Thursday, February 16, 2017

Don’t let Harry into your room if you want to live.


  When Mrs Rothstein took her last breath at two minutes past three last Monday, it didn't come as a big surprise. After all, Harry had stayed in her room for two nights in a row. And whenever Harry decides to make a night-time visit, it only means one thing. Someone is about to kiss this world goodbye. Deep down I believe Mrs Rothstein realised that too, because when I spoke to her a couple of hours before she passed away, she gave me a tired smile and told me she was ready. And just as sure as night is followed by day, Harry came dashing out of her room when the nurse came to check on her a few minutes later. He had a satisfied, almost arrogant look on his face, as if he wanted her to know that his work was done. Then when he reached the double doors at the end of the corridor, he turned around and let out a satisfied meow, before disappearing down the stairs. 

  That’s our Harry, a fourteen year old black and white American Shorthair cat, and now that you've been introduced to him, it's probably time I tell you a little bit about myself. My name is David Dubinsky, and I work as a night supervisor at 'The Meadows', a medium sized nursing home somewhere on the east coast. The place is nothing special, in fact there's one just like it in every town and city across the nation. A place where old people come to die when they can no longer look after themselves. 

  A lot of folks think of it as a depressing place, but I have no problems with it. It's an easy job, and more importantly the pay is decent. Besides, most nights are quiet so I get to do my own thing. That's probably why I've stayed here for as long as I have. In July I will have spent eight years here.

  However my stint at ‘The Meadows’ is nowhere as long as Harry's, but then again he's an old-timer. When I arrived here he was well into his fourth year of patrolling its corridors and sleeping on its beds. He was bequeathed to the home by a relative of a former client – that’s how the management prefer that we refer to our patients - who had closed her eyes for the last time. 

  And here's the thing. During the seven and a half years that I've spent here, I've never once seen Harry not accurately predicting a death. He always gets it right, and as you can imagine in a place such as this, it happens on a regular basis. At least once a week there are people 'checking out'. Add it all up and you get quite a substantial number of deaths.

  The pattern is always the same. Two days before it happens, Harry will jump up on the bed in question, snuggle up to its occupant’s feet and just lie there and let us know that the room will soon be available for another tired soul. If there are multiple deaths, meaning that more than one client is ready to switch off their lights at the same time, Harry will simply divide his attention between the various beds. 

  You'd think it’d be a fairly horrific experience to have Harry snuggle up next to you, given his uncanny ability to foresee the end, but that isn't the case. Most of our patients suffer from dementia and other cognitive ailments, and are thus blissfully unaware of the significance of his presence. They just see him as a cat, who wants to spend some time with them.

  But someone like Mrs Rothstein, who is alert until the very end, probably knows what it means. That's just the way it is. Word gets around, even if you try to keep a lid on it. And in those cases, you'd think his presence would upset them, but oddly enough it doesn't. I guess when you’ve reached that last leg of your journey, after having travelled for eighty or ninety odd years; you've come to terms with your fate and are ready to embrace whatever is waiting on the other side.

  And why not?

 The kids have all grown up and lead their own lives, more often than not somewhere far away and only come visiting once or twice a year. Friends and acquaintances have passed away, and you feel like you don't have a purpose in life anymore. You've done your bit, and all you’re really doing is waiting, day in and day out. The only thing that changes are the days on the calendar and your growing sense of isolation and loneliness. 

  You do that for a few years, all by yourself in an institution filled with people, the majority of whom are incapable of engaging in a meaningful conversation, and dying no longer seems like such a bad option. It becomes something you welcome and pray for. In the end you accept that your work here on earth is done and that the time has come to hand over the baton to someone else.

  Now that I’ve provided you with some background information, it's time for me to get to the point. To get the awful burden I’ve been carrying around off my chest. It's something that has been bothering me, and I don't quite know how to interpret it. I don't know if I should be worried, or whether there's a completely rational explanation to it all. It's been going on for two nights now, and I haven't been able to sleep because of it. Nor will I be able to do so until I have my answer. I guess I’ll find out one way or the other when this night finally turns into day. Then and only then will I be able to close my eyes and sleep peacefully. 

