She was a quiet stay at home mom, he was an aggressive gambler who threatened her future. What could she do to protect herself and her daughter? Her desperate problem needed a desperate solution
Elmer towered over her ‘you have no goddamned right to this house’ he bawled. He was the only son since his brother David died. Only son and heir, wasn’t he? His mother had no right to leave her house, his house, to her. She was his sister-in-law, that’s all. Jessica and her brat had no damned right at all.
‘But, Elmer, it was your mother’s last wish and it was me who nursed her for the past fifteen years, after all. Besides, where would we go?’ Her lips trembled, her cornflower eyes, wide with fear, looked unnaturally large in her deathly white face. She was glad her Susan was still at school.
He shook from head to toe, incandescent in his rage ‘Go? Go? You can go to hell for all I care this is my rightful inheritance and I will have it. I’ll burn you out if I have to. If I can’t have my house, then no one will’ veins stood out like bloated worms over his collar and his knuckles showed white as he bunched his fists, ‘I’ll give you a week to get a lawyer to transfer the property to me and leave. Or else.’
Jessica quaked, but despite being petrified she gathered what remained of her courage for Susan’s sake. ‘You’ve never called here once since David’s funeral nine years ago Elmer, not once. Nor have you paid a single cent towards the upkeep. When I begged you to look after Mom, so Susan and I could take a short holiday you never answered my letters or returned my calls. You neglected us all for years and now you want to throw us out of our home. You wouldn’t dare act like this if my David were still alive. No, no and no again!’
She glared her defiance which quickly turned to fear as he stepped towards her, fist raised, his red face contorted.
‘What on earth is going on here? What’s all this about burning houses?’
They turned to see Norma Heptonstall, Jessica’s neighbour and friend of many years standing in the doorway. ‘Is everything OK, Jess?’
Jessica sniffled and hurriedly wiped a tear from her eye. ‘Yes, er… yes Norma, my, my brother-in-law is just leaving.’
Elmer realised he’d been overheard making threats and rapidly changed tack. His long, lugubrious face looking slightly less angry as he attempted a weak smile. ‘Oh, just a heat of the moment thing,’ he mumbled, waving an arm airily, ‘Like Jess said, I’m just leaving.’ He hurried out, throwing a scowl at Jessica as he went.
Norma’s brow was furrowed, her mouth turned down at the corners, ‘I’m sorry Jess but I couldn’t help but overhear, he was very loud. That looked extremely dangerous to me, you should report him.’
Jessica shrugged ‘I think he’ll calm down now that he’s been witnessed making threats. He’ll get over it I’m sure.’
‘I wouldn’t be so certain Jess, houses here on Martha’s Vineyard have gone up dramatically over the last twenty years. This place must be worth a couple of million now.’
‘Then it’s not in his interests to burn it, is it?’ Jessica said feeling a little calmer now ‘I think he’ll realise he’s been acting crazy.’
Norma looked dubious, ‘you told me he’s an obsessive gambler, Jess. People like that can be totally irrational, I’d report him right now if I were you.’
‘OK, Norma, but Susan will be home from school any minute and I don’t want her to be frightened. I’ll report him in the morning.’
Then ten-year-old Susan arrived full of whirligig energy, kisses, tickles, hugs and laughter.
Midnight, the phone rang. Jessica snatched it up quickly so that Susan wouldn’t be disturbed.
‘Look out the window, Jessica.’
She could see the security light was on above the porch. Drawing back the curtain Jessica saw Elmer standing in the drive holding up a gasoline can in his left hand and a cigarette lighter in his right. His cell phone was trapped between his ear and his shoulder. ‘Get outta my house Jess, get out real soon’ he said ominously. He turned and walked slowly away, leaving her paralysed with fear.
She put on a housecoat and sat at the picture window looking out, crying softly, until it was time to get Susan up for school. She hadn’t rung the police not wanting sirens and flashing lights frightening Susan. With her daughter gone now, Jessica rang and reported Elmer.
‘OK, we’ll keep an eye out for him and we’ll drop by your place on patrol’ she was told ‘most of these threats come to nothing so don’t be too worried ma’am. We’ll pick him up for sure if he comes near you.’
The officer sounded far too casual for Jessica’s liking; she did not feel reassured.
When Susan came home she said, ‘Hi mom, there was a man outside school this afternoon, he said to ask if you had fire insurance?’
Jessica’s blood ran cold. She sent Susan to her room to do her homework then rang the police again.
No, she did not know where he was staying or what name he was using. She described him as best she could. They listened and said they’d alert all officers to be on the lookout for him. They’d send an officer around the next day to file a report and advise on security. It was tourist season and the small force was overstretched.
Elmer lay deep in the woods his thoughts dark. The house was rightfully his. He’d waited long years for that house to be his. When he sold it, he would pay off all his gambling debts, loans and mortgage arrears leaving enough for a great trip to Las Vegas. He’d be among the high rollers, treated with great respect. His luck would change this time, it always did for high rollers. He’d call again tonight and pour gasoline into the porch, but he wouldn’t light it. Just leave it as a message.
Earlier, he’d watched as Susan left for school then he’d approached her at home time. He felt sure that now Jessica knew he’d identified her daughter that it would rack up the pressure. The gasoline threat should seal it. Yes, he’d get the house alright it was just a matter of keeping on racking up the pressure.
Jessica sat sipping green tea to calm her nerves, she could hear Susan up in her room, homework finished, singing at the top of her voice. Her love for Susan hardened her fear into cold anger at Elmer. What right had that waster to threaten them? She started to think of ways to thwart him. After half an hour she had a plan, it was a drastic one, but it could work. She’d been a chemist in the days before she had to give it up to nurse her sick mother-in-law, she had skills she could use.
She looked in the medicine cupboard. The old lady had believed in old-fashioned remedies. Yes, there it was, a jar of potassium permanganate. She took it and went to the kitchen where she found the other ingredient she needed.
The porch door stuck, it had always dragged across the wooden floor the first four inches. It was one of those minor jobs she’d get around to fixing one day. She mixed a small batch and placed it carefully. She opened the door, it made its usual protest as it rubbed hard over the uneven flooring. Yes, yes! It worked as she’d hoped.
Jessica rang Norma and asked if she and Susan could stay over that night in case Elmer came back. Norma happily obliged.
Jessica sent Susan over to Norma’s house then went to the garden shed and found the can of gas for the lawnmower. She took an old plastic washbowl and filled it. After she’d completed her arrangements she packed an overnight bag and went to join Susan and Norma. Of her plan, she said nothing.
When officer John Bradwell swung by the house at 2 a.m. All was quiet, the house in darkness. He shone his powerful torch around the garden. Everything looked to be in order. He reported in then carried on with his patrol.
Elmer watched him go then sneaked out of his hiding place in the bushes and crept up the side of the house avoiding the security light’s sensor. After a final look around, he unscrewed the cap of his fuel can and pushed the porch door. It stuck so he pushed again, impatiently.
The compound that Jessica had put on the scrape area on the floor burst into flames as the grinding door caused friction. The washbowl she’d balanced above cascaded its lethal liquid over Elmer and into the flames.
Jessica and her neighbours came running on hearing Elmer’s agonised shrieks. They found him writhing on the lawn engulfed in flames. They eventually managed to beat him out. They also managed to contain the porch fire, too, as flashing lights and wailing sirens approached. The house was saved. Elmer was not.
Jessica looked at the smouldering corpse dispassionately ‘Yes, Elmer,’ she whispered, ‘I’ve got fire insurance.’