foolish of her, terrifically stupid, to have come. She should never have given in to Aunt Bebe’s insistent prodding. Nellie hated being thrust among strangers—as Bebe knew full well—but her aunt had been relentless, all smiles and assurances.
“Oh, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the Clays and their crowd,” Bebe had insisted the day before. “It’s always a marvelously lively gathering.”
“But I don’t like things that are too lively,” Nellie protested.
“Now, don’t be giving me that hogwash, my girl! You’re young and brimming with life’s nectars.”
Nellie had winced then, and Aunt Bebe had laughed. Bebe was a repudiated fifty: tall, slender, and spry. In her youth, she’d been a suffragette more-or-less—sufficiently suffragette, as she liked to joke—and was skilled at promoting a cause.
“Listen, Nellie, it’s a great opportunity to meet some sterling people. Charlotte McLaws, for example, is a blood relation of Mrs. Roosevelt. Oh! I wonder if that also makes Charlotte a blood relation of President Roosevelt. After all, he and Eleanor are fifth cousins, aren’t they?”
“I’m not sure, Aunt Bebe.”
“Don’t you want to attend a party with our president’s kin?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Dear, you must toss off that damned shyness of yours and stride out into the world. You’re barely eighteen and could pass for a vintage spinster.” (Bebe herself was no spinster, having buried one husband and abandoned two others.) “I refuse to let you just wither away while you’re here visiting me.”
“But you said they’d be serving alcohol, Aunt Bebe. Alcohol is illegal.”
“Don’t be so provincial! Look, I’ve already told the Clays that we’re coming, so it’s settled. Illicit cocktails at eight and blithe conversation thereafter.”
“No arguments! We’re all set for tomorrow night . . .”
Now tomorrow night was here. It was only a twenty-minute walk from Bebe’s house to the Coles’. A biting New England wind, strong with autumn, hurried them along. Arriving at the party, Nellie suffered a deluge of introductions, grins, and pleasantries. That’s when her nerves kicked in. There must have been close to forty guests—all unknown to her—and each introduction came like a jab to her intestines. She would never ever be the confident social creature that her family hoped for. Meeting strangers, trading banter, fielding inquiries—it was all pure hell.
Someone shoved a drink into her hand and suggested that Nellie, being Bebe’s niece and all, must be a firecracker. A real firecracker. Nellie responded with a strained smile. The bulk of the guests were squeezed into the living room, a high-ceilinged room decorated with a chaos of brash modern paintings. The air throbbed with overlapping dialogue; everyone present seemed to be a passionate conversationalist. Everyone but Nellie, of course. The subject matter was wide ranging, touching on all manner of recent events, both mundane and momentous. Have you read Hemingway’s latest? The Yankees were lucky to get that kid DiMaggio. No, they still haven’t found Amelia Earhart. Things are looking dicey in Europe, aren’t they? Certainly Chaplin’s best work is behind him. Oh, I wouldn’t step foot on a dirigible—not after the Hindenburg . . .
Nellie had lost Bebe somewhere in the noisy throng. Managing to disengage from a blustery playwright, the girl snaked her way through the crowd in search of her one ally. Unsuccessful, she sought shelter in a little side room that, mercifully, had been ignored by the partygoers. She settled into one of the room’s two chairs and let out a low moan. There was absolutely no way she could survive several hours of this. Imps of anxiety were already dancing wildly in her stomach, creating much havoc. If she was lucky, perhaps no one would wander into her little sanctuary, and Nellie could hole up here indefinitely.
She wasn’t lucky. Her solitude was soon broken by a young man who strode into the room, glass in hand, and cried out:
“Aha! A lost lamb. You’re Bebe’s niece, aren’t you? Has she misplaced you? Careless Bebe!”
The young man was slender, skinny really, with a headful of unrestrained brown curls. His smile stretched ear to ear and suggested both warmth and mischief. He was dressed in his shirtsleeves with a fiery red bow tie. Nellie thought she might have been introduced to him in the throng.
“You are Bebe’s niece, aren’t you?” he repeated.
The girl cleared her throat. “That’s me, yes.”
“Nellie, isn’t it? I’m Sherman.”
“Pleased,” Nellie said. Because that’s what one was supposed to say, wasn’t it? Or was she sounding too old-fashioned?
Without invitation, the young man plopped himself into the other chair and scooted it closer to Nellie. “Can I be a lost lamb too?”
