Innocence is a beautiful thing.
But 13-year-old Jemima Jenkins should have learnt by now to be more suspicious of strangers. She had never really grown out of that youthful virtue of trusting everyone without question – yet there was an unspoken charm to her idyllic little world and her complete obliviousness to anything that could taint it. It was a utopian bubble that her loved ones, least of all she, dare burst. Perhaps it was because her parents indulged her, or simply because she was made that way – but such naiveté did not bode well for those rare crossroads moments in life that had potentially life-changing consequences…
And so, when Jemima awoke in the shadowy dark of night, soft and warm in her bed – she yawned, pulled a scruffy teddy to her chest, and blinked up at the strange woman that was sitting at her side. The girl murmured sleepily, ‘Are you the night nanny?’
The woman – whose pale skin and weary eyes made her look much older than she was – raised her eyebrows, and just chewed her gum.
Jemima thought nothing of this as she yawned again and rolled onto her side. Thought nothing of the fact that the woman’s mane of glossy hair did not look real, her make-up incongruous. Never wondered why her coat and gloves were still on, despite the stifling heat in the room.
There was just the two of them alone in the still house. Woman and child. Around them hung the silence peculiar to night, broken only by now-and-then sounds of floorboards creaking spontaneously, and, outside, branches that softly clawed against window panes.
Jemima wrinkled her nose, and kicked off the bedcovers to reveal floral pyjamas. ‘So hot,’ she huffed. ‘Can you open the window, please?’ The girl’s eyes – the colour of deep sea – rolled back irresistibly, her eyelids already bobbing up and down with sleep.
The woman hesitated, but then decided why not. After all, she too was hot. As she walked over to the large sash window on the far wall, she looked around. The space was large and pristine, and in the dim light of the night lamp, she saw a room that would not have looked out of place in a reference library. Instead of dolls, toys, games, and childish paraphernalia common to girls her age, there were rows and rows of packed bookshelves.
Distractedly, the woman rattled open the window lock, pulling up the pane. She breathed in the fresh air for several seconds, before curiosity got the better of her – and, drawing, closer to the shelves, she squinted at the felt-tip scrawled labels stuck on each book, colour-coded in rainbow hues. Tilting her head, she read some of the spines – ‘From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension’ by Clifford A. Pickover, ‘Our Mathematical Universe’ by Max Tegmark, Jon Butterworth’s ‘A Map of the Invisible’. She stared blankly at them, none the wiser – and, giving up, drifted over to the large desk, littered with various gadgets: an electronic book reader, a digital camera, a tablet, and a state-of-the-art laptop still open with the screensaver swirling in softly-glowing colours. She stroked a finger across the smooth trackpad, and the screen switched to a bright white page packed with lines of text – the title bar at the top displayed the words: ‘‘Cherry π, the sweetness of equations in everyday life’, by Jemima Jenkins’.
The woman attempted to read several lines, mouthing incomprehensible words, but quickly tired. Instead, she moved silently back across the room to the object of her work. The girl. She was fast asleep – and as the woman stood over her, her hand creeping into the messenger bag by her side, she stared, not quite at the child, but through her. There was an odd feeling of déjà vu, a sense of seeing the same thing but from a different angle – a parallax – and her eyes glazed over, as she remembered…
That’s it, it was her last one-off job.
She had posed as a stand-in nurse in a retirement home, and sat, bedside, next to the wispy-haired old man, as he lay unconscious from the chloroformed gauze that she had just clamped over his mouth. The sweet smell of it mingled with the jarring stench of dried urine and bleach. As was her usual way, she extracted a syringe and a bottle of pentobarbital from her messenger bag, and pierced the needle into the amber liquid, smoothly drawing up the plunger until it reached the 5 ml mark. Holding it up to the light, she flicked it lightly to diffuse the air bubbles – and then sunk it, with all the finesse of a grave-digger, into the man’s sagging, liver-spotted arm, swiftly pushing the plunger into its barrel. The old man awoke, startled, and tried to shout out, but she immediately covered his mouth with a rolled-up cloth, and held it firmly down as he struggled. His limbs began flailing, and his torso thudded heavily on the bed, again and again – the towel muffling his broken screams. When eventually his body stilled, the woman released, and bubbles of saliva seeped from the side of a twitching mouth – his lifeless eyes, wide in disbelief.
The intruder remembered all of this, as she looked down at young Jemima, sleeping innocently before her – golden hair billowing around an angelic face. The woman’s own expression was stony and soulless, as she felt inside her bag and pulled out the bottle of chloroform and a cloth.
She paused for just a moment to examine her own feelings – for the slightest hint of compunction perhaps, a modicum of emotion, or remorse. But there was nothing, not a twitch. And so the woman continued dousing the gauze with the clear, sweet-smelling liquid.
As she glanced at the girl, she thought to herself how different this job was to all her previous ones…
She had never had to kill a child before.