So in 2014, I posted the original vignette “The Landlady”. And then this year I ended up revising it substantially, and I thought it turned out pretty well, so I’m going to post it here to end my 2-week blog streak. I will probably take the first version down at some point, just to streamline the bibliography page, but for now they’re both here.
(I enjoyed the microblogging, but every day seemed a bit too much. I think I may switch to once a week, maybe twice a week. It bears thinking about.)
And so …
This is a story (please note the “read more” button!) about the Teachout sisters, links to whose other adventures can be found in my full bibliography. I think this can stand alone, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go and read the others, as well. For reasons. (It’s cool. I’ll wait.)
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 poultice the witch of Cobbler’s Hill had sold them to help heal up her ankle. She had said ankle elevated on the back of their sofa 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.”
The one thing Corwyn knew–clear as a bell in the storm of bruises and outrage and, though she refused to admit it, furious sadness that raged in her those first few weeks after she and her sister left the patronage of Mrs. Simcote–was that she did not want to live on the goddamned street again.
Oh, they could; she and Gwen had done it before with far fewer skills and a halfway decent outcome. But she didn’t want to. There was something to be said for waking up without gravel on your face or roof tar in your hair.
And so once, through a variety of tactics, they amassed enough money, the Teachout sisters began looking for a flat.
It was Gwen found one in Pallasgreen, near Jersey Court Road. Cobbler’s Hill, where they were born and had grown up, was the center of San Xavier. It was a neighborhood of criminals: gang lords and gangsters, let-girls and boys, murderers, pickpockets, opium dens and bars and houses of various forms of ill-repute. Jersey Court Road separated Pallasgreen from the Hill, Pallasgreen thereby being a step up in respectability, though the legality of folks’ jobs got blurrier the nearer to the border they lived.
The Teachouts had a reputation in the Hill and reason to keep their heads low. Corwyn’s knack for finding people could likely become an honest line of work, but Gwen’s knack for fighting and the skills they’d acquired at Mrs. Simcote’s more likely could not. A flat near enough the Hill to allow for whatever jobs they might find, but far enough away that they could make a quick exit when needed, seemed perfect.
The woman who would be their landlord toured them through the grand total of three rooms: “There’s a water closet on the end of the hall on the first floor–don’t spend your life in there and don’t leave a mess. And I don’t want to see any men coming down from here in the morning, I know what ‘clients’ means when two young girls use the word, and my Henry has delicate sensibilities. No drinking, no fighting in the building–you tell your fancy-men to behave themselves–no animals, and you can haul your own damn water from the pump out back. And make sure you have your rent in on time or you’ll be out on your asses.”
It was, Corwyn reflected as they handed over their surety money, somewhat comforting to be mistaken for let-girls and threatened. It felt a little like their childhood.
In the end, they just left the rent unpaid. Corwyn’s knack 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.
Which she did not do.
The building was quiet.
It was rarely full; the Teachouts were its longest-standing residents thanks to Mrs. Warram’s dubious charms. What neither Corwyn nor Gwen could figure out was why Mrs. Warram let apartments in the first place–she seemed to hate having tenants. And not just the shady ones, like the Teachouts, but the halfway respectable ones. She hated kids, but found couples without kids suspicious. Women, alone or in pairs, were degenerates. Men were violent or not violent enough, but their actions and personalities seemed to have nothing to do with which camp she consigned them to. And yet she rented her flats to them all, complaining all the time, before eventually running them out some way or another.
After the initial shock of their first rent increase, Corwyn and Gwen–stubborn and vengeful–settled in for a long game. They did their own repairs, kept their valuables in the trunk with the clockwork latch that was set to their spit, and when they came home to find the door locks changed–well, fallen from grace or not, no kid of Mrs. Simcote’s had ever met a lock she couldn’t pick.
And so most of the time it seemed as if they were the only people in the building, but even when barely inhabited, the place wasn’t quiet. Mrs. Warram was not light on her feet, nor did she seem to find the point of shutting a door when she could slam it. Her voice–singing music hall songs in a pleasant contralto, complaining about the goddamned doxies upstairs in a much less pleasing screech, or berating her son, who might as well have been mute for all they heard him–traveled through the walls and floors throughout the day and well into the night.
Now the only thumping in the apartment or the building came from Corwyn’s haunted boot, which was as near to a pet as Gwen had. Corwyn, stretching out her bad ankle, fancied it sounded mournful, maybe missing the woman it liked trip up whenever she barged through their door.
“–know you got some kind of animal up there!”