“Had enough of the assemblage, have you?” Sherman talked very fast. “I don’t blame you. These swirly little fetes can get a bit tedious, can’t they?”
“I suppose . . . yes.” In truth, Nellie hadn’t enough experience with fetes to form an opinion on them.
Sherman took a sip of his drink. “But this particular gathering is far from tedious if you know how to look behind the curtain.”
“The curtain of apparent normality. The Clays like to pepper their parties with the peculiar—forgive my alliteration. For example, did you notice the girls serving hor d’oeuvres? The ones in the lacy aprons?”
“I noticed one girl.”
“There are actually two of them. A matched set. Twins, you see. The Clays arranged for a pair of identical twins to work the party. As a bit of odd flourish, y’know. And then there’s the butler. Well, actually, he’s not a full-time butler; just a fellow they trot in occasionally to spiff up these get-togethers.”
“Yes, I noticed him.”
“Then you must’ve noticed the audacious shock of white hair streaking across his black tresses. Like a lightning bolt at midnight.”
“I did notice that. It was unusual.”
“Right. Unusual and uncommon and a touch freakish. You see, the Clays like their soirees on the edgy side. Now, the twins and the streaked butler are, we might say, merely positioned in front of the aforementioned curtain. It’s who’s behind the curtain that’s really interesting.”
“Who’s behind it?” Nellie felt herself being drawn in.
Sherman laughed. “Piqued your interest, have I, fair maiden? It’s some of our fellow guests that are particularly intriguing . . . and, in some cases, unnerving.”
By now, Nellie’s natural reticence had given way to curiosity. “How are they unnerving?”
“Let’s start with a relatively minor case. Have you encountered Charlotte McLaws yet? Plump in purple chiffon?”
“Oh, yes. She’s related to the first lady, right?”
“So they say. Though I imagine Mrs. Roosevelt would be disinclined to acknowledge that fact if she knew of Charlotte’s . . . unfortunate compulsion.”
Nellie’s small gasp served as a request to hear more.
Sherman complied. “The woman’s a raging kleptomaniac. Worst category of the disorder, or so I understand. I gather she’s been to the best specialists—Austrians and such—and no one’s been able to cure her.”
“That’s terrible! Do the Clays know this?”
“But why would they invite her to their home knowing—”
“Knowing that she might plunder them blind? See, that plays into their rather perverse sense of fun. What they do is hide away all valuable items from the party area and replace them with cheap trinkets and the like. Then they’ll keep an eye out for Charlotte and watch as she sneaks bright baubles into her handbag. Our host and hostess get quite a charge out of seeing ol’ Charlotte strut her stuff.”
Nellie looked appalled. “I can’t imagine!”
“That’s because you’re a normal, stable young lady. Anyway, that nice glittery bracelet on your wrist . . . I suggest you not flash it about if you find yourself in Charlotte’s company.”
Nellie glanced down at her bracelet. It was thin, but it was gold. Certainly nothing she’d like to have stolen from her.
“Let’s move on to our next specimen,” Sherman said. “That would
be one Storky Williams. Ridiculously tall, lanky old fellow. Hence his nickname.”
“Yes, we were introduced. Very briefly.”
“Fortuitous for you that it was a brief encounter. No doubt your aunt whisked you away from him posthaste.”
“Maybe. I don’t actually—”
“Did Bebe inform you about our dear Storky?”
“I . . . I don’t think so.”
“Surprising that Bebe didn’t say anything. But perhaps she hasn’t encountered Storky enough to realize the truth. Storky Williams is a notorious letch. Fiendish, really.”
“That soft-spoken old man?” Nellie’s eyes widened. “He seemed so gentle.”
“Ha! A facade, I assure you. Just let him get you in a corner and his true lasciviousness will rear itself. Trust me, whatever words pass through that old lecher’s lips—no matter how seemingly benign—are loaded with carnal intent.”
“Oh . . .” Nellie blushed.
“The man’s downright compulsive, if you ask me.” Sherman drained his glass and set it on the floor. “As with Charlotte, the Clays thoroughly enjoy observing Storky on his rounds. Adds to their mad little carnival, you see.”
“That’s so disturbing!”
“It is, isn’t it? Next up we have Mrs. Fleet. She’s the short, middle-aged woman in the polka-dot frock. Big red and green polka dots—reminds me of a traffic light. Have you encountered her yet?”
“I don’t think so. What’s wrong with her?”
Sherman chuckled softly. “Now you’re getting the hang of it, Nellie. Best to assume there’s something damagingly wrong with any and all of our party-mates. In Mrs. Fleet’s case, her flaw is particularly distressing. She’s traveling solo tonight—sans her husband—because Mr. Fleet gets so upset when his wife starts prattling on about their children. As she unquestionably will be doing.”
“Why would he get upset?”
“Because those children are all in their graves. All three of them.”
“It was some late-blooming strain of influenza, I believe. And here’s the most hideous part. When Mrs. Fleet’s going on about her offspring, she acts as if they’re still among the living. She’ll regale her listeners with the kids’ latest exploits. Child One caught a turtle today; Child Two is learning to ride his bicycle . . . Rather horrible, isn’t it?”
“My God, yes,” Nellie said in a quivering whisper.
“If you think that’s bad, this next bit of info will surely stagger you. It concerns another of the male guests who . . .” Sherman sighed and shook his head. “But, no, no. perhaps I shouldn’t say.”
“Say what? Please go on.”
“I should really gather more evidence before I make an accusation, but I’m fairly certain that—”
“So there you are, dear!”
Nellie gave a start. Aunt Bebe had entered the room.
“I wondered where you’d scurried off to,” Bebe said. “I see Sherman has taken you under his wing.”
“Yes, ah, he’s been very—”
“I’m sure.” Bebe pressed on. ‘Nellie, I’ve someone I’d like you to meet . . . if Sherman can spare you.”
Sherman grinned. “Who am I to keep your gracious niece all to myself?”
“Well reasoned,” Bebe said. “Nellie?”
As Nellie rose, she glanced back down at Sherman, who nodded conspiratorially at her.
“I’ll tell you more later,” he said under his breath.
Nellie followed her aunt out of the room and was promptly introduced to a tipsy actress.
“Ada here appeared in her first motion picture this year,” Bebe explained. “She was actually in it with Katharine Hepburn. Katharine Hepburn! You were just saying the other day, Nellie, how much you liked her in Mary of Scotland.”
“Yes, she was very—”
“Tell us again, Ada. What role did you play?”
“A dancer at a ball,” the actress slurred. “A really fancy ball. The dresses we wore were all so . . . so . . .”
“Gorgeous?” Bebe prompted. “Were they utterly gorgeous, Ada?”
“Yeah, gorgeous. Utterly. It was a really really fancy ball . . .”
The thespian droned on about the gorgeousness of the film’s costumes. Eventually, Bebe was drawn off by some other loud guests, leaving Nellie to bear Ada’s highball-fueled soliloquy alone. Thankfully, after a few minutes, the actress lurched off to replenish her drink. Nellie turned to find herself facing a plump woman in a purple dress.
“Oh, hello,” said the woman. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
Charlotte McLaws. Nellie instinctively covered her bracelet with her free hand. Charlotte’s eyes immediately dropped to the hidden wrist. Nellie muttered something nonsensical and hastily excused herself. She was determined that her bauble wouldn’t become part of a kleptomaniac’s plunder—even if this particular kleptomaniac was related to the Roosevelts. Nellie slithered through the partygoers, found herself an unoccupied corner, and filled it.
Again, her solitude was short lived. She tensed as the tall, elderly man shuffled over to her and smiled thinly.
“Quite a noisy little gathering, eh?” Over the party’s din, Storky Williams raised his voice to be heard. He leaned in close to her. Too close.
“Your aunt tells me you’re somewhat of a philatelist,” Storky said.
Nellie pressed her spine deeper into the corner. “I don’t . . . That is . . .”
“A philatelist is a stamp collector,” the old man said. “Bebe tells me you do a bit of collecting.”
“Oh . . . Yes, some. Just a little.”
“I collect myself. As a matter of fact, I spend an inordinate amount of time at it.”
Sherman’s warning came back to Nellie: Whatever words pass through that old lecher’s lips are loaded with carnal intent. That’s what Sherman had told her—no matter how benign those words might seem.
“Oh yes, an inordinate amount indeed.” Storky’s thin smile stretched slightly.
There was no more corner left for Nellie to squeeze into.
Storky kept on. “I have to say, it’s one of my great passions.”
