The Landlady


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 by J. Broussard

Brian Forbes is a good deputy.  Strange ideas sometimes, but he’s a good checker player.  That’s why I’ve kept him on the dayshift with me.  It’s only a nickel a game, but it passes the time.  After my having been in the department for forty years and sheriff for twenty-six of those years, I guess I deserve a few privileges.  Having someone on duty with me who can almost beat me at checkers is one of those privileges. 

Some of the other deputies were kinda pushed out a shape though, especially Pete Ames.  He’s been around almost as long as I have, and he wasn’t eager to go on night shift.  Nobody wants night shift.  But I explained how a new deputy needs to be broken in slow like, and has to be supervised pretty close.  Besides, Pete’s about the worst checker player I’ve ever run into.

Anyhow, Brian and I had just about finished one of our games that was ending like all the others—he’d made me sweat but he was folding under the pressure—when the FBI showed up.

I’d been expecting them, but they were early, and they sure didn’t look much like the FBI of J. Edgar’s day.  The lead agent was shorter than I figured the standard was, wore glasses, and was a Black besides.  The other agent, who said practically nothing, was bigger, both around and up.  Jarrell Darnton, that was the lead, introduced himself and his buddy and got right down to business, which he’d already told me about it some on the phone.

The agency was looking for a serial killer.  A landlady, no less.  “She ran a boarding house in at least four different parts of New England,” Darnton told us.  “Her gimmick is to advertise for old people wanting room and board.  She takes them in and they get sicker and sicker under her care.  It isn’t long before they aren’t leaving the house.  Well, they get sick all right, sick enough to die without her notifying the authorities.  She just keeps on cashing their social security checks and any retirement checks they might have been getting.  It isn’t particularly tough to forge the names of people who are getting shakier and shakier.”

“Doesn’t anyone ever get suspicious?” I asked.

“As soon as they do, she disappears.  Moves on to another town, puts an ad in the paper and starts all over again.  So far, we’ve found six bodies, and we’re still looking.  The postmortems all show cyanide.  And we’re pretty sure there are up to a dozen more boarders unaccounted for.”

“And you figure she’s operating here in Chelsea County?”

“Right.  We can’t be positive, of course, but an ad was placed recently in a local paper that matches the m.o.  Someone looking for boarders, quiet country home, low rates, food, lodging and some nursing offered.  The place is run by. . .”  He pulled out a notebook, “Mrs. Emma Thorndike.”

I turned to Brian.  “Ever hear of her?”  He shook his head.  There was a time when I knew just about everyone in the county, but we aren’t rural anymore.  Mostly we’ve become a sprawling suburb, and people are always moving in and out.

“Got any description of the landlady you’re looking for?”

Darnton shook his head.  “Not much.  She was never very neighborly.  Middle-age.  Seems she changed her hair color when she moved around.  Wore glasses sometimes.  Lost and gained weight.  We’re not even sure of her eye color.”

So it turned out there wasn’t really much to go on, and the upshot of it was that all four of us set out to pay a visit on Mrs. Thorndike.

She didn’t seem particularly upset at us dropping by, and she accepted without a question Darnton’s explanation that the government was looking into nursing home facilities.  In fact, she insisted on producing coffee and cookies, sat us down, and told us more about her business than I, for one, really cared to know.

“Yes, I moved here now, about four years ago.  This was my aunt’s house, and when she passed away I inherited it.  I really didn’t intend to live here.  After spending the last forty years in Masoki, it isn’t easy to pull up roots.  And, my goodness, I couldn’t see myself living alone here with six bedrooms.  Can you imagine that?

“The money is nice, of course, but at my age this isn’t the easiest work in the world.  I’ve been thinking lately of moving to the Northwest.  My daughter lives there, and she says that rents are real cheap.  Maybe it’s time for me to retire.  Of course, real estate is down, and there isn’t much demand for homes with six bedrooms these days, but I’ve had an offer to lease this place and I may just accept it.”

She went on to tell us about her former husband, who’d passed on a dozen years ago, and rattled off a long list of relatives living all over the country.  Finally, when she offered to give us a guided tour of the place, I saw Darnton signal to his assistant who then went off, presumably to check on Mrs. Thorndike’s story. 

In the meantime, the running commentary continued.  Currently, she had three boarders.  In one room, an old man was sitting in a chair staring out the window.  “Alzheimer’s,” she explained, not much bothered by the fact that the object of her explanation was right there in the room with us. 

Two doors down, an older woman was sitting wearing a heavy shawl, in what I thought was an overheated room, knitting away on something that could have been just about anything.  At least she was communicating, and said hello, even though the landlady didn’t bother with introductions.

The last of the boarders was up and around, using a walker.  About all he was concerned about was lunch, that he insisted was overdue.  That was when the other agent returned, and shook his head when Darnton looked at him.  Later, as we stood outside next to our cars, he explained that Mrs. Thorndike’s story checked out.  She had, in fact, lived in Masoki for most of her life, was actually a pillar of the Baptist Church there, and was clearly who she represented herself to be.

Darnton shrugged, “You win some and you lose some.”  He shook hands all around, and I broke out the checker board as soon as he left. 

Brian must have had his mind on something else because I beat him real easy, three games in a row.  I was beginning to think I might as well put Pete Ames back on day shift, when we were interrupted by the squawk box reporting a traffic accident on Highway 67.  It turned out to be only a fender bender, but it was then that Brian came up with the notion to go back to Mrs. Thorndike’s.  He said he had a question to ask her and, since it wasn’t much out of our way, I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to humor him.  It seemed pretty silly, though, since we knew for sure she couldn’t be the killer landlady.  But he didn’t seem to be much in the mood for any more checker games that day.  Besides, I figured, it would be experience for him in interrogating.

Well, the return visit produced quite a surprise.  Seems as though it was one of Mrs. Thorndike’s boarders who had offered to lease the place.  “Yes.  Mrs. Samuelson, Frieda Samuelson was her name, thought she might be able to make a go of it.  But right after you people left, she suddenly decided to move out.  I don’t know why she changed her mind.  But she said that she’d decided to move in with her son in Chicago, so she rushed to pack so she could catch the Framingham bus.  That was a couple of hours ago.”

As you might imagine, I called the Framingham police department immediately with a description and a request to hold her until we could get there.  It would be a feather in our caps if she turned out to be the one the Feds were looking for, and Brian insisted that she was.  That was when he asked me to use the cell phone to alert the Chippiquada police.  I said sure, though that was pretty silly, considering that Chippiquada is in exactly the opposite direction from Framingham, and sure as heck wasn’t on the way to Chicago.  But Brian explained that she might just possibly catch the wrong bus by mistake.  That sounded even sillier.

So we went back to the office and had time for one more game before the call came through.  Brian just hit it lucky.  The old gal did take the Chippiquada bus.  He wasn’t that lucky at checkers, though.  I thought sure he had me cornered, me with two pieces and him with four, but he made a dumb move and I picked up all four of his men with one move.

That’s the biggest problem with Brian, I decided, as he pushed his nickel across the board.  He just doesn’t think ahead.