James Frost leaned back in the recliner, adjusting his body into the soft confines of the old chair. It was leather, shiny with age, comfortable as a slipper. It was the only piece of furniture he had brought with him from home when he moved into Garden Court last year. Hell, at ninety-two it was time that he treat himself to a little comfort. He was tired of cooking, tired of housework, tired of watching his late wife’s garden wilt and deteriorate into patches of dirt, only memories remaining of the gladioli, daisies, and Lily of The Valley that Millie loved.
After Millie died, Checkers, the old spaniel, withered and died too. Suddenly the lonely house echoed with the groans of ancient boards and mice in the attic. The sound of his own footsteps shuffling down the hall was enough to make James wish he had died too.
So when he talked to somebody at the doctor’s office one day, and they mentioned Garden Court, he was ready to look into it, and liked what he saw. His life was quickly reduced to a single room down a hallway, just big enough for a tv, bed, chest of drawers and his recliner. He preferred it that way. Streamlined. No worries. The small retirement benefit he got from the electric company along with social security just barely covered the cost, but James wanted for nothing, as content as a person could be, all things considered.
“Here we go, James” said a cheerful voice beside him, as the day nurse, Charla, handed him his pills for the morning. She leaned over, and he could see her bosom peeking out from her sky blue uniform. She smelled sweet, like vanilla sugar or cinnamon, her red hair tangled in wisps around her face. “When I was younger, I could have had you, and I would have”, James thought to himself, but he let her pat him on the head and tuck a napkin into his collar, and watched as she swayed out the door. “Cute little thing”, he thought, then went back to watching the news.
Later that day, the entire retirement center met in the main hall after dinner. Tonight was the weekly mixer and dance. James was amused that they actually served wine, warm and listless, in paper cups that wobbled in old hands, and cookies on a table near the door. Everybody who came in picked up a name tag and stuck it on their chest as though they may forget who they were, or perhaps to keep out strangers who were just dying to come to the dance. James snorted at this thought, cracking his knuckles. He was pretty damned sharp for ninety-two, and he could still dance, too, making him a very desirable commodity here. This was another thing he just loved. The women out numbered the men three to one and half the other guys were stuck in wheel chairs or limping along in walkers. James had always kept himself fit, walking five miles every other day well into his eighties. Hell, the gals here threw themselves at him. And don’t you believe for one second that there wasn’t sex here in old Garden Court. There was, and plenty of it. With the advent of Viagra, there was a sharp uptick in sex related issues in retirement homes nowadays and James had had his fair share with the ladies.
Tonight it was Betty Forester who was giving him the eye. She wasn’t half bad, either. Late seventies, a bleach bottle blond who kept her breasts hoisted up in one of those wonder bras and slathered on the makeup and perfume. He hadn’t gotten to know Betty very well but tonight looked like he was going to start. Charla the nurse wandered through on her way home after her shift, and patted him on the arm. “Such a sweet little man you are, Mr. Frost,” she said, and she whisked herself out the door, barely looking back.
James felt a rage brewing inside. “Sweet old man,” he thought angrily. “What she doesn’t know would fill a book.” If it was one thing James hated about growing older it was that he was no longer the strong, edgy man he was years ago. Everybody treated him like he was an old codger, caught in the headlights of life like a deer. Not one of them thought about what he might have been in his prime. A handsome man. A man with muscles and sinew, and brains. Yeah, let’s not forget about brains. Because James Frost, ninety-two years old, and the sweet old man in the corner of the Garden Court hall, listening to old World War Two tunes, and watching Betty out of the corner of his eye, had brains to spare. How else could you make it this far, live this long, and fool everybody, living in plain sight.
James Earl Frost was a serial killer. He had gotten away with murder fifteen times. And in his dresser drawer was a small can of shaving cream, the bottom long ago hollowed out, filled with the curls from all fifteen of his victims. It was the only proof, the only clue, to a virtual lifetime of murder, now lying among some old sox and a few coins, DNA just wanting to pop out of that can and get him arrested, but even that was a thrill as he sat in his chair, wondering if he would be caught before or after his death, if at all. The shaving cream would likely be tossed in the garbage when he died, and along with it, years of delicate and strategic planning, memories, and the ultimate proof that James Frost was able to let you live, or let you die, all in his hands. Even tonight he felt a stirring like an addict as he watched the women wander back and forth across the room like so many innocent rabbits just itching to get caught in his snare.
It had been over forty years since James Frost took a life. His last victim was a young girl, perhaps the youngest yet, named Andrea Wells. Blond and fit, a runner, the kind of girl you saw dashing through the wooded trails like a deer, her little butt pumping in her tight Spandex, step by step. James watched her for days, got to know her routine. A runner himself, he blended in right behind her at times, a steady pace that she hardly noticed. One time he passed her, and grunted out a hello and she nodded and smiled back as they ran along the ravine near the back of the park. The ravine where her body was later found, strangled and bruised, her fingernails torn and bloody. Oh, that one put up a good fight, alright. At one point, he thought he might lose her altogether as she kicked in fury and wiggled under his arms like a slippery puppy. But when he snapped her neck, the fight went out of her, and she lay among the leaves in a crumpled heap. James did not rape her, though he had raped many others. He changed up the crimes to confound the police, strangling one woman, knifing another, bashing another’s head in with a rock. Some he dumped in quiet lakes, while others he left in the open, proud of his kill, like a cat with a mouse. Each time, the murder was slightly different, except for one thing. He always cut out a lock of hair . Not much, just a tiny bit behind their ears, a curl that he brought home to the shaving cream can. His secret indulgence.
