MADELINE AND RUPERT

By J. T. Seate

 

 

 

Brooklyn, 1911

Nature can be cruel, but no more so than situations mankind chooses to create.

In spite of the dangers that accompany crowded metropolises such as the fire at the 
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan, an industrial calamity that claimed 146 
garment workers’ lives, more and more immigrants were arriving in cities. A vacant 
house was an unusual sight in Brooklyn and yet there stood the old Riley place not far 
from Madeline’s street. Its paint was peeling, revealing a scaly gray skin beneath. Spider 
webs of cracked glass crawled along its windowpanes. A shutter hung askew from a 
broken hinge. Some of the gutters around the eaves drooped loosely having lost their 
ability to catch water.

A dog more adventurous than Little Rupert dug himself a hole beneath the house looking for a cool spot on a hot summer’s day. What he found instead was a corpse in an advanced stage of decomposition. Sunken eye sockets stared benignly, its tongue rag-like in its lifeless dangle, the slack jaw frozen in death. But worst of all was the upper lip. It was curled up into a mocking, mean sneer that showed several teeth. The dog snarled as a wind whispering through the foundation boards like ghost voices fluttered through the corpse’s wispy hair.

Then something moved. The dog twisted his head. The movement was near the dead man’s crotch. The animal backed up a step as a field mouse crawled out from inside the open trouser fly and scurried down between the dead thighs. The mouse’s nose and whiskers twitched, sniffing at the rot before freezing at the sight of the canine.

While the adversaries stared each other down, a gray spider the size of a half-dollar crawled out of the corpse’s mouth and over the exposed teeth. It had been laying eggs down the throat. The dog’s response was a lingering sniff and hasty departure choosing the heat over the confusing, grizzly scene. It whined at the first passerby who paid no attention and moved on.

 

* * *

  

The knock came unrepentantly. Madeline had few visitors now that her husband was gone—with the exception of Mr. Rupert, that is. Even though her house still reeked from the smell of Sam’s cigar smoke, it was as tidy as could be expected with a young boy and his dog running about. Her husband’s disappearance would have been financially devastating if not for an inheritance she had kept secret from him. In truth, she did not miss the smoking, drinking, or his booming voice that sounded like raw thunder. She and Jack would manage just fine.

Her house was smaller than her neighbor’s, yet Mr. Rupert never mentioned housekeeping and she wondered if he had someone who came in to clean. Probably not. He wouldn’t have wanted anyone else’s hands on his belongings. Mr. Rupert was a placid dandified kitten of a man with a moon-like face, thin plastered-down hair, and small delicate hands that tended to flutter when he spoke. Although he was aged beyond the half-century mark, his picture might have been found within the pages of Mr. Webster’s dictionary next to the word dandy. He occasionally came to Madeline’s house to borrow one thing or another. “Out for a touch of fresh air,” he would say. “Oh, by the way, might you have a spot of sugar I could borrow?” The man always seemed to be short of sugar.

Though much older than Madeline and somewhat androgynous, she welcomed Rupert’s visitations. He spoke softly, his words crisp, uttered in clean phrases draped nobly in the folds of gorgeous eloquence. He could be frivolous at times, but his eyes were a lot like those of an intensely interested house cat. His temperament seemed as different from her husband’s as two men could be. Rupert dressed his squatty frame fastidiously with an unusual elegance; starched collar, white cuffs, a colorful cravat, blue jacket with snowy white trousers, and polished boots. The dandified creature was a retired bookkeeper and it occurred to Madeline that he had lead a somewhat private, sedentary desk-life. His neighborhood sorties had perhaps become the only socialization left to him.

Rupert’s visits usually occurred when Madeline’s son, Jack, was off at school. Although he could be a bit pompous, he was a decent enough chap, always happy to discuss subjects beyond their neighborhood, keeping up with world events through The Times. Considering the great demoralization sweeping across the land, she most enjoyed his nonjudgmental pleasure in simple things he expressed in a lively voice. She even admired his collars and cuffs equal to that of a store window’s dummy. Perhaps his faultless attire was compensation for the jowly cheeks and thinning pate, but he certainly kept up appearances—achievements of character, she believed.

