The Landlady (A Teachout vignette)

The husband told me it was time to post some fiction, so … this one’s for you, dear.


This is a story (more a vignette, really) about the Teachout sisters, whose first adventure can be found in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  I think this can stand alone, but it likely won’t do much for you if you aren’t already acquainted with Corwyn and Gwen–so you should probably go read “The Drowned Man,” just to be safe, if you haven’t already (she says with a very solemn and serious face).  If you’re interested, there’s also another vignette on the blog.

The Landlady

by Laura E. Price

“You seen Mrs. Warram lately?” Gwen asked Corwyn.

Corwyn had not, though her lack of memory might have had something to do with her envelopment within a sulfurous cloud of stench from the sachet the Cobbler’s Hill Witch had sold them to help heal up her ankle. She had said ankle elevated on the back of their couch in a most unladylike fashion. “Oughtn’t we be happy the old harpy ain’t after us for rent four days early?” she asked.

“That’s why I think something ain’t right,” Gwen said grimly.

“Tell me you ain’t going down there to pound on her door because she’s not making you mad enough to spit, Gwen.”

“Dear god no,” Gwen said, startled. “It’s just odd, is all.”

***

When they first moved into the second-floor apartment, shell-shocked and bruised and (though Corwyn would never have admitted it) furiously sad, it was comforting to be told they’d best have their rent in on time or they’d be out on their asses; to hear the old harridan abusing her son through the floor, grown man though he was; or to see her evicting a tenant using a hammer and her rather creative vitriol. Mrs. Warram was the kind of landlord they’d got used to in Cobbler’s Hill; she was not what one would expect in the slightly better neighborhood of Pallasgreen.

About a month in, around the time she threatened to set the police on Corwyn for coming home with blood on her shirt and started insinuating that maybe Corwyn and Gwen weren’t sisters because they surely didn’t look alike to her, Mrs. Warram’s dubious charms began to wear off. By then, though, their clients knew where to find them, and if there was one thing the Teachouts were, it was stubborn in the face of adversity. Or irritation. And the fact that she couldn’t manage to evict them–legally, via threat, or by raising their rent twice–was most certainly a source of consternation to the old lady, which redoubled their determination.

***

In the end, they just left the rent unpaid. Corwyn’s knack for finding people seemed to have as much concern for Mrs. Warram as the rest of her did, and remained silent. They weren’t going anywhere exotic with Corwyn laid up, and they’d been paid for the misadventure that got her laid up in the first place–it was easy, therefore, to sit and wait for the old lady to come and demand her money.

The inevitable knock on the door was merely a knock, not a pounding, and nobody yelled through it for them to open up as Gwen went to answer. The open door revealed Henry Warram, the landlady’s son, with bruise-colored pouches under his eyes and a couple healing scratches along his jaw and neck. That wasn’t terribly unusual for him; the fact that he had his head up and was speaking to them, however, was a new development.

“Um. Ladies,” he said. “I’ve come for the rent.”

Gwen, standing in the doorway, tilted her head for a long moment like she was scenting the air, then grinned slow like she knew a secret. “Have you now, Mr. Warram?” she asked.

Mr. Warram shifted back and forth, hunching his shoulders once more. Corwyn wondered how long it had taken him to talk himself into enough courage to knock on their door. “I … yes,” he said.

Gwen turned away and half-bounced, half-swayed into the bedroom, where they kept their money. Corwyn, her not-quite-so-bad-anymore ankle propped on the table in front of their couch, did not invite Mr. Warram in over the threshold to wait. Instead she watched him as he very carefully did not watch her; he looked at their walls, and their sagging chairs, and the quite nice rug that they’d bought to walk on barefoot after long days of slogging round San Xavier in boots.

When she saw his posture start to relax, she asked, “How are you, Mr. Warram?”

He jumped and glanced past her shoulder as he replied, “Me? I’m fine. Never better, really.”

“And your mother?” she asked, keeping her voice bland.

“She’s … um … she’s fine. Well, a little under the weather, you know, the ailments of age and such–“

“Mr. Warram,” Gwen asked from the doorway of their bedroom, in the amused tone one might use on a kid whose face was covered in chocolate, “did you kill your mother?”

“I–I don’t–no, I–what on earth do you–” He stumbled over the threshold, took the money from Gwen’s outstretched hand, and backed into the hallway still stammering. “Who could even–I mean, she’s–“

Gwen looked at Corwyn, smug. Corwyn turned her head to their still-open door as the clamor in the hallway came to a halt. She was willing to bet he’d not even gotten to the stairs.

When he reappeared, neither of them were surprised.

“Are you going to turn me in, then?”

***

Corwyn hadn’t realized how pungent the sachet for her ankle had been until she stepped into the hallway and got a whiff of … well, it wasn’t fresh air, strictly speaking; the rot smell that had tipped Gwen off, however, wasn’t near to overwhelming anything yet.

Mrs. Warram, starting to not resemble herself, lay in her bed, fully clothed and covered in blood from both the head wound and the stabbing. The rot smell was worse in here, of course, especially as it mingled with the metal scent of blood.

Upon looking, Mr. Warram began to cry. Gwen shifted around to put Corwyn between herself and the sobbing man. Corwyn had more experience with other folks’ tears.

There was a powerful rage behind all those clumsy stab wounds; Corwyn wondered if the old lady had ever let her boy use a knife before.

“How in nine hells did we not hear this going on?”

Gwen appeared to be addressing the corpse, but Corwyn answered anyway. “To be fair, we’d been working three days straight.” It wouldn’t be the first fight they’d slept through in their lives, either.

“I didn’t mean to,” Mr. Warram said, his voice thick. He sniffed wetly, swallowed. “She just wouldn’t stop talking; all my life she’s just been talking–“

Corwyn started rolling up her sleeves; her voice brisk. “She was a horrible old woman and you finally snapped, Mr. Warram. Now the task is figuring out how to make sure you don’t get caught.”

“And deciding on how you’ll repay us for our services,” Gwen added.

“That, too.”

***

They called in some of Mrs. Simcote’s other kids–Lucy Adair in the coroner’s office, and Nils Hulslander, whose knack for being able to clean anything had seemed rather silly when they were kids, until they all started needing help with bloodstains–and got the body hauled off and the apartment cleaned up. The police were told the body had been found out in Cobbler’s Hill, this and Mr. Warram’s penchant for bursting into tears whenever his mother’s name was mentioned ensured their complete disinterest in the case.

Mr. Warram was a much better landlord than his mother was (though, admittedly, that bar was set so low it might as well have been on the ground); he kept the place well-maintained and quiet, which meant it was quite often full enough that he didn’t miss the tripled rent he no longer charged the Misses Teachout.


copyright 2014 by Laura E. Price.  Feel free to link to this story, but please don’t reproduce it without permission.

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