The world was ripe for exploitation. Limitless opportunities to profit from, secrets to uncover and sell, systems to squeeze the lifeblood from and ultimately destroy. Infinite wealth practically begged to be carried off from less worthy masters and put to more practical uses, and Bertram Cadwell intended to take full advantage of that.
Just not this morning. This morning he was having tea with his mother.
Bertram rang the antiquated brass doorbell a second time and promptly shoved his hands back into the pockets of his gray overcoat. The spring air still had a nip to it in the shadows cast by the tightly packed but orderly houses of Harden Street. The neighborhood was quiet and unobtrusive, yet he still felt exposed standing alone in the empty lane. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet impatiently. Do get on with it, Mother; I know you’re in there.
Presently light steps approached the door, and a suspicious eye set in a wrinkled face appeared in a pane of glass. He heard a pleased gasp, and the door was hurriedly unbolted.
“Bertie!” exclaimed his mother, swinging the door open. “What a pleasant surprise! It’s about time you dropped in to see me, young man!”
Bertram reluctantly allowed himself to be embraced and his immaculately combed hair to be ruffled.
“You’re in luck, I just made a pan of crumble last night,” she said, beaming. “Cold apple crumble—your favorite, isn’t it? Come up and have some tea.”
Bertram decided to favor her with a small smile. “It’s good to see you too.” Then he shrugged off his coat and handed it to her.
In the kitchen, which was typically small like most houses built in the Edwardian era, his mother began puttering away with the dishes and food. Bertram scanned the room and adjoining dining space; nothing had changed since his last visit. Both were a custard yellow color and decorated in sensible British post-wartime fashion. The blackout curtains were still hanging in the dining room windows, and a clipped-up woman’s magazine lay on the table beside a half-read newspaper.
He tapped his fingers against the arm of his chair and wondered why he had come here. His mother’s incessant calls and letters weren’t any reason for visiting; he could have simply changed his number and moved as in times past. I’ll have to move regardless if things continue this way. The landlord will be after me, not to mention Gregson’s hired thugs. If only he hadn’t—
The teakettle abruptly began whistling. His mother snatched it off the stove and turned to continue rummaging through the cooler. “And how’s your work been, dear? Any trouble lately?” she asked, her voice tinged with concern.
“Not at all,” he lied calmly. “My work at Cromwell’s is going smoothly. I was promoted to head researcher of my department last week.”
“Bertie! You don’t say?” his mother exclaimed. “Head of your department? Soon you’ll be running the whole firm, mark my words.”
Bertram accordingly marked then discarded them. Not likely. I don’t have any more time than what I presently allocate to the researcher cover. My real business would suffer.
“Just last week that prattling Martha Dabney was boasting about her boy heading off to law school.” She sniffed derogatorily. “As if he could come close to you, a real scientist.”
“Biochemist,” Bertram corrected automatically.
His mother set the tray on the table and sat down across from him. She waited a moment for Bertram to pour the tea, but he decided he’d indulged her enough today. She shrugged and went ahead without a trace of annoyance.
“Did you see the headlines today?” she asked, gesturing at the open newspaper.
“‘Daring Robbery in Kensington.’ ‘Armed Heist on Late Train,’” she tutted, peering at the page. “Even ‘Violent Assault in Marlborough Square.’”
Bertram stifled a yawn. It had been a busy night for him, as the papers testified. He should have returned to his flat to sleep instead, since he had declined his accomplices’ offer to drink away his meager earnings with them. He felt peevish and annoyed by everything from his lack of funds to expand his network, to his mother’s constant prattle.
He glared fiercely at her. She didn’t notice and blithely chattered on about the latest royal gossip as she stirred her tea. Bertram’s calculating eyes focused on the cup, and a dark and murderous thought arose in his mind with such astonishing swiftness that it would have horrified him if he hadn’t grown indifferent to all qualms of his conscience long ago. It would be childishly simple to slip something in her cup; he had a dozen undetectable substances in his lab at work that would do the trick. A concentration of aconitine would do nicely. No more nagging visits, not to mention a decent inheritance that would spell the end of my monetary problems.
“I don’t know what this generation is coming to, reputable persons sullying themselves with criminality! Look at you, a respectable gentleman with a good occupation. Most could learn a thing or two from you.” His mother smiled at him, all of her maternal pride and love shining on her face. She at least was proud of him.
For the first time in eons, Bertram felt a spear of guilt stab his conscience. If only his tender-hearted, pious mother knew how far her only son had wandered. He stared broodingly at an embroidered list of the Ten Commandments on the wall.
“Something on your mind, dear? You haven’t touched your crumble.”
Bertram finally noticed the large saucer heaped with apples and sugared oats. He picked it up and took a spoonful. The sweetness of apples rushed over his tongue, mixed with the strong tang of cinnamon and subtler hints of nutmeg and anise. Chewing slowly, he savored the delectable treat before swallowing.
“Nothing at all, Mother,” he replied at length. “Excellent crumble, as always.”
Vehemently disregarding his prior murderous thoughts, Bertram eagerly took another mouthful. He told himself he was most certainly not being merciful or sentimental. Far from it. He would simply be hard pressed to find such delicious apple crumble anywhere else.
A quarter of an hour later, he was off again, striding down the street under a gray London sky. The churning of the dark clouds overhead matched the turmoil in his mind as he tried to shake off the unsettling effect the visit had had on his usually unreachable conscience.
Unbeknownst to him, someone watched his retreating figure intently from an upper window. His mother looked on with an aching heart until he was no longer in sight, then slowly sank to her rheumatic knees. Heaven only knows what hidden evil he goes out to do, Lord. And only You can bring him back again.