Madeline often felt his admiring eyes on her, like intimate caresses when she turned from him to do this or that, but didn’t mind the indulgence. She feared Mr. Rupert might be insulted when he discovered her young progeny had named his bulldog puppy Little Rupert, but he seemed to be humored instead. At times his expression reminded her of a loyal dog, his eyes reflecting an inordinate blind trust. She piteously wondered if he might lie down and roll over if she were to ask. His most endearing quality, however, was the high drama and mystery he worked into his pontifications.

What sustained the man when evening shadows turned to darkness, she wondered? What did he think about and dream about? What was the essence of the glass thread that had been spun between them? Soon enough, she would discover the depths to which scruples could plunge and what an unfathomable enigma an individual could prove to be.

  

* * *

 

Rupert’s sanctum sanctorum was the antithesis of his personal appearance, covered with peeling wallpaper, yellow stains blooming on the ceiling and along the baseboards. There was no need to keep up a façade inside his decaying house for he did not plan to have any guests…unless it was Madeline.

He believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough with her. Something would suddenly be revealed as surely as the spring about to burst through the overused cushion on his sofa. Their conversations had progressed to the intimacy he’d been hoping for. Before Madeline’s husband disappeared like a puff of smoke, Rupert had seen him come and go. He appeared to be a brutish man taken to drink and without any semblance of refinement. What had possessed this graceful woman with long hair held off her neck with silver pins to marry him?

Rupert was no Peeping Tom but he felt certain Madeline was exactly as he pictured her, standing naked before a mirror revealing excellent proportions, a true Venus de Milo with arms, her hair falling over her shoulders flanking ample yet firm bust. Her trim midsection, marked only by her navel and possibly a few irregularities resulting from childbirth, must lead down to the dark triangle where shapely thighs continued beyond calves to tapered ankles ending in smallish, delicate feet. Whatever happened to Madeline’s lout of a husband had saved her from further clutches by hairy hands seeking the gentle curves and secret crevices of her body.

Once when the absent Sam was mentioned, Rupert noticed a slight smile creep across her face. There was more to it than a humorous display at his remarks. There was a secret behind the emerald eyes and sly upturn in the corners of her mouth. Rupert was certain of it. Oh yes, a secret as large as the one he kept locked away to perhaps someday share with the only person he considered a friend, if he were able to pry her loose of her own indiscretion. It would take more work, but he felt certain she would one day open her personal Pandora’s Box. As long as the seemingly serene, statuesque woman had no one but a plump, retired bookkeeper and her young son to keep her company, Rupert planned to take more from her than cups of sugar.

 

***

 

Edward Rupert sat up in his bathtub contemplating the navel in the center of his potbelly. One of his hands splashed water on the back of his shoulders like an elephant might do with its trunk. He imagined a young woman like Madeline…no…Madeline, sitting behind him scrubbing his back and brushing her erect nipples against him. He couldn’t see his penis below his globular stomach, but it wasn’t reacting to his randy thoughts. Neither his physicality nor his inert equipment would win fair lady’s companionship. Only his repartee and quick wit would serve.

Rupert thought of Madeline’s son and his dog as inconveniences. He had owned a dog once. It was a Golden Retriever named Rusty. He’d loved Rusty, but the poor animal had suffered as much at the hands of his quirky parents as had he. His father used to chide Edward for being too sensitive, admonishing him to do as his mother; a woman who’d never kissed him or gave him a goodnight hug, ranted and raved about one thing or another. “You should be thankful for every morsel, Mister,” was one of her favorite mantras. He tried to be thankful as he stealthily slipped his bowl beneath the table where Rusty hungrily lapped and crunched the finger/toe stew, his mother’s specialty. Sometimes he lay beside his dog and wept. One day Rusty disappeared and for all Rupert knew, he could have been part of the next family meal.

His mind flew back to the present like a stone shot from a sling. His past had taught him to shun further attachments. He tolerated children and dogs as long as they kept their distance. Boys seemed to have little purpose other than to ride their bicycles at a dangerous speed while dogs barked at all hours or lay twitching, lost in their hunting dreams. If only Rupert had possessed H. G. Wells’ time machine and could have met Madeline when they were the same age, in his youth, before time had taken so much.