  You see, Harry came snuggling up to my feet when my shift started last night. And not once during that time did he get up. He just kept looking at me every now and then with eyes that were filled with sadness. And whenever I met his gaze, he quickly looked away as if he’d done something wrong. At first I wasn't that worried, thinking he just wanted some company. But as the hours dragged on and he continued to hang around, I started to worry. And when I drove home the following morning anxiety kicked in. And it didn't exactly ease when he came sauntering into my office earlier this evening when I started my shift. He just walked over to my chair like he did yesterday and parked his furry self next to my feet. That was three hours ago, and he hasn't moved since. 

  I don't know what to make of it. It has never happened before. In fact it's the first time I've ever seen him in my office. Normally when he's not sleeping in one of the clients' beds, he can be found in the big communal living room down on the ground floor, tucked up on the couch, catching up on his beauty sleep. 

  Now, I’m reasonably fit, having turned sixty only a few months ago. I don't have any ailments or defects that I'm aware of, so the odds of something serious happening to me tonight are extremely slim. But still, it’s unnerving. Harry is exhibiting the exact same signs that he is whenever one of our clients are about to die. The only difference this time is that I'm the sole focus of his attention. 

  I sincerely hope that this night shall be an uneventful one, and that it shall pass without any dramas of any kind. I'm nearing my retirement, but I still got another twenty or so years left in me before I'm ready to kick the bucket. Hopefully Harry just got tired of sleeping on the beds and decided he wanted a change of scenery. 

  At least that's what I hope...

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I got away with murder, or at least so I thought.


 When sheriff Peckham announced that the police had no new leads in the killing of Mark Arroyo, nor any clue as to who the killer might be, I was finally able to relax. One year had passed since his death, and it seemed that I had gotten away with it. Despite having all the odds stacked against me, no one suspected that I had anything to do with the incident. The cops didn't even bother to interview me, which isn't all that strange considering the sheriff is as dumb as a mule, and his deputies..... well, let's just say they make the sheriff look like a genius. The only time those morons will ever catch a murderer is if they arrest him in the act. And luckily for me, I was long gone by the time they found Mark Arroyo's dead body.

  But it was I who killed him. 

  I stabbed the vicious brute eighteen times in the abdominal and chest region. It happened in the alley behind O'Reilly’s and Harpers on a warm spring night in early May. It wasn't a premeditated act. I had no intention of harming, let alone killing anyone, it kind of just happened. 

  I was on my way home after a night out with my buddies, Ronnie and Tim. We'd been hanging out in the beer garden over at 'The Hamlet' on Miller Street, and I had left just before one am, as I had to get up early and go to work the following morning. And since my house is only fifteen minutes away, and I knew I was going to have a few drinks, I'd left my car at home. It's just one of the many perks of living in a small town. Everything is within easy reach.

  To save time and shorten my trip I decided to cut through one of the narrow alleys off Hammersmith Street, which turned out to be a massive mistake, because when I was halfway down the lane, I saw Mark Arroyo step out from behind a rubbish bin. 

  Every town in America has a Mark Arroyo, a douchebag extraordinaire, who takes great pleasure in making other people's lives as miserable as possible. And he was very good at it, I'll give him that. He had been bullying me since I was a little kid, and he was the last person I wanted to run into that night. It was obvious that he had been waiting for someone to walk past. Someone he could harass and ruin what would otherwise have been a good night out. And when he saw it was me, his face lit up and his mouth formed into a big ugly grin. 

  "Wow, look who the cat just dragged over," he said in a slurred voice that revealed that I wasn't the only one who had been drinking that night.

  "What are you doing here you little pissant?" He continued as he started toward me.

   I stopped dead in my tracks, and felt the sudden influx of adrenaline course through my body. Mark was a big guy and he could easily beat me to pulp with one arm tied behind his back. My situation had truly taken a nosedive in the blink of an eye, and I was dreading what would happen next. He switched on the camera on his phone and pointed it in my direction. The bright light blinded me and I had to put a hand up to shield my eyes. It was clear that he intended to document the beating he was about to administer and share it with his friends.

  By this stage I should have just turned around and ran, but I couldn't move. It was like someone had put contact cement under my shoes, and no matter how hard I tried to lift my legs they simply refused to budge. And then it was too late, because Mark had grabbed my t-shirt with one of his beefy hands and was pushing me up again the wall. 

  "Hey, fuckface I asked you a goddamn question! What are you doing here?" 

  I could smell the booze on his breath, and although I couldn't see his face, I knew the ugly grin was still there, pleased with my reaction. I tried to break free, but it was no use. I was pinned to the wall.

  It didn't take long for the verbal abuse to intensify, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it would turn physical. It was a routine that I was very familiar with, and one that had repeated itself numerous times when I was growing up. Mark would run after me, taunt me and then beat the crap out of me when he finally caught me. 

  I think it was the first slap that did it. I received it because I refused to answer his questions, and as soon as his palm struck my cheek, he started laughing. It was a vicious and revolting laugh, and the second I heard it something inside me snapped. I'd had enough. It was time to send a message. 

  I wasn't really thinking, I just reacted. 

  I put my hand inside my pocket and pulled out my switchblade. Then I just started stabbing him with it. What I wanted most of all was to be left alone, but I also wanted the laughter to stop and I wanted to wipe the smug smirk off his face. 

  And it worked. 

  The flow of words trailed off and the phone he was holding hit the ground with a loud clang. The insults were replaced by weird guttural sounds, and before I knew it, he was on the ground staring up at the stars, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that he was dead. 

  I guess I should have panicked and run, but I didn't. Nor was I upset about what I had done. To be honest, the only thing I felt was relief. I had finally stood up to the bully. I was free at last.

  I stood where I was for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do next, and then I got on with it. I wiped the bloody blade on his t-shirt and put it back in my pocket. Then I grabbed the phone and checked my own my t-shirt and saw it was covered in bloodstains. So I took it off, turned it inside out and put it back on again.

  Then I turned off the phone, placed it in my pocket and started walking. The clue was not to attract any attention, and the only way to do that was to remain calm. And if anyone had seen me coming out of that alley, they would never have guessed that I had just killed another human being. But there was no one there, and nor did I run into another living soul that night.

  As soon as I got home, I started to get rid of the evidence. I jumped in the shower and washed off all the blood. Then I put my clothes in a plastic bag and removed the SIM card from Mark's phone. Once that was taken care of, I sat down in the kitchen and had a cup of coffee to clear my head. Ten minutes later I was in my car heading south. 

  I burned the clothes and the phone at a desolate picnic area twenty minutes out of town, before returning home and going to bed. The following afternoon I smelted the switchblade and threw the lump of metal in the rubbish bin. I had gotten rid of all the evidence. 

  Then the waiting game began.

  For the next few weeks every time someone knocked on my door, or rang my phone I'd jump, convinced that it was the cops coming to arrest me. But fortunately no one came looking for me. The sheriff and his deputies were running around like blind mice chasing their own tails, and demonstrated why only experienced investigators should be involved in murder investigations. They weren't able to come up with anything of substance apart from the obvious, which was that Mark was dead and he had been stabbed multiple times. Eventually the sheriff's office released a statement theorising that Mark had been mugged by a non local, and the likelihood that the crim was still in the area were next to zero.  

  After that I started to relax a little, and by the time of the one year anniversary, when the sheriff made his latest announcement, I had managed to put the whole incident behind me. I had gotten off scot-free, or at least that's what I thought. 

  But all that changed when I started receiving the text messages.

  The first one came two months ago. It was late in the evening and I was watching a movie on TV when I heard the phone start vibrating on the table in front of me. When I picked it up I saw someone had sent me a message, and when I read it, I felt my blood go cold. It read;

  "Look the killer is watching TV."

   A picture of me sitting on the couch in front of the television was attached to the message, and I realised straight away that it had been taken just moments before. I ran over to the window and peered outside, but I couldn't see anyone. So I ran over to the cabinet in the hallway and got my flashlight, and began walking around the outside of the house. But there was no one there.

  When I came back inside again, I took another look at the message. It was from an unknown number. After I had calmed down a little bit, I responded, "who are you, and what do you want?" Then I waited, but I received no reply.

  A week later I got the second text message. The text was identical to the first one, but the picture was different. This time someone had photographed me as I entered the house, and once again I got the same nauseating feeling. Who the fuck was the prick that was messing with my head? I had already tried to look up the number without much luck, nor had I received any replies to the text messages I'd sent, and I had sent quite a few.

  It was really starting to bother me, but for obvious reasons I couldn't take my concerns to the cops. There was only one thing I could do, and that was to try to ignore it. 

  But the messages and pictures kept coming, and it didn't take long before the pictures were replaced by short video clips of me doing various things around the house. I became increasingly paranoid, and I became convinced that someone must have seen me stab Mark. And I was worried that the person would eventually contact the cops. Things became so bad that I actually bought a pistol and started carrying it around the house. 

  Then something happened that prompted me to take decisive steps to put an end to it. About three weeks ago, I received a text message and a video clip that scared me to the bone. In fact it made me fear for my own safety. The text was the same as all the others, but the clip was most definitely not. 

  It was filmed with a night vision camera, and it showed someone walking up a staircase. When they reached the top of the stairs they continued through a narrow corridor, before entering a bedroom and walking up to a bed, and I could see a person under the covers. Then the camera started to zoom in, and I almost passed out, because the person in the bed was me. I started hyperventilating and dropped the phone on the floor. I was stunned.

  I picked up the phone from the floor and punched the number with trembling hands. And when I got the usual beep indicating that it had gone to voicemail, I shouted into the phone.

  "I'll get you, you sick mother fucker. Just you wait." Then I hung up, my entire body shaking with rage and fear.

  Later on that day I was able to get in touch with an individual who assured me he could find out who the owner of the phone was. And by this stage, I was willing to do almost anything to get my hands on that information, so paying a few hundred bucks didn't really faze me. I had to get to the bottom of this. And the guy delivered on his promise, because two days later I had the owner's name and address in front of me. Not that I needed the address, because I'd met the owner numerous times before, and I knew where his house was. 

  The phone belonged to Kenny Samuelson, an acquaintance of mine.

  I received the email containing the information while at work, and I desperately wanted to leave and confront him right away, but it would have to wait. On one hand I was happy that my question had finally been answered, but on the other hand I still didn't know how much he knew. The fact that he had been one of Mark's best friends didn't make much sense to me either. Surely, if he knew that it was I who killed his friend, he would go to the cops. Was he going to try to blackmail me? Was that what all this was about?

  As soon as I finished for the day, I went over to his house and waited in the car outside. Half an hour later when he pulled up, I got out and walked over to him.

  "Hey Kenny, you got a minute?" I said, trying to act naturally. His wife and kid were in the car, and I didn't want to alarm them by ripping into him.

  Kenny looked over at me, and he seemed genuinely surprised to see me.

  "Hey Matt, what's up?" 

  He didn't seem shaken or unsettled by my presence, and I remember thinking to myself that someone should give the guy an Oscar.

  "It's kind of private," I said as I gave his wife a quick wave.

  He stared at me for a while, and then he pointed toward the back of the house.

  "Ok, let's go out to the back garden," he said.

  We walked around to the other side, and when we got there, he looked at me with a curious expression.

  "So what was it you wanted to see me about?" he said. 

  I scratched my head and sighed. The confidence that had been there when I first pulled up outside the house was gone. There was something about his reaction that didn't quite add up. He displayed no signs that would suggest he was the person behind the messages. But I had to get to the bottom of it, so I told him that I had received threatening text messages, and that they were coming from a phone registered in his name.

  At first it didn't seem to register, but then something seemed to click and he asked me for the number. Then he told me to wait while he went inside.

