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Author notes: I do not own any characters with the exception of Verity Catlett, an original character.

Prologue

 

The child squatted with unusual grace beside the shallow hole in the ground, shoulders straight in spite of her body’s positioning, and studied her recently finished work. The shovel she had used to dig was small, but it had taken her little effort to dig a large enough space for her intended purpose. She was slight of build even for her thirteen years, but recently, inexplicably, she had grown stronger than she allowed any others to observe.

Some children might have been bothered by such a sudden and unexpected development of ability. After all, the girl had only started her period a few weeks before the change came, and as much as teachers emphasized body transformations, being able to lift more than three times her body weight had not been something teachers had mentioned in health classes. But Verity Catlett was somewhat different than other girls her age, and she had regarded her newfound strength not as shocking or frightening, but simply something she deserved, something owed to her to mark how very special, compared to others, that she had always believed herself to be.

Judging the hole to be sufficient in both depth and width, she reached back behind herself, pulling forward the black trash bag she had taken with her into the cemetery grounds. She looked around herself calmly, making certain once more that she was unobserved, although she had been careful to choose a spot in a neglected, far off corner of the sprawling property, where others were unlikely to linger or even visit. Reassured that she was alone, she withdrew from the bag the stiffened, discolored body of the dead cat she had concealed inside it, allowing it to drop with an unceremonious gesture into its makeshift grave.

Before beginning the work of covering the cat over with the freshly dug dirt beside her, Verity took a moment to admire her completed accomplishment. For this was no beloved pet, dead of natural causes, nor an unfortunate victim of a hit and run. Her eight year old cousin’s brand new kitten had been strangled with a heavy loop of rope, its once soft and fluffy fur stripped off its body and separated into tufts in the trash bag. Verity had not disliked the cat; she had no feelings towards animals, one way or the other. She had simply wanted to hear the noises it would make when it was frightened and in pain. She wanted, as she always did, to watch the look of its eyes as death first struck.

And as for the skinning? Well, she had been curious how a cat would look, underneath all of its fur. The answer was unimpressive. She would try something else, with her next chosen victim. Something more interesting, something new.

Throwing the trash bag over top of the cat, covering it from view, Verity stood, getting to work covering the cat completely. Smoothing the dirt across the now slightly sunken surface, she scuffed it with her feet, blending the ground over the grave until it appeared as beaten and unremarkable as the surrounding areas.

Stepping back, Verity’s lips, shimmering with flavored gloss, curved into a satisfied smile.

“Rest in peace,” she said aloud, although she had no such wish or belief. It was part of her routine now, automatic and barely thought of.

Turning, shovel in hand, she walked away, as unhurried and undisturbed as a child walking home from soccer practice or ballet. And for anyone who happened to come across her, this was exactly the assumption they might make.

That was what Verity counted on. This was exactly what had allowed her to do as she wished, undetected, for the past nine years.

88

The first time Verity killed a human being, she was not yet five years old.

It wasn’t the first time she had taken a life, even then. She had taken pleasure before then in squashing bugs on the sidewalk, tearing wings off moths and butterflies her chubby child’s fingers could manage to catch. On two occasions, a kitten and a hamster had died while unfortunate enough to be alone with her. With the hamster, Verity had stomped it to death in a fit of anger after it bit her, then hid the body at the very bottom of the outside trash can, as far down as her arm could reach. She had then proceeded to “accidentally” leave the cage open, professing ignorance when her mother finally noticed that Tuffy was missing. She had been so successful in feigning worry and concern for Tuffy’s mysterious failure to reappear in the house somewhere that Tanya Catlett had been moved to get her young daughter an orange tabby kitten to make up for the hamster’s absence.

It wasn’t quite as easy to simply “disappear” the kitten after Tanya walked in on Verity holding its limp, sodden body in one hand in the bathroom, moments after Verity held it underwater in the bathtub long enough to drown it. But Verity had always been able to think quickly; even as a young child, she had known she was far smarter than any of the adults in her life. A quiver of her lower lip and a widening of her eyes, paired with tears, had been enough to convince her mother that she had been trying to bathe the creature, the death nothing more than an accident resulting from a little overzealous caretaking from an otherwise guileless child.