Not even Millie suspected, though she had long ago given up on much affection from James. They had no children. Some pets over the years. Did not share any common interests. They led a life of quiet contentment, Millie working in the garden, James killing women, and neither of them met in the middle long enough to discover the deeper side.
James truly was not an affectionate man. He loved only a few people in his life and even then had trouble showing it. He was not a particularly cruel man, in the true sense of the word, at least he thought so. He did not enjoy hurting the women, or watching them cry out in pain or even take pleasure in the short bursts of passion as he parted their legs and thrust himself inside. What James enjoyed was watching that spark leave their eyes as they took their last breath. Knowing that it was him, and him alone, who had the power to let them live, or die, is what drove him.
He only let one live. A tiny brunette he grabbed off a cold sidewalk one December night, right before Christmas. He dragged her into the bushes by the hair and threw her face down into the dirt, pulled his knife from his pants and stabbed her deeply in the kidney. “Please,” she cried out feebly, “I’m a mother.” Maybe it was the holiday season and he felt compassionate, but something in him stopped the next down draft of the knife in mid air. He felt a panic come over him, something he had never felt before, and backed away from her almost in terror. He jumped to his feet, turned and ran, didn’t stop until he got all the way home and tossed his bloody clothes in the washing machine before Millie had a chance to ask him what he was doing. The brunette lived. It was all over the papers the next day. She could not identify her assailant as he had attacked her from behind. James kept a low profile for nearly ten years before killing somebody else. Number fifteen. Just to prove to himself that he could still do it. And then he quit. It wasn’t easy to quit. Kind of like swearing off alcohol or drugs, but he was disciplined and smart and cautious. He had come this far. It was time to rest on his laurels and know that he outwitted and outlasted Chicago’s finest. It was almost like winning the gold medal in the Olympics. But sometimes the idea of murder was hard to resist. Like tonight.
So now here he sat, tapping his toe to a frisky song and watching Betty Forester glide across the floor towards him, a smile on her face and arms opened wide. “Will you dance with me?” she asked in a breathy voice, and James rose and gathered her in his arms, guiding her around the room, feeling the weight of her against his chest and the faster beating of his heart as it matched hers. They danced for hours, until the lights flicked on and off in the hall, and everybody else wandered back to their rooms. It was inevitable that Betty asked him back to her place for another glass of wine. She tossed her blond curls and batted her eyelashes and James felt a familiar stirring. Oh, how he longed to hold her little neck in his hands and feel the satisfying snap of her vertebrae beneath his palms and watch as her eyes rolled skyward and clouded over. He had thought a lot about killing here in Garden Court. It would be so easy. A pillow placed just so, a slip and accident in a room, an overdose of pills taken by mistake. He had even chosen a few victims and ached with desire as they shuffled past him in their walkers or waved from a wheelchair. But up until now, he had resisted. Tonight, however, he felt as though Betty were asking for it, and he longed to be the one to send her to meet her maker.
They wandered back to her room. James was amused to see that she had set her lights on low and had a soft candle burning in the corner, the bed turned down just so with a basket filled with wine and bread, cheese and chocolates. Oh yes, she was asking for it alright, and she had hunted James down in particular. He understood that. He understood what it is like to scheme and hunt and finally, to pounce. Tonight Betty planned to pounce.
She perched on the side of the bed, crossing her legs expertly, letting more than a little thigh show as she reached for the wine. James sauntered across the room and sat down next to her, feeling the bed springs groan beneath his weight. Gently, he touched her leg, first as though by accident, but then with softer strokes, like you would a cat. Betty moaned and turned towards him, reaching for his hand, drawing him closer. He lifted her chin and brushed her lips with his own, then let his hand drift down to her breast. She responded with a small sound deep in the back of her throat and wound her hands around his waist.
James was suddenly acutely aware of every sound, every smell, every sight surrounding him. He could smell Betty, her breath, the shampoo in her hair, and feel the warmth of her body, mingled with the candle and glowing in the lamplight like a pearl. He felt her blood pound through the thin vein in her wrist and longed to open it up, smell the coppery tang, lick it with his tongue while it was still warm. This would be so easy, he thought, as he pushed her down on the mattress. So very easy. A quick bit of lovemaking, then the snap of the neck, then tip toe out of her room after he arranged her on the floor, the wet wine in puddles as though she had dropped the bottle, then slipped.
But James had made it for ninety-two years, and he guessed it was a source of pride that he not get caught now. He didn’t want to spend what time he had left sitting in a jail cell with all the other fools who were idiotic enough to get caught. No. He was part of an elite community out there in the world. Part of a secret club, a brotherhood of killers and burglars, con artists and war criminals who were living a life of freedom, enjoying the afterglow of their crimes. The smart ones. The ones who got away. The ones who had tucked themselves in nooks and crannies throughout the world, hunkered down and coiled into their lives like snakes.
Betty reached up and began to unbutton her blouse. James stopped her. “Not tonight,” he said gently, patting her hand. “Perhaps another time.” With great effort, he straightened up and pressed his sweaty palms down his sweater, ran his hands through his hair, took a breath, and turned towards the door. “Oh my,” Betty sighed, “I really wish you would stay.” “Another day, I promise,” James said, his hand on the door knob. “I’m not quite ready yet. But I promise I am coming back for you, darlin’.” He felt his heart speed up as he thought of all the possibilities. “Have a good night, Betty.” Betty sat back on the headboard, twirling her wine in her crystal glass and whispered, “you are some lady killer, James Frost,” and he smiled and whispered back, “you can say that again.”
Header photograph: By Jef132 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons