Highcrest is a crater of a town too small for its name. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody knew everybody’s business because the town was built all funky, and we were squeezed together like a litter of pups trying to get a teat. I tell you, before everything happened, it was 23 years of hand-to-mouth living, not that me and Ma ever went hungry, but life was no buffet of roses. Our house was old, the town was dirty, and the people were unpleasant. I don’t think many outsiders knew we were there unless they got a flat on the side of the highway and happened to look over the guardrail. Hell, when the bodies started showing up not two months after Ma took in the renter, well, it never dawned on me that it could be Arthur. I guess it’s obvious now, with so many people pointing it out over the years, but sometimes like they say, you can’t see a tree in a fortress.
Once the police went through his room and found all the art books and everything else, well, it was a done deal. That was one of the reasons Ma rented to him; she’d been an art major for a bit, so she took a fancy to him, which was a good thing for him because she doesn’t like many people. She’s a picky one, and around then, she’d been stressing out big time, which meant stressing me out more than usual. But she started exercising, just taking long walks at night, trying to ‘focus her energy,’ she said. I just needed her to calm the hell down, you know what I mean? Mothers. You gotta love ’em, preferably from a distance. Ha! Am I right? But when Art showed up, she seemed to relax, like all her problems were solved. I know we needed that rent money for sure, and Highcrest didn’t see many new folks unless they were relatives of somebody already stuck here, like my dad brought my ma here. This was his hometown. Lived and died here, somehow fell down the basement steps just about when I was learning to shave.
Anyway, Art. He was a loner. Ha! Serial Killer 101, am I right? I mean, yeah, I can see why at the beginning, everyone thought I might be in on the murders. People ask me how I missed it. I mean crap, the man’s name was Art, for chrissakes. But I have a friend we call Biscuit, and you don’t see me slapping butter on him. So, no, I didn’t put two and two together. And let’s not start with my name being John Johnson, Jr. I heard it all through school, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stutter. But I never had that problem, not at all. I talk just fine.
Miss Marlett, from two blocks over, she was the first. They said she was posed like the Whistler’s Mother. Propped up in a chair, even wearing a bonnet and holding a handkerchief. I mean, come on, who even has a bonnet or a handkerchief these days? The weird thing was, instead of having her feet propped up on a footstool like the actual painting, they were on top of Mrs. Minipurr, her dead cat. She’d stuffed it not too long before—after it got into something poisonous. Ma guessed it was some kind of plant. Weird and sad. But Ma always said Miss Marlett was a nosey old maid—her words, I’m no sexist—and Mrs. Minipurr drove Ma crazy digging up her garden.
Then not a week and a half later, Miss Lacey was done up like the Mona Lisa, her body set up in her living room window like a framed portrait from the waist up. I gotta say, I caught sight of her when I was walking by—you know, before I knew she was dead and thought she was just enjoying the breeze, although the whole neighborhood smelled like manure from the Taylor’s organic flower beds—and I’d have to say, it was probably the best she’d ever looked with that center part and her hair straightened. I think that was when they started calling them The Masterpiece Murders. Ma said, how nice, now Miss Lacey could wear her haughty look straight on through the gates of hell. No secret she never cared for her; said she was a bit too snooty for her tastes. Ma could be a bit snooty herself. It takes one to own one, you know?
Everyone in town nearly lost their damn minds with the next killing. It was a did-she-or-didn’t-she kind of thing. See, when the house a few doors down burned to pretty much a heap of ash, at first, nobody connected it to the murders. I mean, how’s a house fire a Masterpiece Murder? Then at the town hall meeting, Ma pointed out that the woman who died was June Wallace. Ma was in her alphabet as she stood there with her hands on her hips, asking, “Am I the only one in this backwater-ass town with enough culture to have heard of the famous masterpiece, Flaming June?”