Merry Little Murderess

Michelle Robins 04/12/2019
Mariella was cleaning her palettes, humming under her breath. A cute song, something festive now that the chill that heralded December’s arrival had settled in properly. And why shouldn’t she be festive? Maybe this year she would finally have something to celebrate.

She’d just finished up a landscape piece — a snowy forest with a mystical hush about it. She’d tiptoed around the canvas as she’d placed paint just so, creating an atmosphere so like what she remembered from when she was young that it had almost brought tears to her eyes. It may have been her finest work yet.

Henry, the dear, brought over her brushes and knives and deposited them on the counter so she wouldn’t have to make two trips and track water into the studio. He chuckled and nudged her with his elbow. “Someone’s cheerful.”

She grinned — really grinned, with her whole self, whereas before her smiles were clipped and secretive: lips-only affairs. How dull. “I used to always love this time of year, I remember.” She glanced out the window at the falling snow. Magic, of course: the southern climate still wasn’t hospitable to such conditions. While the more average of the citizenry was able to frolic among the little blue flakes, making snowmen or flinging balls of ice at each other’s faces or whatever regular people did nowadays, the tiny perfect crystalline specimens disintegrated against her skin, their artificial chill not even touching her. They clung to her hair and lashes and clothes well enough to fool everyone else, but her little immunity made her enjoyment of the game short-lived. “I think I’ll make a little outing today.”

Henry narrowed his eyes. “I thought we agreed — no gifts.”

Mariella laughed, a delightful little giggle that surprised even her own self. “Oh, don’t worry dear. I was thinking of trying to find something for Jilli.”

“Do you think that’s wise?”

Mariella stopped cleaning her brush, letting the water flow over her hands, as she looked at Henry. Her faithful friend all these long, long years. They’d lived countless lives together, been so many different people that she couldn’t quite remember when exactly they had crossed paths. Henry was never cruel to her. But this hurt. “You don’t?”

Henry sighed and looked away. He always had the same expression when he was trying to put something delicately. Maybe that’s what she would paint next. “I wonder if she’s a little overwhelmed is all. I know you’ve done your best to get her to trust you these last few months, but I think she would be suspicious of any gifts. And now isn’t a good time to give her a reason to rescind any of that trust.”

Mariella considered that, taking up one of her knives and rinsing the paint off. She turned it over in her hand. “Then,” she decided, “it might be courteous to get rid of a thorn in her side. It’s really the least I could do.”

A slow smile spread across her face and she took up the humming again.

*

By the time she had her plan in place, a real doozy of a snowstorm had reared its head at the precise location of her destination. As if it was all coming together just for her. Gorgeous.

It was lucky for her that she was able to travel for this particular task — she’d missed the cooler climate when she relocated to California all those years ago to build her empire. This was true cold. The wind nipped at her nose and snowflakes clung to her dark ringlets. Her breath fogged out in front of her, guiding her along the path. Her long, red coat swirled around her as she walked, and her boots crunched in the snow, making the most satisfying sound. She could have done a dance right there for how positively giddy it made her.

But she had restraint.

Maybe she ought to buy a home in the mountains for when city life became too much? Return to the forests where she truly felt like herself once in a while.

Focus.

Her sources had told her that dear sweet Owen Summers was staying in his remote cabin for an elongated vacation. Sans family. Well, she couldn’t possibly guess what the golden boy senator could possibly have been up to all out here on his own. But she guessed it was nothing good.

Mariella decided to spare the courtesy to knock, but waited only a few seconds before entering. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised by what it was that greeted her, but the idyllic winter scene outside was a sharp contrast to what lay in wait behind closed doors.

A fire was roaring in the fireplace, hot and orange the way normal fires should burn. A candle was burning on the table nearby: gingerbread or cinnamon, perhaps. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room, half-decorated.

It could have been a quaint little place, if it hadn’t been for the handy tools and instruments laid out on the sofa, blood spatters on the wall and floor, and the obvious torture taking place right in the middle of the living room.

“Ah, Ms. Morrow,” Owen Summers greeted. He straightened and wiped the blood off his hands with a spare rag and discarded it carelessly over the arm of a nearby couch. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

She spared only a glance for the poor victim moaning in the center of the room, face battered and bloody, slumped over in a chair, duct tape the only thing keeping the poor dear from spilling onto the floor and ruining the carpet even further. Looking back up at Owen Summers, she smiled, tight-lipped, and raised the basket she’d been holding. “What do you say let’s make cookies. And have a little chat.”

He shrugged, as if he had nothing better to do. “I don’t see why not. What kind of cookies?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Let’s call it a surprise.”

“Much like your visit to my little cottage. If I knew I’d be having guests, I’d have tidied up a bit.” He punched his victim one more time for emphasis, knocking the poor thing unconscious.

Mariella locked away her distaste at this wasteful violence. Her partnership with the senator and his notorious anti-magic stance was vital to her plans, and it meant that he wouldn’t try to use any magic against her if it came to any...disagreements and discover the truth of her condition.

After all, it was her high magic resistance that had saved her life during the last attempt her enemies made to end it. It was a good secret to keep to herself.

The downside, of course, was that if he wanted to hurt her — and Mariella believed that Owen Summers wanted to hurt everyone, a little bit — there was little standing in his way. Other than the already occupied living room, she supposed. But a psychopath like Senator Summers probably wasn’t opposed to making the living room a little grislier.

He smiled and extended a hand out to her. She’d always hated his smile. He never seemed to be able to do it right, not even for the cameras. His eyes were always empty.

She glided over to him anyway, sidestepping blood spatters and discarded pliers. Was that a tooth? It didn’t matter. She slid her hand into his and he kissed the top of it, like the accommodating gentleman he pretended to be.

“It’s lovely to see you nonetheless. Do come in.” He waved his hand toward the rest of the cabin, drawing her attention away from the mess.

She entered, shedding her coat as she did so. Mariella could feel his gaze on her, predatory but not hostile. She had been in far worse predicaments than this, and it never stopped the thrill of electricity under her skin. She was made for this. All she had to do was tread carefully.

It would be easy.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of hosting the late and great Sylvia Morrow in my kitchen?” he asked as he led her into the other room, taking the basket from her and setting it down on the countertops as he did so.

Ah, Sylvia Morrow. It had been a while since anyone had used that name to address her to her face. She felt the old identity sliding over her like a second skin. Sometimes she missed it. Pity that it was stolen from her too soon: she hadn’t been quite done with it.

She rummaged in the basket and sorted through her items, humming to herself again while she decided what should happen next. “I was worried you were running away when you rescheduled your little reelection fundraiser,” she murmured. “Perhaps my resurfacing has made you rethink our little arrangement.”

“On the contrary,” Owen replied, leaning against the countertop next to her. Casual, as if they were old friends catching up. “I do think your big reveal with the country’s main CEOs is a tick in my favor.”

Though she allowed the rest of the world to believe her dead in the fire that had been set in her office ten years ago, it was finally time to resurface and take back what belonged to her. Part of that meant playing this ghost come back for revenge. It was simple: revenge was part of the reason she was back, anyway.

She only used her real name with Henry. And dear Jillian, of course. They should be honest with each other, after all, if this was to work.

“Well, I’m glad to hear you haven’t caught cold feet,” she replied, brushing a curl behind her ear.

“What do you think: chocolate chip or snickerdoodles?”

“I might have sprinkles in here somewhere — maybe sugar cookies. It’s been ages since I’ve had any.” He rummaged in some cabinets to make his search more believable.

Mariella kept him in her sights. “Tell me, who is that poor soul on his way to decomposing in your living room?”

Owen laughed over his shoulder. “Don’t you recognize him? He worked on Oasis’s new building. Knows the place inside and out. But he was just a contractor — not worth protecting on the inside.”

Mariella lingered on the rolling pin as she brought it out of her basket. Considered. Set it aside.

“You’re going after their contractors? Why?”

Not casual enough. Owen shot her one of those unsettling smiles. “Why, for the information you requested, of course.”

Mariella raised a brow over her shoulder. “Just Oasis?”

“I decided to start there.”

“Oh dear,” she sighed, fingers itching for the rolling pin again. But she needed to exercise some restraint. “I’m afraid that’s not entirely the way I imagined things.”

Owen came back with some red and green sugar crystals in little jars. “You know how I like to work.”

She nodded and made a little humming noise under her breath as if conceding the point.

“Shall we?” Owen asked, tying on an apron over his bloodied suit.

She turned her full attention on him, a smile plastered on her lips. “Owen, dear, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but,” she said graciously, “please wash your hands.”

He laughed and sauntered over to the kitchen sink, letting the water run over his hands until it turned red. “I always knew I liked you.”

Mariella laughed in return. If only the feeling was mutual.

*

“You know, it’s been bothering me. You see, Jezebel mentioned this on the phone with me a few weeks ago.” Mariella paced, making lazy, haphazard patterns around the room.

The string of attacks on former contractors or contacts was so sudden — everyone who so much as entered the building in the past five years had seemed to be a potential target, and there was no rhyme or reason that anyone had been able to see for the sudden surge of violence. All the victims had worked on different projects, and most had never even met one another. The only thing that connected them was Jillian — or Jezebel to everyone else — herself, as she had personally hired every single one of them.