Passions. Nothing benign or subtle about that. Nellie tried to edge around the tall old scarecrow, but he was unmoving.
“It always pleases me to see a young one show interest.” Storky nodded at her, his grin fully expanding now. “A young one like yourself . . .”
At that moment, someone bumped into the old man and, amid exchanged apologies, Nellie made her move. She buried herself into the bustle of the party, enduring a half dozen brief conversations with various gin-inspired guests. Each encounter was painful in its own way, but all were preferable to Storky’s passion.
Then she saw Charlotte McLaws aimed again in her direction, causing Nellie and her bracelet to make a sharp pivot away. In doing so, she almost plowed into the silver-streaked butler, who heroically saved the tray full of drinks he’d been balancing. Nellie sputtered an apology, and moved away. She was intercepted by a short woman with a wide smile.
“Bebe’s niece, right?”
As she’d already done uncountable times, Nellie agreed to the charge.
“I thought so,” the woman said. “Listen, hon. I was wondering if you’d like to take on a bit of babysitting while you’re visiting here. I have three kids, and I’ve a couple of engagements coming up where I’ll be away for a few hours. Oh, I’m Mary Fleet, by the way.”
Nellie was required to shake the extended hand. Fleet . . . Fleet . . . She’d just heard that name, hadn’t she? Nellie noticed now the woman’s dress with its abundance of red and green polka dots. Reminds me of a traffic light. Hadn’t Sherman said that?
“They’re sweet tykes, really,” the woman continued. “Of course, my oldest, Randolph, can be a little rambunctious. And Lucas, my middle one, sometimes will . . .”
Nellie’s brain clouded over. She remembered now . . . Mrs. Fleet was the one with the deceased children. Nellie shuddered. Oh, this was hideous. Hideous!
Mary Fleet was still talking. “. . . but Abigail, my littlest, she’s as easy as pie. Just sit her down with a coloring book or some pick-up sticks, and she’ll amuse herself for hours. Why, just this afternoon—”
“Excuse me, please!” Unable to bear any more of Mrs. Fleet’s ghost children, Nellie fled deeper into the party. She paused a safe distance from the woman, but soon felt a hand grip her shoulder. Looking down, she saw it was a male hand. She spun around in a panic, fearing the lustful philatelist had caught up with her.
“Nellie! I need to talk with you.” It was Sherman, not Storky. There was something like desperation in his tone. “Now. Please . . .”
He gestured for her to follow and led her around a corner into a narrow hallway.
Sherman glanced around to make sure they were alone. “Remember what I was starting to tell you? About a certain man at this party?”
“The one you said you needed to gather more evidence on?”
“Exactly! Well, I’ve finally . . .” The young man gulped deeply, his red bow tie bobbing with the motion. “I need to tell someone and you seem so . . . But maybe I’d better keep it to myself.”
Nellie shook her head vehemently. “No! Please, you can trust me.”
“Yes, yes, I think I can. Tell me, have you heard of Brother John?”
“Brother John like in the song? Like in ‘Frère Jacques’?”
“True, the reference is from the song, but I’m talking about a real person. A person who, years ago, killed a number of women hereabouts.”
Nellie caught her breath. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve never heard of him? How long have you been visiting your aunt here?”
“Only a few years. Before that Aunt Bebe lived in Boston.”
Sherman nodded. “That would explain it. If you’d grown up here in Tuttleton like I did, you’d certainly know about Brother John. It started roughly fifteen years ago, back in the early twenties, and went on for some time. There were five or six women, if I remember correctly, all strangled.”
Nellie moaned, and one hand reflectively leapt to her throat.
Sherman continued. “Two lived here in Tuttleton, and the rest were from neighboring towns. All found dead, some in their homes, some out of doors. But each one left in the same peculiar manner—lying flat on her back with her hands folded together at the side of her head. As if sleeping, you see.”
Nellie shivered. She tried to say something, some expression of dismay, but couldn’t seem to push out the words.
“The killings happened over the span of a couple of years,” Sherman said, “and then suddenly stopped.”
“Were they ever solved?”
“Never. Some sly newsman coined the name Brother John. Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? You know—Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? I was just a runt back then, of course, but we kids created our own version of the song. Are you creeping? Are you creeping? Brother John? Brother John?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Nellie asked, not sure that she wanted to know.
“Look here . . .”
Copyright © 2017. Sinners at Eight by Michael Nethercott