Rupert’s flights of fancy had taken a sudden turn a few weeks earlier during a pre-dawn stroll when he heard Madeline’s back door squeak open. With stealth, he crept close enough to see between to vertical boards separating the yard from the alleyway. The woman was dragging the body of her husband toward a shallow hole in the ground next to her petunias. He quickly disappeared into shadows for fear she might catch the twinkle in his eye or the moon’s reflection of a brass jacket button.

While continuing to bathe, he again considered what he had witnessed as the sound of shovel to dirt played on his eardrums. Justice, to some extent, had been done. He believed the Neanderthal should have been done away with a previous president ago. He had witnessed Madeline disposing of her husband in a manner that Little Rupert could have easily uncovered, but it was entirely another matter to coax her into any form of intimacy. The time had come to give into the temptation of spying on Madeline if only to confirm the image that so titillated the funny monkey in his brain. Emboldened with knowledge of Sam’s demise, he felt the right to intrude more boldly into her affairs.

Rupert chose a dark night to skulk around until he saw a light appear inside what he knew to be Madeline’s bedroom. He found a crate in the yard upon which to stand. There was enough space between wooden blinds for him to see her clearly. Rupert prayed she didn’t look directly at the window knowing he wouldn’t be mistaken for a hoot-owl.

Madeline’s eyes seemed to glaze over. Rupert felt sure it was because there was no Sam to deal with. He took pleasure in this. He was party to her secret. He watched as she stood near a chest of drawers and removed…a wig.

Rupert was incredulous. Beneath the wig was a scalp covered with close-cropped hair, so short that its color was indistinguishable. Next, Madeline unbuttoned her dress and let it pool around her ankles. Her corset followed. Her hands massaged her chest as if removing the binding garments was a great relief. But there were no breasts to massage, only shallow muscle tissue belonging to…a man.

Rupert considered the pickled herring he’d had for dinner. Maybe it was creating confusing images until, that is, he saw the bulge inside Madeline’s undergarment. He shifted his weight away from his peep hole not wanting to see more. He climbed from the box and made it back to the anonymity of his own habitat. He sat down heavily, the sofa spring beneath the cushion catching his thigh, but he didn’t adjust. He endured the discomfort. The woman of his dreams and fantasies…not a woman at all. How could he have been so completely fooled? But there had been no reason to study her closely across the length of her kitchen. The haze of his pomposity had easily filled any space that might invite scrutiny. Two men living as husband and wife with a boy and his dog to boot.

Rupert observed the state of his surroundings. His new revelation made his desire for Madeline as dour as the peeling wallpaper, the thick layer of dust, and the mold surrounding him. After watching Madeline’s backyard exertions, he had moved Sam’s body under the vacant Riley house to protect her, but she wasn’t a “her.” Jack might still be her stepson, or maybe just some lad taken in to mask a taboo relationship. Either way, Sam was a brute and deserved whatever steps Madeline had taken to put an end to him.

But what now? Was Madeline a wolf in sheep’s clothing, laughing behind his back at his eccentricities while harboring this deception? Did it deserve retribution? A discreetly placed telephone call to the authorities could reveal Sam’s whereabouts.

He pondered the situation further realizing any mistake he might have made in moving the body could lead back to himself. Oh, what a wicked web we weave….

Then a new angle on the matter struck him. He and Madeline were partners in crime. Although his fantasies about her might be forever altered, the essence of the person, her character, remained intact and appealing. In spite of what he knew, he continued to think of the human he’d visited, chatted with, and borrowed sugar from as a female. What was the body but a cloak to be cast off at death anyway? How petty the skirmishes of the heart.