That would have made Jilli a suspect automatically — if all the employees’ records there had been public knowledge.

“But now I have the key to the puzzle. It’s been you all this time.” She drummed her fingers on her chin. “I know I asked you to gather some information about the finer details of the main companies dealing in illegal magic under the table. A union against a common enemy.” She shook her head. She never imagined it would lead to this. Jilli’s people hurt, her company reeling, and it was all her fault.

“It’s too bad you haven’t even procured any useful information for me.”

He made a noise of protest.

“Shush. I don’t care about what Oasis is doing. I could probably just ask nicely. Did you ever think about asking nicely, Owen?” He’d had a problem with Jillian from the start. She should have known he’d have started there.

“Well,” she murmured, hands on her hips, “what’s done is done, isn’t it, dear?”

Now it was Owen strapped to the chair, beaten and bloody. True, she’d had to discipline him in the past, but he’d been unmedicated and clear-headed. Why, he’d nearly begged for the opportunity. A strange man, really.

“No...whip...this time?” Owen bit out.

She laughed. True, she had favored that as a weapon in the past, hadn’t she? “I’m so sorry to disappoint, Owen dear. I must have left it at home.” In truth, she’d grown tired of it. The image didn’t suit her anymore. But since she hadn’t anything on hand apart from kitchen utensils and Owen’s primitive torture tools, she had to improvise.

After all, this wasn’t necessarily what she’d had in mind when she decided to pay a little visit.
Besides, the bloody rolling pin in her hand had a reassuring weight to it. She smiled as she put it down and helped herself to another cookie, watching Owen’s eyes widen as she took an exaggeratedly slow bite.

“...How?”

“Why, I invite you to guess!” She giggled, a crumb falling from the corner of her mouth. “Do you mind if I help myself to some milk?” She waited a split second for a response. “Of course not, what use do you have for any at this hour?” She wandered into the kitchen, ruffling his hair as she did so.

She checked the oven timer, made a satisfied sound under her breath, and poured herself a glass of milk before gliding back into the living room. Owen’s eyes tracked her every movement, but she could see his head hanging heavy.

“Don’t worry; they’re almost ready.” She set the glass of milk down on the nearby table and took up the rolling pin again, spinning it between her hands as if she was thinking of something important.

“So, any guesses?”

“You...brought magic.” He cut her a glare. She was sure it was meant to be meaningful and brimming with hate, but really all he was able to muster was a pathetic sort of scowl.

Mariella giggled, her chest warming. “Ahh, that’s very good. Very good. Oh, don’t look at me like that. You should know me better than to play by your rules.”

He made some other sounds, but none of them sounded like words.

“I don’t have the same mission as you, dear. You think magic is wild and dangerous and should be shoved back into the pocket of the universe it came from. But you don’t see the bigger picture. It’s too late for that anyway. And you’re so blind that you can’t see past your own prejudice.

“You know that Octium tried to kill me all those years ago. Did you ever ask yourself why?” She laughed to herself, bitter this time. “They wanted to privatize magic. Limit and commodify it until it became the next symbol of status and prestige and wealth. And you know what I said?”

She turned to Owen, who only stared.

“I said fuck that.”

He blinked.

“I know, it’s not every day that anyone stands up to Octium. And so they just,” she flicked her fingers as if shooing away an annoying pest, “removed me from the game altogether.

“Or they would have, if not for—” The timer in the kitchen went off.

“The snickerdoodles! Oh, you’ll love them. It’s a secret recipe.” Mariella winked and whisked off to the kitchen to take the cookies out of the oven. “They smell wonderful!” she called over her shoulder.

She heard a loud yelling-noise of moderate protest and scoffed. “Someone doesn’t appreciate freshly baked cookies.” She set the cookies on the counter to cool and shut the oven off before making her way back to the living room.

“Now, where were we!”

“Always knew...you were a...fucking...bitch.”

She smirked. “Of course. But that’s why you like me so much, isn’t it?”

He spat. Or tried to. His face was probably still numb, so all he did was dribble a little down his chin.

Mariella put her hands on her hips. “Honestly, men need to come up with a better insult than that. Bitch. Please. As if that’s the one word that summarizes me as a person and that’s the only thing I can be. So narrow minded. Like you can’t be both a feminist and a murderer — oh!” She interrupted herself and spun around, covering her mouth with her hand to suppress a giggle.
“You know, it’s been a while since I’ve killed anyone.” She picked up the rolling pin again and tossed it in the air, flipping it lengthwise before catching it again. She turned it this way and that, examining it thoughtfully. “I wonder if I’m any good at it.”

