Thou shalt not kill. It’s at number six in the list. Surely it deserves a higher billing. The others are so easily broken. My parents were suitably dishonoured the day I joined the Secession movement. It’s years since I last sat in the back pew at Mass. The place where I live glitters with graven images – there’s even a small golden calf on my bookcase. I’ve never been married but I’ve slept with plenty of married men, especially on Sundays. Our neighbours detest us. They say we steal babies. God knows, that’s a lie. Those children are our life. But this will be my first murder.
We’re travelling to his house now. His name is James. My coat is open and he has his hand on my thigh, pushing my short dress shorter. I remove his fingers from my black tights but allow him the kiss that follows. I don’t want to attract any unnecessary attention. My bag is on the seat by my side, relieving my shoulder of its extra weight for a while. Inside there’s a scarf, a woollen hat and a pair of gloves. The weapons are lying at the bottom. I bought them on my first day back in the country: a Lakeland Select Stainless Steel Chef’s Knife with a 20 centimetre blade – £35.99 from Touchwood in Solihull – and a Stanley Steelmaster Axe from Homebase on the Sears Trading Estate. There was a cheaper one but I wanted something with more weight. No one batted an eyelid.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ I mumble into his ear at the end of the kiss. He lives in King’s Heath, an area I used to know well. He moves his hand to the back of my neck, stroking and squeezing. His fingers feel strong but not rough and I can see why Steffi chose him to be the father of her child. I almost relax into his touch until I think about his neck and where the knife will go.
Men are so easy to snare. We’ve been out drinking but he’s had far more than me. He started on cider then moved onto red wine. We polished off a couple of bottles between us but I’ve only had two and a half glasses. In between I had cola. He said it reminded him of a Frank O’Hara poem.
‘Having a Coke with you,’ he said. ‘Do you know it?’
I said I didn’t. I was drinking Pepsi.
‘I’ll read it to you later,’ he said.
‘Okay,’ I said and locked onto his gaze to make sure he understood what this meant. I wondered if he would read it before or afterwards. I had a feeling I wouldn’t hear it at all.
‘It’s about the attraction of movement,’ he said. ‘I like the way you move.’
‘When have you seen me?’
‘On the street, before we met.’
‘You were watching me?’ I said. I knew he was. I made sure he was. I’d tailed him for three days from his house and onto the High Street. The first day I watched him catch the number 50 from outside the church. The second, I found out where he worked in the city centre. On the third day, I stood next to him in the queue. I saw him look and didn’t discourage him. When I asked him if he knew Millennium Point, he took the chance to talk. We sat together on the bus. Before I left him, he asked for my number. I took his. We arranged to meet on Friday after he’d finished work.
‘You’re like a wave,’ he said, ‘one of those oscillating waves.’
‘And you’re full of shite,’ I thought.
‘A sine wave,’ I said, smiling through.
‘Do you like poetry?’
I shook my head.
‘I’m more into art.’
‘Jackson Pollock,’ he said. ‘There’s a man whose paintings move.’
‘Klimt is my favourite,’ I said. I knew he would think of Steffi then and the Secession movement and the child he’d never seen. But he wouldn’t connect it with me. I was from Birmingham not Vienna. It was one of the reasons I was chosen.
‘Your name is Judith and you like Gustav Klimt,’ he said.
I nodded. He didn’t say anything for a moment and I knew where his thoughts had gone.
‘Is something wrong?’ I leaned closer and put my hand on his arm.
‘It’s just a coincidence.’
He took the chance I’d offered to meet my lips with his. I knew my plan had worked and one of those perfect waves he’d mentioned ran through my body at the thought of what was to come.
James pays the driver and leads me into the hallway of his house. The air inside feels warm compared to outdoors. I place my bag at the bottom of the stairs. He removes my coat from behind and hangs it on a stand. He’s in a hurry now when he should slow down and savour the moment because, like all moments, it won’t come again. I help him to rush. The sooner the better. He backs me up to the banister and pushes himself against me. I kick off my pumps. The polished wooden flooring feels cool and slippery beneath my stockinged feet. I’m easy to undress. He finds the hook at the back of my neck and unzips down my spine. My dress falls to the floor. I lend a hand with the bra. He can cope with the rest. He lifts me. I realise he intends to have me right there standing-up.
‘No, the bedroom,’ I tell him.
I wrap myself around him. Two steps up, I remember my bag. He leans back and grabs it.
‘Jeez, what’s in there?’ he says.
‘Everything a woman needs,’ I say and take it from him so it hangs down his back. As he carries me to the bed, I see my clothes strewn on the floor below. It’s the best place for them.