There had been no pets since then in the Catlett house, but this was not due to any parental suspicions or rules, but rather because Verity had never bothered to ask for any. It seemed safer and simpler to stick with causing deaths when convenient, with subjects somewhat more removed from her personal association, even if it wasn’t quite as much of a rush to get away with it.

The killing of animals was nothing new or even challenging for Verity, even in her preschool years. But human deaths- those were rare in opportunity, and the few occasions she had managed, she remembered very vividly and with great satisfaction. Even her first, nearly ten years ago. Especially her first.

88

Four year old Verity lay very still in her bed, eyes open and alert in the darkness of her room. It was not fear or anxiety at the newness of her recent upgrade from a toddler bed to a “big girl” twin sized bed that kept her awake; Verity had yet to encounter anything that frightened her, in the way that she had observed others appear to feel frightened or ill at ease. No, it was the baby. That ugly, loud, stupid intruder of a baby.

She didn’t know why the grown ups seemed so excited about it. It had made her mother fat and tired for a long time before it came, too fat and tired to want to play with Verity as much as she used to. It made her mother take naps all the time instead of taking Verity places and it made both her parents go away for a whole day, so Verity had to stay at her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother was boring and smelled funny, and Verity didn’t like going there even for a little while. The stupid baby had made her have to stay there for a whole day and night.

And now that the baby was here, her mother was still tired and didn’t have time to listen to Verity or play with Verity, even though she wasn’t as fat. Instead she was always holding the baby and talking to the baby and feeding the baby, and her father wasn’t any better. Anyone who came over wanted to see the baby, not Verity, even though she could read already and do cartwheels. The baby couldn’t even sit up, and it was red and scrunchy-looking. What was so awesome about a baby that messed its diapers and screamed instead of talking?

She had asked very politely, after the first two terrible days of the baby in her home, when it was going to go back to the hospital, where it came from. But Verity’s mother had just laughed. One thing Verity hated almost as much as that baby was being laughed at.

“Oh, sweetie, Mercy is staying here with us, forever!” Tanya Catlett had chuckled, patting the baby’s backside with affection that Verity found entirely incomprehensible. “Mercy is your sister, and our second little girl. She’s with us for good now, for always.”

Verity had felt like screaming. She had felt like snatching the baby out of her mother’s arms and throwing it against the wall until it never screamed or made gross noises or smells again. Forever? How could she put up with living with that intruder, that thief of her quiet home and her parents’ focus and attention- for forever?!

They called it her sister, and talked about it as though Verity would feel happy at the thought. But no one had ever asked Verity if she wanted a sister. Everything had been fine- everything had been just right- when she was the only child in the home.

Lying awake in bed, Verity’s hands tightened around the top of her sheets, her back teeth grinding down with anger. The baby had stopped crying a few minutes ago, when she had heard her mother’s feet padding down the hallway past her bedroom door, the low murmur of her voice as she spoke to it. She had addressed it by name, singing and cooing, not sounding angry or annoyed at all that it was waking everyone up in the middle of the night.

 

She had asked her mother yesterday when the baby would stop that, and her mother’s answer had enraged her further. Tanya Catlett had told her that some babies cry in the night for months, maybe even for a year.

The baby might not be crying now, but it might in five more minutes, and it definitely would tomorrow. Verity would never sleep through the night again. She would never be sure that she could gain her parents’ attention immediately and fully, or that they would look at her without that glazed, absent look they showed lately, with the baby in their arms. Nothing was as it should be, and to Verity, there seemed to be only one answer to this problem.

If everything had been fine before the baby came, then the baby needed to go, and it needed to go now.

She counted to 100 three times in a row before slowly getting to her feet, careful to walk as quietly as possible and to open her bedroom door without letting it creak. Verity stood outside her parents’ bedroom, listening for the soft snuffles of their breathing that would let her know they were asleep, before continuing on to the baby’s room.