Knowing tender whispers and sighs would never woo her, Rupert would go to her and reveal everything—about seeing Sam’s body taken from the house, the result of a socially unacceptable love affair that had eventually gone wrong. He would tell her about his role in the cover-up, about moving the corpse, taking the onus off of her in the event it was ever found. And finally, he would admit to knowing her biggest secret of all, but not how he discovered it. They could form a pact with mutual admiration at its center; go on as if none of these sins had been uncovered. Surely, she would respect what he had risked for her and her son’s protection and safety; realize they were partners after a fashion. He would only ask two favors of Madeline: one would be for all the details of her and Sam’s life leading up to his death and two, he would expect her to occasionally leave on her wig while undressing before climbing into his tub and, sans bosom, washing his back.

 

* * *

 

As on all the previous occasions when Rupert sat at Madeline’s kitchen table, he began with small talk. He spoke of the latest development concerning the devastating shirt factory fire, how the news described girls jumping out of the burning building with their dresses on fire willing to let the pavement below end their pain sooner rather than later. “Some families are forming a coalition to sue the company, but I am sure they will get nowhere for their efforts.”

Madeline listened patiently hoping he would move on to a less gruesome subject.

“There has been an alarming increase of influenza in the city,” he continued. “Doctors have learned little since the middle ages. Such things have a way of spreading like the plague, but now is not the time to indulge in such weighty matters. There is a topic closer to home.”

Although his sparkling eyes sat in the baggy lids like two beads on leather pouches, Madeline sensed something was askew when he leaned back in the chair and unbuttoned his waistcoat revealing the strain of his buttoned shirt against his rather bulbous mid-section. There was an almost feral quality in his demeanor. She could feel his eyes crawling over her like maggots on a fresh corpse. She couldn’t restrain a shiver. He smiled slyly then pursed his lips, his myopic eyes almost twinkling.

“Madeline, I think I’ll tell you a secret.”

With that introduction, he continued like a lawyer selling his case to a jury. He related all of it—his moving Sam’s body to a less conspicuous place, and the revelation of Madeline’s secret identity, jabbing her with his words. He seemed pleased that she took all he’d revealed with the decorum befitting a sophisticated woman, including his more personal requests. She had listened quietly as he expressed his desires and his plan to remain silent.

“You look frightened all of a sudden, dear. As overwrought as a schoolgirl, but your expression holds more irony than scorn. Not to worry. Your indiscretions are safe with me. I firmly believe truth should be available strictly on a need to know basis; honesty not always the best policy. I do not intend to reveal the face behind the pleasant mask. But it is strenuous to play a role continually, is it not? How easy to make a gaffe that would betray.”

Madeline did not answer.

“I think you gave the lout what he deserved and I still think of you as a woman, one to be admired. Considering our shared scruples, we shall become closer friends now and in the days to come.” After a moment of silence, “While you assimilate my words, have you a handkerchief I might borrow for I feel I’m coming down with a cold.”

“Let us hope it’s not influenza,” Madeline replied. There was a look of serpents in Rupert’s eyes that had been no more than a twinkle moments ago. And worse still—a hint of danger. “Do you ever wonder if someone might have it in their head to do you in?”

Rupert chuckled. “Do me in? What a laugh that would be. What a bit of fantasy, ho ho. But, you see, I have no enemies or friends, except for you, my lady. I think one homicide in our neighborhood is satisfactory, don’t you?”

“Umm, perhaps.”

“Now, about that handkerchief and then let’s consider the nature of my requests,” he added entreatingly, raising his eyebrows and holding them that way for a moment, a gesture Madeline didn’t care for. “I may not be the man of your dreams, and I don’t expect evenings of a thousand delights, but a nice warm dinner followed by a sudsy bath will do nicely to start with.”

Madeline moved to her cupboard. She could have told Rupert he was being an odious twit. His imagination was as eccentric as his foppish appearance.

She could have done that.

Didn’t.

Instead of finding a handkerchief for Rupert to blow his self-righteous nose in, she picked up an iron skillet. Approaching Rupert from behind, Madeline lifted the heavy object above her head. She bashed it against Rupert’s skull with a quick and decisive whack. Blood flew as his steel-rimmed spectacles detached from behind one ear and dangled precariously from the other. His mouth formed a silent, shocked circle. She raised the skillet and bashed him again. He crumpled to the floor, his damaged, bleeding head conveniently coming to rest on a hoop rug.