I was looking for the story of Judith but my old school Bible had fallen open at Exodus 20. There was a bookmark there; an old ticket, Albion v Bolton, play-off semi-final first leg, May 2001. I would have been thirteen. I remembered it. We were 2-0 up but drew 2-2. Lost in the second leg. It was one of the things I missed most about England. I still followed the scores.
I skimmed through the Ten Commandments and wondered how well Judith knew them. Her exploits came four hundred pages further on. I couldn’t recall any readings from the Book of Judith at church and as I read it, I could understand why. She was a beautiful and dangerous woman. I liked how matter-of-fact it all was. She went out, did the deed, and returned with the trophy. There was no emotional crap. According to the tale, she returned to her city undefiled. But then, it was written by a man. With what Judith had in mind, she must have been horny as fuck. If Holofernes submitted to his drunken stupor before giving her the satisfaction, I could only imagine her disappointment.
I have no intention of returning undefiled. I tell James I want it hard and fast.
‘No half-measures,’ I say. ‘Wear yourself out.’
He’s good as gold.
I lie with him afterwards, he on his back, me curled into him, and feel his chest rise and fall like those sine waves he’d spoken of. He lets go slowly but inevitably into a self-satisfied and alcoholic torpor. Now the moment has arrived, I’m a patient killer. Or is it the realisation of what must be done? I wait for his breathing to stabilise, wait for that slow rhythm to establish itself. Then I move, extricating myself from him with the care of a panther on the hunt, to reach down into my bag at the side of the bed. The plan is hard-wired into my brain. It’s for the children, I tell myself. I place the axe on the pillow. My palms are wet. The knife feels alien in my hand. Even in the low light of the bedroom, the steel blade seems to glint. I clasp it more tightly scared it could slip from my grip. He shouldn’t have followed us. I kneel next to him, towering over him. It’s just as I imagined. His head is tilted back, his neck stretched, his larynx open, a replica of my own position a short while before. I can still feel him inside me. Both of my hands are on the handle. No one can know where the movement is based, especially the fathers. That’s why we move after each child is conceived. Steffi had seen him from the loft, down below, on the pavement opposite. Was it coincidence? We couldn’t take the risk.
‘This is for the children,’ I whisper.
Then I plunge. A bird of prey. And it’s so easy. How the knife slips into his throat. My full weight behind it. His body jolts. As if brought to life. His eyes open but they are not seeing. I clamp my hand over his mouth pushing his head down. There’s a gurgling noise but I twist the knife and the blood comes, first a spurt of red from the neck and then a black eruption from the mouth, a glut that floods through my fingers, over my thighs and knees, down onto the white sheet, and all resistance is gone.
My work is not yet done. I pull his head back by the hair. The wound gapes still pulsing even though I’m sure his heart is not. Like a butcher with a joint, I cleave the flesh of his neck. I edge back, wipe my hands over my breasts and stomach, grasp his hair again, take the axe, line it up, close my eyes, and bring it down with as much force as I can muster. I tug. It’s still attached. I scream. I smash the axe down again and again and again until I feel it give and the head is free from the body and I’m holding it high above the pillow. The bedclothes, headboard and wall behind are drenched in red.
I put the head back onto the pillow and shuffle backwards off the bed. I swill my hands in the en-suite bathroom. Selfie time. I hold the head tucked under my left arm like a handbag. Streaks of blood pattern my body. I’m an abstract painting. I go to the Secession facebook page. Thou shalt not kill, I type and post the photo.
Under the shower’s warm cascade, I think of Judith’s story. She was lauded for her actions. She saved the city. It was okay for her to bring the head of Holofernes back in a bag. ‘No act of sin’ had taken place, according to the author. Of course, he was talking about sex. It was okay for her to kill. I wash my skin and weapons clean. The scent of the gel – Lynx Excite – fills the confined space. It reminds me of cleanliness. My own sin rinses away, watered-down, and swills past my feet.
I’m not taking James’s head with me. It’s facing away towards the truncated body when I pick up my bag. I dress in the hallway. With any luck no one will notice he’s missing until Monday. I’ll be safely back in the bosom of the movement by then. I step out into the night and close the door behind me. The chill in the air makes me pull my coat tighter. I wonder if I’m taking his child with me. That would be perfect. I have saved the city. It was okay to kill. I check my post as I go. I have twenty-seven likes.
This story is part of a collection of short fiction linked by themes of sex, mathematics and elements of revenge. It’s a story based on Gustav Klimt’s painting, Judith and the Head of Holofernes. The prequel is forthcoming in Shooter.
PW Lewis is currently seeking a publisher for his debut novel (Watch), completed as part of an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. He is writing stories linked by sex and mathematics and his short fiction has recently appeared in Firewords, Under the Fable and Avis magazines. He lives in Birmingham.