The baby’s room was open, and that posed a challenge. If either parent woke up and saw her, Verity would have to come up with an excuse and try again, another time. But she was ready. If the baby cried, and her parents came, she could tell them that she had been trying to help it. Verity could almost believe it for herself, because she was helping it, in a way. What kind of life could it be, to lay in your own poopy diapers crying all the time? Getting rid of it was doing them all a favor, even the baby.

The baby was lying on its back, eyes closed, as Verity approached its crib. It was covered only by a light blanket, which Verity eyed carefully, judging its thickness. It didn’t seem useful, so she instead took the decorative pillow, embroidered with the word “Mercy” across its front, from the rocking chair in the corner. She didn’t yet know the meaning of her sister’s name, so she could not consider and appreciate the irony of the choice of weapon. Years later, she would find it amusing and appropriate indeed, but at the time, the pillow merely seemed practical. She stepped cautiously to the crib, still eyeing the child inside, and then in one swift motion, brought the pillow down roughly over the baby’s face.

It took longer than she would have thought for the baby to die. Although it was less than two weeks old, it waved its small arms and jerked its legs feebly, fighting to push away the object blocking its nose and mouth from drawing breath. Verity pushed down harder, forcing the fabric of the pillow against the baby’s skin and airways, counting to 100 once, twice, three times, slowly as she could. Even as she counted she remained alert, listening for footsteps or a questioning voice, calling her name. Her heart boomed in her chest not from fear or strain, but from excitement and adrenalized pleasure.

She waited until the baby had stopped moving, until she felt no resistance against the hand holding the pillow. Then she counted to 100 one more time before slowly removing the pillow, looking down at the results of her efforts.

The baby didn’t look dead to her, exactly. Her lips looked sort of bluish, and there was a little bit of blood at the corner of her mouth, but she didn’t look much different than she had before. Verity reached out, gingerly touching its chest and nose, and when it didn’t move or respond, she wiped the blood away. If she didn’t know better, she might not know it had died.

Glancing down at the pillow in her hand, she wiped away the baby’s spit and smoothed its creases, fluffing it out before resting it back on the rocking chair. With concentration she returned to her bed, slipping under her blankets, and closed her eyes, a smile curving wide the corners of her mouth.

In the morning, she knew, she would wait for her parents to wake up and go to the baby’s room, to pick it up and notice that it stayed quiet. She wondered if they would scream or cry. She wondered if they, too, would be happy it was quiet forever now, even if they had acted happy to have it around before.

Verity thought they would be. After all, it was so much nicer when it was only the three of them.

88

 

Sudden infant death syndrome, they called it. That was the official medical diagnosis of Mercy Catlett, Verity’s little sister. Verity had never heard of the term at the time, nor did she ever read Mercy’s medical records or the death certificate she must have been issued. But she was cunning enough to hang around the whispering gossip of her parents’ friends and relatives, and her hearing and memory were sharp enough to file away the unfamiliar words until later, when she was old enough to remember, research, and understand.

At the time, Verity had not fully thought through all the possible outcomes of murdering Mercy Catlett. She had only known that she wanted the intruder in her home gone, and she wanted to accomplish this with as little noise and mess as possible. As it turned out, her instincts in doing so had been absolutely perfect in simulating a nonviolent death. Even then, she had been quite the natural in murder.

No one had ever seemed to consider that there could be even a remote possibility of little Verity connected to her baby sister’s death. But despite the intensity of grief Tanya and Nathan Catlett had shown in its aftermath, there was no subsequent pregnancy; Verity listened, but she heard not even one conversation about planning for a third child. Perhaps her parents were too scarred by Mercy’s death to even contemplate taking a chance on having another child; perhaps they had decided to be content with their surviving one.

Or perhaps, deep down, on a level even they could not put to words or thought, they were scared not of the hypothetical child’s death itself, but of how it would happen to occur.

Nine years later, she had not added many more human deaths to her list of misdeeds, but those she had were significant. She had set fire to a dilapidated shack at the age of nine, knowing as she did so that there were three sleeping homeless people inside. Verity had backed to a safe distance, hidden out of view, and watched with utter exhilaration as the flames grew in size, as the first screams rang out from inside. She had made certain to start the fire at the doorway and under each window, increasing the likelihood that those inside could not escape. She had limited herself to one more fire in the next year, the trailer home of a despised classmate.