The two blows had not rendered Rupert unconscious. He looked up at his attacker with an expression of bewilderment, something happening to him he never would have imagined. Madeline scurried around the chair and slammed the skillet against Rupert’s head one final time. She stood over her victim. His eyes were open, staring off toward whatever realm was to follow, the spectacles without purpose.

His attempt to create anguish and then profit from it had been shameful, but she would have been less than human if she hadn’t felt some sympathy for the fallen man. Someone had to knock some sense into him. So, she got a little carried away. “The best way to get your sponge bath is in the next life, my friend,” she heard herself saying before she whacked him two more times, finally hearing his skull crack.

That satisfied her. This had not been a considered act, even as Rupert spun his story and offered his conditions. No. This was an act of self-preservation. This was a bashing meant to kill. And kill him she had.

A final raspy exhale seeped out of Mr. Rupert. She felt as if all her nerves had been snipped with scissors as she dropped her weapon. The clatter against the hardwood floor sounded like an ominous knell from the bell in a not too distant tower. The skillet’s handle came to rest against the bridge of the man’s nose as if it hadn’t quite finished with him. Madeline locked her fingers over her mouth to prevent screaming at what she had done. Then she regained a modicum of calm. This had been a desperate act, but one that had nevertheless mended a small tear in the fabric of her environment. Better this than becoming little more than a slave to another’s proclivities. She gazed at the lifeless body of what had been a preening peacock. Although they had been casual friends, had she really known Rupert? The answer was painfully clear. The body on her kitchen floor seemed no more than a stranger. Still, the killing of a lonely neighbor would be a scandal in spite of her motive.

She removed the silk cravat from around his neck. Dark blood drooled hideously from the corner of his mouth until she secured the cravat over his large head and under his chin to keep his jaw from flopping open leaving any further croaking to frogs. There was enough time to hide the body before Jack got home from school. Still, she needed to act quickly. In the early hours of the morning after her child went to bed, the corpse would be removed. And yet, there was one final piece to Madeline and Rupert’s puzzle. It was true she had suffered under her husband’s barbarity, but she had not done him in and hadn’t buried him in their yard. Little Rupert would have unearthed his remains with gusto.

Her neighbor’s diatribe was preposterous nonsense. Fantasy had outraced reality. She’d had no idea what had happened to him until Rupert delivered his edicts. It was he who killed Sam in the dead of night and placed the body directly beneath the old deserted house. Apparently, he had convinced himself that Madeline had killed her husband. And then the bit about her sexuality, a man in disguise, no less. Rupert had always been eccentric, but she never thought him a raving lunatic, seeing whatever he chose to see and imagining someone else committing his crime. His next stop likely would have been the sanitarium, but that option was academic now. Better to hide Rupert than open the hornet’s nest of authoritarian questions that would put an unwanted spotlight on herself. Fortunately, his unhinged mind had chosen to share the location of Sam’s body before Madeline’s iron skillet came crashing down.

In the final analysis, Madeline realized that most all men were the same, crude in their desires and actions. What made her so different would be left for future psychiatrists to determine. Now Sam and Rupert would have to get along for as long as non-discovery permitted. It would take stealth and a man’s strength to get Rupert’s body to that secret place, but she could manage it.  There would be another vacant house in the neighborhood now. Perhaps someone more suited to befriend a single female, her young companion, and Little Rupert would emerge, someone less talkative than dear Mr. Rupert.




J. T. Seate is the author of nine stories in the popular Inspector Basham series: “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam (July, 2013), “The Case of the Open Grave” (October, 2013),  “Basham's Theory”  (April, 2014), “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014),  “Cat and Mouse” (December, 2014), “Winds of Change” (March, 2015),  The Chopper (April, 2015) and The Key Factor (August, 2016).

Nine of his non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — “The Accomplice” (October, 2015) “The Return”  (October, 2015), “Moments To Remember” (June, 2015), “Light My Fire” (March, 2015), The Thompson Kid” (December, 2014), “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), “Montezuma's Revenge” (January, 2013).

The author’s other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.


Copyright © 2016 J. T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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