Three of the four men currently rooming with the Darby Boarding House, were of the same opinion regarding their landlady. After a few pints each at the local pub, they began sharing those thoughts rather boisterously, among themselves.
"Georgianna Darby is as warm as a cow pod! " Henry blurted out to the others. A tenacious line of beer foam, rimmed the droopy mustache over his wet mouth. It nicely highlighted the sneer on his florid face. "Well, maybe a recently dropped pod!" he added to the delight of his listeners. Henry used the back of his hairy knuckles to mop at his whiskers until the laughing died down around their table, and the tables nearby, of accidental listeners.
He went on describing the named woman in even courser terms.
"I have yet to see a glimmer of a smile on that pasty-white face. Always scowling like an old witch over her brew," he added with a flourish of his hand, tipping some of his own brew, onto his shabby suit lapel. "She's as tight with her good humors, as the braids she wears like a black crown on her head."
His comments opened the way for the others to speak their minds, befuddled as they were becoming with the arrival of a third pint.
"I've taken note of how she only joins us at our dinner, never breakfast. Even then, she barely speaks," put in Tomas, the youngest man staying at the Darby. "It's mostly just 'yes' or 'no', to civil attempts at conversation." Tomas was a newly minted accountant and always spoke with the precision of that profession.
"And she never eats, only sips at her wine. I swear, her bones already poke through those black dresses of hers! How long has she been in mourning, anyway?" Ralph asked, looking around the table. As an insurance agent, Ralph was always concerned with health matters.
The three turned a bleary eye to Carter, the only one who hadn't offered insights regarding the cold, dour, and emaciated Mrs. Darby. In fact, he rarely spoke more than a few words on any topic. However, Carter's surreptitious glances at the landlady during her stony visits at supper, spoke volumes to the other boarders. They all noted how he pulled out her chair like an attentive suitor. They observed how the lady of the house, leaned in, directing whispered remarks for his ears exclusively. For some opaque reason, Carter was interested this eccentric widow. Oddly, Georgianna Darby became almost attractive in those moments, with Carter looking up from his meal to stare momentarily into her dark eyes.
"Come on Carter, being a Copper, you probably know something of Mrs. Darby's background," Henry said, giving the taciturn Peace Officer a hard tap on his shoulder.
"I've only been at the Boarding house for a few weeks. I can't say I know any more than you lot," Carter answer in his usual soft-spoken manner.
"But you have to agree," barked Ralph, "she has some peculiar ways about her. And then there's those noises we've all heard late at night. It's like the old bird is having a party somewhere in the place!" he said looking around at three nodding heads.
Tomas joined in saying, "The racket seems to be coming from the cellar. Though upon questioning the cook, she'd only say the lady of the house was putting away wines and food stuff in their bins down there."
Mention of the cook, brought other oddities about the household to light and comment. All the men, with the exception of Carter, had strong opinions on this hugely fat woman, though all agreed they ate well. Only the finest cuts of meat graced their table each evening and the cook was never stingy in their portions.
At the conclusion of graphic descriptions of the bloody-red roast they enjoyed just that evening, Carter stood up, swaying ever so slightly on his feet. His current assignment, impersonating a lowly Patrol Officer on the streets of the fourth, New York Precinct, placed him in the boarding house nearly three weeks back.
In reality, Carter was a highly successful Investigative Officer for a burgeoning constabulary. He' d been assigned to look into five, Missing Persons Reports, posted on past boarders who resided at the Darby House just prior to disappearing off the face of the earth. So far, Carter discovered each of the disappeared men had been given the same room he now occupied and that all, like him, were unattached. In fact, it was their employers who filed reports when they failed to show for work after several days. And then there was the question of Mrs. Darby.
After careful questioning, Carter learned from the current boarders, all five of the missing fellows had become strangely smitten, with the wraith-like figure and sickly pale looks of their landlady. To his chagrin, Carter found he too, felt she exerted some sort of influence over him. He felt more and more drawn to the darkly crowned woman, even experiencing some strangely vivid dreams, with her lying intimately close to him in his bed, speaking in a hypnotic, soothing voice.
He always woke when the dreams became overly intense, but he'd been suffering extreme fatigue and lost focus over the past few days.
Returning to the boarding house took several halting minutes while he struggled to regain his sobriety. I only need a good night's rest, he thought as he opened the door and entered the dimly lit foyer.
The gloom was heavy with the scent of wood polish and the sickening sweet smell of Mrs. Darby's fragrance. He noticed it the second he walked into the boarding house weeks ago. It permeated the air, the drapes, the carpeting and every stick of upholstered furnisher. For some reason, it was extremely strong when he laid on his bed. Smelling it so strongly now, he shivered, knowing the woman of the house might be nearby. He only wanted peace and rest and didn't want to hold any conversations with the landlady at this hour.
"Mr. Wellington," came her silky voice out of the cloying darkness. "I see the pub has gotten the best of you," she gurgled like a gently flowing brook. "Let me help you to your room, these stairs are very steep and I couldn't live... (she cleared her throat)...with myself if you suffered."
"What d'ya mean, 'suffered', Carter slurred.
"If you suffered a mishap, of course. Now, shall we get you to your bed?" She'd already managed to slip her bony arm through his, using his elbow like a rudder to guide him up the long, narrow staircase to the second floor.
His bed looked so inviting to him, he put up no fuss when Mrs. Darby carefully pushed him down onto the fluffy comforter. He began to doze off immediately as she busied herself, humming softly while divesting Carter of all his clothing until he lay as innocently naked as a babe. There was a stirring, more like a rumble, coming from the bedroom closet when the door was flung open.
Pushing her great weight forward, the cook peered long and hard at the lean body of the sleeping Carter saying, "This one will drain quickly, Mistress, but we won't get much meat off of him I fear."
"No worries, my dear. Just be certain to fill the wine bottles well and don't spill any this time. You know how I detest waste."