The death of her father’s lover had required a little more planning and a lot more left to luck. After Verity discovered her father’s affair, and the fact that his lover was deathly allergic to bees, she had been forced to wait until the perfect opportunity to be capable of catching a bee, keeping it alive, and then setting it loose in the woman’s car- all after making certain to first hide her epipen. It took weeks of planning, but eventually, it all carried out as perfectly as Verity had hoped.

 

She hadn’t killed the woman out of a sense of outrage or revenge, or even out of dislike for her. No, she did so because she wanted to see her father’s response. The best part of it all was watching her father for the months after, struggling to hide the grief he knew he could not openly show without his family becoming suspicious. After all, supposedly, Nathan Catlett didn’t even know the poor woman, dead of bee sting in her car. But he was no actor, and Verity secretly delighted in observing the clear anguish he experienced, even as he attempted to portray the role of dutiful, devoted family man. She savored the knowledge that she alone knew the full truth.

But her crowning achievement had happened only last year, with the murder of her father. Verity had set her sights high on his particular death, not out of any elevated level of hatred or dislike for Nathan Catlett, as with his lover before him, but rather because of the particular difficulty that it endorsed. Not in the deed itself, but in getting away with pulling it off. It was always the family that they looked to first for suspects, or so they said on the movies.

She had researched her possibilities even more carefully than usual before coming to her final decision. Verity had been curious about poison for some time, but it seemed obvious and too risky to actually choose poison when it came to murder. She couldn’t be sure that someone would actually drink it, for one thing, and if they did, they might taste it before it had been enough to take effect. Glasses and stomach contents could be tested afterward, and there would always be a risk that suspicious substances could be traced back to her. It seemed prudent if she were choosing poison as a cause of death to choose a substance that wasn’t actually poison, but would in some other way be equally deadly, while remaining plausibly innocent all the while.

She had settled finally on propranolol as her killing substance of choice. It was readily available, as her mother took the medication for her migraines, and what was more, it was a legal, prescribed medication that someone could take accidentally or ignorantly without it ringing too many alarms. Most people wouldn’t be affected by it at all, but Verity’s father, fortunately for Verity, was a diabetic.

Verity had read that propranolol was tasteless and odorless, and it could mask signs of low blood sugar such as quickened heart rate, sweating, and shakiness, especially when combined with alcohol. It could be dangerous for someone with already low blood pressure or blood sugar to take, as the symptoms of danger might not be detected until the person had fallen into a seizure or even a coma. In large doses, propranolol could cause the death of certain individuals, and Nathan Catlett appeared to be one of those that would most likely be impacted at the maximum level of danger.

 

As a diabetic, Verity’s father was not supposed to drink often, but that didn’t stop him from having a nightcap most evenings after work. It was a simple matter for Verity to distract both him and her mother enough for her to be able to dissolve the medication into his glass, mix it enough that its traces were not visibly detectable, and then position herself where she could sit back and observe the effects.

The results had been worth waiting for. Nearly a year later, Verity still had to fight back a grin when she remembered the suddenness with which her father had hit the floor, the violent jerking of his body as he lost all control of its functions. She still felt a rush of adrenaline through her veins as she replayed the shrillness of her mother’s screams, the incoherence of her father’s last grunting efforts at speech. His was only the second death she got to witness up close, and it had been exhilarating to be there, knowing it was happening because of her, without anyone else around her having any idea at all.

But all of this had been before, back in the time that Verity was still young and physically weak enough to actually require making elaborate plans. Now, she was thirteen, stronger and more powerful than even she had thought could happen. Now, the universe seemed to have realized that she deserved physical strength in direct proportion to her mental prowess, and now, Verity felt she could do anything she wanted, provided she take the effort to conceal it from those so much lesser than she. Now, Verity was truly capable of anything she desired to accomplish- and what she desired, of course, was the power she had already so suddenly received.

A year ago, Verity had limited herself to one or two human deaths a year. Now, with her increased strength, speed, and endurance, there seemed absolutely no reason to hold herself back.