Owen made feeble attempts to strain against his bindings.

“It’s so pathetic, you know,” she said. “We haven’t even gotten to the best part. Don’t you want to know a secret?”

He stilled. She laughed.

One last trip into the kitchen. She grabbed a fresh snickerdoodle and the thumb-sized vial of blue swirling liquid from her coat pocket. Time for a little magic show. It shimmered in the firelight, as if getting ready for its time as the star of the show.

Mariella perched on Owen’s lap for her demonstration, up close and personal to make sure he really knew who was going to ruin him and how. Close enough to whisper her Christmas wish into his ear. As if she was a child at a party, asking Santa pretty please for a unicorn, putting all her faith into the making of this one important wish.

Well, here was her unicorn.

She poured the smallest drop of the liquid from the vial and watched as the sugar dusting the top of the cookie turned blue. She locked eyes with Owen Summers, a slow smile spreading across her face. “This is how I did it.”

And she took a big bite out of the cookie.

Owen’s eyes widened.

Seconds passed. Breaths stopped.

But nothing happened.

Mariella’s innate resistance to magic also let her direct it by merely telling it what to do, no paired compounds or modifications or messy science involved. So a poison that would ordinarily be detectable in the bloodstream could be made undetectable just because she wished it so.

Five-year-old Mariella would be so proud, whisked away by fantasies of fairy queens and magical adventures. Ten-year-old Mariella had wanted to be a witch, and this was about as close as reality dared, it seemed. Adult Mariella put this to far more practical use: rebuilding an empire.

And a poison would be too boring anyway. Cyanide? In almond cookies? A cliche. A muscle relaxer and a tiny drop of truth potion mixed in with the chocolate chips? Creative finesse. Let the victim think nothing was amiss until their limbs were too heavy to lift a hand in self-defense. Keep them awake and aware enough to know exactly what was happening every step of the way.

She laughed and leaned in to whisper her secret. “Magic has never worked on me, dear.” She took another bite. “Tastes like lilac, by the way.”

Maybe she was needlessly cruel. And she oh so regretted having to stoop to this level. But Owen Summers had simply gone too far this time. Going after poor Jilli’s people when she had no way of protecting them. Willfully misinterpreting her instructions to make good on a personal vendetta. Childish. Unbecoming. Not the way she preferred to do business.

It was too bad that Owen’s first victim was dead by the time she’d checked on him. She frowned but resigned herself to it. Collateral damage was the way the game was played, after all. Some things just couldn’t be helped.

In the end, the news outlets would report that the fire in the fireplace had blazed out of control due to the mishandling of a magical device meant to keep the fire going into the night. Politicians from both sides of the magic debate would get in such a tizzy over it, and the reporters would go on eating it up like rabid raccoons.

She had poured out the magic vial into the fireplace, suppressing her shudder at seeing the flames turn blue. “May all your bacon burn,” she murmured, uttering a favorite curse from her childhood. The magic knew what to do from there: consume the house and everything inside, but no more.
Magic was easy: intent dressed up in pretty words, the more powerful to the speaker the better. Spoken over this strange blue not-liquid that came from between the cracks in the universe. A shortcut compared to the elixirs and chemicals mixed up with it to change its form and direct its energy.

Mariella wasn’t sure if her condition led her to be able to influence magic in this way, or if it was because no one else had tried it her way yet. Or perhaps it was something different entirely. She hadn’t exactly had many friends to philosophize about it with. Henry liked to keep his hands out of magic as much as possible, which she respected and understood. He’d been in the same fire as she had, after all, and had lost much more than she could ever comprehend. Though maybe she was starting to.

Because she was immune, she was left untouched by the raging blue inferno. But she had learned from the last fire she was trapped in: she gathered up her coat and her bag, all magic- and fireproofed along with the rest of her clothes years ago. A messy affair involving far too much blood, but worth it in the end.

She took her sweet time going through the house to make sure there was no one else hiding in corners or unconscious in the basement. Forced herself to walk among the blue flames until she was sure that Owen Summers wouldn’t make any miraculous comebacks. His screams were oh so satisfying in the end. They drowned out the same ones echoing in her head from all those poor people she hadn’t been able to save. People she had trusted. People who had counted on her. And all for nothing.

They say facing your fears is one of the best ways to get over them. Not so on this night. Mariella shivered in the sudden cold as she was swept up in the snowstorm once again and vowed to throw away every candle in her home upon her return. At least for now. Just in case.

The only thought to make her smile again was the idea of sending Jilli her leftover cookies the next day, accompanied with a lovely note. Yes, that would do the trick nicely.

She laughed, an intimate sound between her and the smoke and the stars, as she trekked her way out of the forest and back home.

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