Gwen stood on the second step of their stoop, slightly bruised and a sight more than slightly dirty, eyes narrowed as Mrs. Warram, on the step above, gestured deliberately under her nose with a hammer. Corwyn, coming up the road from her own most recent job, paused and pulled her jacket closer around herself to hide the bloody handprint in the middle of her shirt. The bloody person had lived, but it assuredly did not look like it from the evidence. Which had turned out to be the crux of the mystery, but that wasn’t something Corwyn felt like explaining to their harridan of a landlady.
Gwen seemed to be examining Mrs. Warram–head cocked to the right, a pleasant half-smile on her face that did not bode well for anybody it was aimed at–but after a long moment she said, “None of that answered my query, Mrs. Warram. I’d still like to know why you raised our rent for the third time.”
Oh, nine hells. Corwyn saw how it was: Gwen was still drunk on her knack and whatever violence it had led her into. They’d agreed to out-stubborn Mrs. Warram–her inability to evict them was driving her round the bend, at least according to what they could hear through their floor–and they were too far into the game now to be stopped now by a knack-fuddled Gwen. Corwyn picked up her pace.
Mrs. Warram brandished the hammer as if to punctuate her sentences, which Corwyn could have told her was a mistake; neither of the Teachout sisters was going to be intimidated by an old lady with a hand tool. “If you can’t afford it, you and your sister–though I’m sure I don’t see any family resemblance to speak of between the two of you–are welcome to move out.”
Gwen’s hand snaked out fast as a whip and snatched the hammer from Mrs. Warram. She held it by the head and mimicked Mrs. Warram’s punctuating as she said, “I don’t see much family resemblance between you and your son, either, Mrs. Warram, so I suppose we’ll just have to trust each other.”
Now the old woman narrowed her eyes. “My son favors his late father,” she said, finger coming up as if to point or shake, but Corwyn stepped up next to Gwen, grabbed her sister’s arm, and pulled her, with the grace and force of long practice, to the side and up the steps before they could give Mrs. Warram actual legal grounds for eviction. Gwen would never forgive herself if she was the reason they didn’t win their long game.
Once inside, without a word or breaking her stride, Corwyn took the hammer from her sister and handed it to Mr. Warram, who stood half-hidden behind the door to his mother’s apartment. She could hear his mother as they headed upstairs, “I see that blood on your shirt, Corwyn Teachout! One of these days someone’s gonna call the Jacks!”
The inevitable knocking was merely a knock, not a pounding, and nobody yelled through the door for them to open up as Gwen went to answer. Indeed, they hadn’t even heard anyone coming up the stairs.
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; that he had his head up and was speaking to them, however, was a new development.
“Um. Ladies,” he said, in a voice much deeper than anyone could have reasonably expected from him, “I’ve come for the rent.”
Gwen, standing in the doorway, tilted her head back for a long moment as though 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, 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 heavy boots.
Henry Warram was a broad man, wide across the shoulders and not particularly tall; he resembled his mother in that way, at least, though his face was finely drawn and sharp. She could picture him tending a bar or keeping the door to a brothel and assessing clients before he let them in, if he could ever manage to stand up straight enough to intimidate someone.
When she saw his posture start to relax, she asked, “How are you, Mr. Warram?”
He startled 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 poultice for her ankle had been until she stepped into the hallway and got a whiff of … well, it wasn’t fresh air, strictly speaking, but the rot smell that had tipped Gwen off wasn’t near to overwhelming yet.
Mrs. Warram, beginning 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 a damn stabbing murder?”
Gwen appeared to be addressing the corpse, but Corwyn answered anyway. “To be fair, we worked three days straight on that last job. And lord knows we’ve learned to sleep through the old hag’s yelling.”
“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 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.
They called in some of Mrs. Simcote’s other kids who still spoke to them. Lucy Adair worked in the coroner’s office and excelled at, among other things, forging signatures. Nils Hulslander merely rolled his eyes at Corwyn’s attempts to grin fetchingly at him from his threshold before going to find his supplies. Nils’ knack for being able to clean anything had seemed silly until they all started needing help with bloodstains.
They got the body hauled off and the apartment cleaned up. The Jacks were told the corpse had been found out in the 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, without his mother, grew a mustache and began collecting hats. He frequented the theater; for a while both Corwyn and Gwen amused themselves by cataloguing the veritable parade of young ladies and men they encountered making an exit from his apartment in the early-morning hours. Eventually the parade was replaced by a burly, older man with muttonchops, a doting disposition, and no interest in the tenants beyond the occasional repair.
Mr. Warram turned out to be 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 and his muttonchopped husband kept the place well-maintained and quiet, which meant it was quite often full enough that Mr. Warram didn’t miss the tripled rent he no longer charged the Misses Teachout.
copyright 2016 by Laura E. Price. Feel free to link to this story, but please don’t reproduce it without permission.