(First published in Mystery Weekly Magazine – Aug 2016)
Retired banker Roger Hammond stares at the letter on the desk before him and feels a shudder run through his aged frame.
A single sheet of white paper, folded neatly in three. It concertinas open, resembling the beginnings of some awful stairway (Whether up or down he can’t decide). Three words, typed: His first name, at the top, and below this, Tell someone.
It arrived on his mat minutes earlier, along with the usual angry demands from the utility companies and the copious drifts of junk mail. His ginger Tom had been sniffing beside it, mewling to be let out. When he’d opened the door the morning’s golden rays had slanted through the gap and alighted on the corner of the generic brown, unaddressed envelope, and he’d immediately known that something was wrong.
Staring at the words, his mind enacts a kind of time travel, whisking him back through the corridors of memory to a night in October, 1984 . . . A hotel room, a mocking giggle, a young woman – a girl really – her face puffy and clown-like with make-up, the bed-sheets pulled back, exposing the stained mattress beneath . . .
He banishes the image. Then, with a flurry of rage, tears the letter into pieces. The scraps flutter like falling blossom. He leaves them where they fall.
He takes supper in the living room, where he can watch TV without interruption.
His three-story maisonette is situated in a fairly affluent area, but the latest round of fools in Westminster recently saw fit to introduce a round of sheltered accommodation schemes for the ‘under-privileged,’ and as a result the property next door – which has stood blissfully uninhabited for over a decade – has now been turned into a kind of halfway house for young families. The past few months have been insufferable, with kids screaming and thumping up and down stairs, couples arguing day and night. At one point he’d even considered moving out, but this place holds too many ghosts of Wendy, and leaving would somehow equate to leaving her too. Thankfully, the living room is where the walls are thickest and he’s plagued only by an occasional thud or two.
He settles the tray containing his chicken and mushroom pie on his lap and flicks on the TV: A game-show is on, a reality show is on, nothing is on . . . His eyes follow disinterestedly, raising his fork now and then and chewing without expression. Gravy dribbles down his chin as his mind travels back to happier times.
Ignoring the dark ones.
As evening begins to close in he goes to the kitchen, scrapes the remainder of his meal into the bin and tosses the plate into the sink, where it clatters among the rest. Then he takes a pouch from the cupboard under the sink and starts spooling unpleasant-smelling slop into the cat’s bowl. After laying the bowl in its appointed place, he opens the front door. The cat is waiting patiently. He’s treated to a few appreciate nuzzles before it pads to the bowl and starts to eat. As Hammond closes the front door he finds his eyes drawn to the mat. He stares for a long time. The words of the letter repeat like a mantra. Tell someone, tell someone . . .
The cat raises its head briefly, “Who sent it, do you think?”
Roger shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
He decides to retire for the evening.
The next morning another letter is waiting.
If you won’t tell, I will.
Hammond throttles the page, hauls the front door wide. The tree-lined street is drenched in sunlight and chatter, people amble to and fro, chatting to each other, but mostly into those little rectangles they seemed to find so amusing. He studies their faces, looking for the perpetrator. No-one looks back, no-one looks particularly guilty either; he closes the door.
Hobbling through to the living room, still clutching the letter, he slumps into his favourite chair. The cat follows. Its tail arches mournfully, sensing his distemper. He looks down. “Who could it be?”
The cat head-butts his ankles. “You tell me.”
“There’s no-one left!” Hammond says, unfolding the crumpled page and reading again.
“True,” the cat replies, licking its paws, “but they can do wonderful things with forensics these days, Roger.”
Hammond stiffens. Of course, DNA! . . . “You think they found something?”
“Perhaps. You can’t delete history.”
The girl flashes before Hammond’s eyes, the way she’d smiled after he’d wound down his window, her round blue eyes so full of innocent allure. Her stockinged legs folding into the passenger seat, the little silver swirls on the tips of her fake nails . . .
“What can I do” he asks aloud.
The cat says nothing; it’s busy licking between its legs, and does not wish to be disturbed.
A new dawn, a new day, another letter:
Today’s your last chance to confess.
Hammond has an idea.
“You think this will work?” the cat inquires.
Hammond makes no reply. He grips the edges of the ladder with one hand, drilling the final screw with the other. Then he steps down and reviews his handiwork.
One of the children from next door – a scruffy looking thing – is playing on the steps outside. The boy (he assumes it’s a boy anyway) says, “What’s that?”
Hammond replies, “None of your business.” Folding the ladder he takes it inside. When he returns minutes later the boy’s still there, squinting up.
“That’s some real old tech, mate. Why don’t you buy one of those kits they sell in supermarkets now? The cameras are about the size of your thumb.”