  When he came back out a couple of minutes later, he was holding a piece of paper and a couple of pictures in his hand. He gave me the paper, and after giving it a cursory scan I established that it was the contract he'd signed when he bought the phone. I saw that the numbers were identical.

  I looked up at him.

  "So, it is your phone," I said as calmly as I could.

  He let out a sigh and bit into his lip. Then he looked at me for a few seconds before he answered.

  "I bought the phone, but I never used it."

  "What do you mean?" I asked.

  He looked down at the pictures in his hand.

  "Here, take a look at these," he said as he handed them over to me.

  I felt a cold shiver run down my spine when I saw what it was, and I quickly looked up at him again. I must have looked shocked, because he came over and stood next to me.

  "See, there it is," he said as he pointed at the black rectangular shape in the middle of the picture and turned his head toward me. But I didn't return his gaze, I was too stunned to pry my eyes away from the picture.

  The photograph showed a very dead Mark Arroyo lying in an open coffin. His eyes were shut, and he was dressed in a white suit. His arms were crossed over his chest, and next to his head on the white silk pillow was the black iPhone that Kenny had just showed me the paperwork for. 

  "Mark was always recording videos on his phone," Kenny said as I kept staring at the picture. "When they found him in that alley, his phone was gone. Whoever killed him must have taken it."

  Kenny gently eased the photographs out of my hands.

  "We figured it would be a good idea to get him a new one and put it in the coffin before he was laid to rest."

  I looked up at him, and he gave me a sad smile.

  "I know it's kind of odd, but then again what's the harm? People have always put weird stuff inside the coffins of loved ones."

  Then he got a more serious expression on his face. 

  "You know, cell phone numbers that are not in use have an expiration date," he said. "If it's inactive for say a year or so, they simply give it to a new customer. There just aren't enough numbers to go around. That's probably what happened in this case."

  "Yeah, I guess that must be it," I managed to say. Then I just turned around and returned to my car without saying goodbye.

  For the next few hours I just drove around aimlessly, trying to make sense of it all. Kenny's explanation answered some of the questions, but it also created new ones. Who was the new owner of the cell phone number, and how the hell did he or she know who I was, and what I'd done?

  I'm not sure why I did what I did next, but a thought had entered my mind, and I had to see if there was any substance to it. And there was only one way to find out. 

  I drove over to the cemetery. 

  By the time I got there it was already dark, so I grabbed the flashlight from the glove compartment before I started walking over to the grave that I had only visited once before. When I shone the light on the black tombstone, the name Mark Arroyo appeared in big gold lettering, and my heart started racing along.

  I hesitated for a few seconds, telling myself what I was about to do was crazy, but still I had to find out. I fished the phone out of my pocket and laid down on the ground with my ear pressed hard against the grass. Then I dialled the number. 

  And that's when I got the biggest shock of my life, because a few seconds later I could hear the faint ringtone of a cell phone coming from somewhere down below. 

  I started shaking uncontrollably, like I was having a seizure, and I could feel the blood rushing out of my brain. I had never felt fear like this before, and I vaguely remember thinking I was going to pass out there and then. But I remained conscious and I was finally able to get up on my feet. Then I ran as fast as I could back to my car. I was so shook up that I almost crashed into a truck on my way home, but I was able to get there in one piece.

  When I got to the house, I jumped out of the car and ran over to the entrance door. When I got inside I slammed it shut and leaned my back up against it and closed my eyes. My heart was echoing inside my skull and my legs were shaking like leaves.

  And that's when I heard the familiar beeping sound of an incoming text message. 

  I held my breath and lowered my eyes slowly toward the pocket. I didn't want to touch that phone ever again, but I knew I had to. I picked it up with a trembling hand and saw it was the same number. 

  This time the text read;

  "It was nice of you to come and see me today Matt. It gets so lonely here. Next time I'll come to your house.

M."

  There was a video clip attached to the message, and when I pressed play I could see myself running from the car toward the house. 

  It had been recorded less than a minute ago. 

  Then someone knocked on the door, and as I slid down to the floor, I could hear a loud vicious, ugly laughter coming from the other side.