Authors: Bentley Little
to stay away from me and not answer any questions I might ask because I was dangerously unstable?
Maybe a private investigator
the best idea. I could take more money out of my bank account and pay for someone to track Vicki and Eric downalthough there was no guarantee that
wouldn't start receiving a shitload of letters with contradictory suggestions.
I had never felt so frustrated in my life. There seemed to be nothing I could do. I was stymied at every turn. If this was a game of chess, I was the player with one piece left, surrounded by my opponent's full contingent, ready to attack me no matter which direction I moved.
In the kitchen, the phone rang.
I jumped, startled. Instinctively, I headed toward the kitchen to answer it, but halfway there I remembered that Edson had said the telephone wasn't hooked up. Sure enough, when I grabbed the handset and listened, I heard no dial tone, no sound at all. I jiggled the catch. Nothing.
It was some sort of fluke, I told myself, a quirk that occurred periodically whether the phone was hooked up or not. One time, I remembered, my smoke detector had beeped even though there'd been no battery in it.
But I knew this wasn't something like that.
I spent the rest of the day running around, buying enough clothes to last me a week, picking up a few meager groceries, searching on the Internet at a public library for Vicki and getting sidetracked trying to look up information about Letter Writers, although I found nothing about either. Edson stopped by that evening with pizza and beer, we shot the breeze for a while, and I told him I was thinking of hiring a private investigator. He thought it was a good idea and offered to ask around tomorrow, find a good one for me. I thanked him. He also offered to pay, but I told him no. Some things a person had to do himself.
After he left, the house seemed ... strange. There were no more dead phones ringing, I heard no noises, I saw no shadows or eerie lights, but something seemed wrong, and I realized that it was because the house did not feel empty. No matter how much I tried to ignore it, I could not shake the feeling that there was someone else in here with me. I tried to rationalize it, tried to think about it objectively. Perhaps, I thought, belief in witchcraft and ghosts had
begun with Letter Writers. The other presence I sensed might be nothing more than my subliminal acknowledgment of a person living in a doppelganger house in the Land of the Letter Writers. For all I knew, that world and this coexisted in the same physical space, and on some molecular level there was crossover. Perhaps the family who now lived in my old house had even sensed my presence when I'd been trapped over there and pacing through the rooms.
For the impression I had was that this was not something that could be explained scientifically or even pseudoscientifically. Whatever was happening in this house defied easy logic.
Letter writing is an art, not a science
, I thought, and that explained the difference perfectly.
I finally fell asleep, long, long after midnight, monitoring a tapping noise that sounded like water dripping in an empty bathtub but was coming from the center of the hallway.
In the morning, a used cereal bowl was on the breakfast table next to a half-finished glass of orange juice. The sports section of the
Los Angeles Times
was spread out nearby, though I knew no paper was being delivered to this address.
I flipped on the television for company, cranked it up so I could hear it in every room of the house and, after checking both the front and back doors to make sure they were locked, went through the entire place, opening every closet, every cupboard, looking for an intruder. Nothing. That did not make me feel any better, and I cleared off the breakfast table, drank a quick glass of orange juice myself and tried to think of what I should do next.
Get out, I decided.
I wasn't tied to this house, I had Edson's cell phone, so I drove to the beach, walked along the pier. Vicki and I used to do that sometimes when we were in college and too poor to go on a real date. We'd grab some junk food, then go out on the pier and sit with the fishermen, watching them cast, watching the sunset, watching the surfers, watching the waves. It had been fun in those happy early days, but it was a profoundly melancholy experience now, walking over the thick boards, smelling the salty air, hearing the cries of the gulls, thinking of times past. I felt old and lonely, and I wondered how I could have let my marriage go, how I could have been so stupid as to choose letter writing over Vicki.
But I hadn't chosen, I realized. It was something over which I had no control.
Edson called just before noon with the name of a private investigator. "He specializes in missing persons," Edson told me. "I had him checked out. He even did some work for a colleague of mine who was trying to track down a lost love. He's good."
Conveniently, the man's office was located in Newport Beach, on one of the top floors of a high-rise that flanked Fashion Island. I called to make an appointment and was told to come right in. I had the feeling strings had been pulled, and although I refused to let Edson pay for anything, I was happy for his intervention. Each second that passed by without my knowing where Vicki and Eric were was like an hour in hell to me.
The detective's name was Patrick Scholder, and he interviewed me for more than an hour about my wife and son, friends and relatives, work and play, trying to glean as much information as he could. At the end of the session I felt drained but vaguely optimistic. I was impressed by Scholder's thoroughness, and I prayed that he would not start receiving letters that would convince him to disassociate from me.
I'd have to write him a letter of protection as soon as I got back.
I paid him an advance, signed a contract and then hurried down to the parking lot. Returning to the rental house, I tossed my keys on the coffee table, walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water
And the phone rang.
The dead phone.
Filled with an almost overwhelming sense of dread, I picked it up. "Hello?" I said tentatively.
The voice was weak, whispery, and I hadn't heard it for nearly two decades, but I recognized it instantly.
It was my mom.
She said my name again, and the way she said it gave me a chill. It was like something out of a horror movie, and the fact that she was talking to me over an unplugged phone only accentuated the macabre aspect of it.
There was a click. Then silence.
I put the handset back in its cradle. What did this mean? Was she dead? That was clearly the implication; it was obviously what I was supposed to think. And that
been her voice.
There was only one way to find out.
I drove to my mom's house in Acacia, back to the old neighborhood. It had been several years since I'd even passed down this street, but it felt a lot longer than that. Then, I had only been speeding by, spying on my mom, checking to see if she still lived there, if she'd moved or died. This time, I was actually going back to the house, and it felt as though I hadn't been on this street for twenty years. I saw the corner where I used to turn around on my bike before I'd been allowed to peddle out of sight of the house. I recognized the thin section of Mrs. Baumgarten's oleander bush that we'd used as a secret tunnel, even though we knew oleanders were supposed to be poisonous.
I parked next to the fire hydrant in front of our house.
I sat there for a moment in the car, hoping that my mom would come out. It seemed like it would be easier to talk if we met on neutral ground, if we were outside rather than inside. But the door didn't open, the curtains didn't part, and finally I forced myself to get out of the car and walk up the path to the front door.
I had a bad feeling about this.
I knocked, stood there, rang the doorbell, waited.
Rang the doorbell again.
Maybe she wasn't home.
I felt sure she was, though, and I stood on my tiptoes and felt around the edge of the porch light until I found the extra key that we'd always hidden there. I used it to open the door. "Hello?" I called. "Mom?" The word felt strange coming out of my mouth. I couldn't remember the last time I'd said it.
"It's me! Jason! Mom?"
The house was quiet. Too quiet. I moved forward slowly, past a new couch I didn't recognize, past a table I did. I could go either into the kitchen or into the hallway and the bedrooms beyond. Since I could see part of the kitchen and there didn't appear to be anyone in it, I chose the hallway.
It was the right choice.
Or the wrong one.
For my mom lay crumpled on the floor. It was the middle of the afternoon, but she was still in her nightgown, which told me that she'd been killed either last night or early this morning. She'd been shot in the head. Around her awkwardly positioned body was a tremendous amount of blood that had puddled and congealed in rivulets that had run together to form a single pool, like a moat, about her. On the wall was more blood, spread out in starbursts like modern art. There were even splatters on the ceiling. I could see only one cheek and one eye; the rest of her face was covered with red. The one eye was open.
On the floor in front of her, soaked in blood, was a white sheet of paper that had at one time been folded in thirds but was now lying open.
I crouched down, trying to read what it said, but the blood had saturated the paper, obscuring all of the words.
Was the Ultimate playing with me, pulling some sort of
stunt where my circle of family and friends would be knocked off one by one until finally I was the only one standing? I didn't know, but I was determined not to return to the rental house, just in case. Whoever
had knocked off my mom might be waiting there for me right now with a loaded silencer or an unsheathed knife. I'd have to call Edson, tell him that I was going away for a few days, tell him
He might be next.
Oh, shit. I pulled out the cell phone and immediately dialed his number, but he didn't answer; I got his voice mail instead.
Please be in a meeting
, I thought.
Please be alive.
I left a message explaining that my mom had been murdered and that the killer was most likely after me. There was the distinct possibility that he himself could wind up as collateral damage. "Do
go to the rental house," I warned him. "Stay away. And stay alert. Any weird phone calls, any strange people hanging around, call the cops. Don't answer the door for anyone you don't know. Keep your car doors locked. Keep your cell phone with you at all times. For God's sake, be careful. I'll be in touch when I can."
I tried to imagine his reaction when he listened to that message. He was probably through with me for good. He'd no doubt remember my dad's killing, and of course he'd probably receive letter after letter indicting me for both crimes.
If he wasn't murdered in his sleep.
"Fuck!" I screamed aloud, banging my fist on the wall in frustration. Blood that had half dried broke free of its hardening shell and began to drip down the wall again, jostled loose by the vibration.
I looked down at my mom's still body. I didn't love her. I didn't even like her. Hell, I'd hated her damn near all my life. But she still didn't deserve to die this way, and I felt guilty for the fact that she had been killed because of me. I was turning soft in my old age, and in a way that made me feel better, alleviated the pain. I was becoming human, and probably, if enough time passed, I'd even be able to forgive her for having been the bitch she'd been.
I moved out of the hall, unable to look at the gruesome sight or smell the horrible stench any longer.
Somewhere in Southern California, I assumed, Tom had met an equally horrendous death.
Or was about to.
I got in my crappy Volkswagen and drove aimlessly for a while. It would be dark in a couple of hours. Where was I going to spend the night? Like an animal, my instinctive impulse was to flee, to get as far away from here as possible, but there was no way this POS car would get me out of Southern California. Besides, physical distance was no barrier. The Ultimate had already proved he could track me and keep tabs on me no matter where I went. In college, when I'd driven up the coast, letters had been left for me at motels where I would randomly stop. There'd even been that bizarre incident of the one-night stand where the entire episode had been predicted in a letter.
Did he know what I was going to do before I did it?
If so, I was screwed. There was nothing I could do to escape my fate.
But I had the feeling that that instance was a rarity, if not completely unique. I didn't know what it was about that journey that had invited such outside intrusions into my thoughts or what had happened afterward to stop it, but he had never again been able to get into my head in such a thorough, subtle and intimate manner.
Vicki had happened.
Yes, that was true. I'd been a free man in Paris when I'd set off on my little trip, not a care or encumbrance in the world, cut off from my family, loyal only to myself and my writing and, to a lesser extent, my school and studies. After that had been a period of abstinence ... and then I'd met Vicki.
Love doesn't make the world go round
, Henry said.
But maybe he was wrong.
he was wrong.
The question was, where should I go now? My mom had been murdered, and the phone call had been a way to let me know about it. What exactly did that mean? Was it a threat of some sort? Was I supposed to get back in line, write a letter asking to be let back in?
Write a letter...
I could write a letter to the Ultimate not asking for forgiveness but telling him to fuck himself. I could write threatening letters to him, hate letters, letters predicting his death and disembowelment. I'd written to him before, in
, when I was with the company, but my work in that world had always seemed muted, unsuccessful, not as powerful as it had been out here in the real world. I'd been out here when my letters had interfered with theirs, when my words had crossed paths with those of Charles Dickens and rendered his impotent. Out here I was at my best.