“Fuck off,” Hammond says, and closes the door.
“Confident, are we?” the cat says in a doubtful tone.
He nods, fiddling with the controls. “It worked last time I used it . . . Now, stop interrupting me, and let – ah! There it is!”
On the screen a grainy black and white image appears, a twisted high angle of his garden path.
“No audio,” the cat says.
“It doesn’t matter,” he whispers. “Now we’ll see.”
He dreams of the girl. It’s been almost twenty years, and he’s filled his life with great wealth, and holidays, and expensive meals, and the companionship of his loving wife Wendy and hardly thought about the girl in all that time. Now she comes to his dreams as clearly as if he only saw her yesterday.
You’re not going to hurt me, are you? the girl says.
He shakes his head. After binding her wrists with scarves he bends to kiss her. She tastes of chewing gum and cheap wine.
We agreed, nothing too kinky. What’s the safety word?. . . Wait, you’re not even . . .
She starts to laugh. She’s looking between his legs.
He stares at her. Then he closes his hands around her neck and watches her colour change . . .
He awakens with a cry. His hands are clasping empty air.
That’s not how it happened, he thinks. But it was close.
Four words this time.
Everyone will know, tomorrow.
Pulling his favourite chair up to the screen, he presses ‘FWD’ on the remote control and watches the time-stamp closely.
The cat jumps onto the arm of the chair and curls up. From the depths of its fur he hears, “You’re going too fast, your eyes aren’t as good as they used to be.”
“Shut up,” he mutters.
As the counter spools through the minutes, the path darkens, streetlights cast their pallid glow, the blurry outline of a dog darts across the frame, the trees lining the street flicker with sped-up wind, as though trembling . . .
At 07:02 AM he sees his front door open a crack and the cat dart out. He stops the tape.
Beside him, the cat stretches. “Told you.”
Hammond shakes his head. “Impossible. No-one came.”
The cat performs the feline equivalent of a shrug and says, “Must be a ghost then.”
A derisory snort. “Don’t be stupid.”
But he can’t.
He’s halfway up the ladder when the kid from next-door appears again: “What you doing now?”
“None of your business. I’m taking it down.”
“Worried your neighbours are burglars, grandpa?”
“I’m worried only by the fact you’re talking with me now, and I do not wish to talk to you.”
“You’re a weird old bloke, aren’t you?”
He slams the door.
Positioning the camera proves difficult this time. He’s forced to mount the edges of the ladder on the bottom rung of the stairs; several times he feels his balance going and imagines himself being used as the poster-boy for those awful bloody Safety-in-the-Home adverts he always sees in the doctor’s surgery. The ones with some old dear sprawled helpless at the foot of the stairs, or lying curled-up on the carpet, inches from a walking stick, their body resembling some giant question mark . . . But eventually he manages to get it secured.
“If at first you don’t succeed,” the cat says. “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts, anyway.”
Hammond ignores it.
When evening arrives he sits before the glowing screen of the laptop (purchased several years earlier, and unused till tonight), and brings up the internet. The default page is the world’s most popular search-engine, so he types: Murder, 1984, Borehamwood, young girl.
His search locates several hits, the first of which is a local newspaper article:
The body of a young prostitute was discovered by residents of a Borehamwood hotel in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Police say the woman had been strangled, and that there were signs of a struggle. They are appealing for witnesses, but so far the murderer has not –
He closes the laptop lid, remaining seated long after its light fades.
The white envelope glares at him from the mat.
“Going to read it or not?”
He shakes his head. The tape first.
The screen hums into life: Grainy image of his hallway, the front door, the mat. He presses ‘FWD.’
“You know you’re mad, right?” The cat says.
He nods, barely hearing. The lines on the screen crackle, the image remains still, though now and again he catches the sketch of the cat, darting like a giant fly from one end of the hallway to the other, up the stairs, back down the stairs . . . Then he sees his own gaunt form emerge from the living room, and climb past in a matter of seconds (as opposed to the reality of minutes), then nothing but the hallway and the count of time rolling on . . .
The cat bumps against his hand. “You shouldn’t have done it, Roger.”
“I know,” he says, beginning to cry. “I know what I did, Wendy, just leave me alone!”
The screen flickers and suddenly he spies movement. A weak cry escapes his lips, and he hits, ‘PLAY.’
A figure has come into frame. Already halfway down the stairs, it is moving slowly, rocking from side to side like a tipsy marionette. There’s something in its hands, a small brown rectangle. Hammond watches as it bends and places the envelope on the mat and – even before it turns and begins to mount the steps once more – he’s sobbing.
“Told you,” the cat says. “Cuckoo.” It sounds disappointed.
Hammond watches his own sleeping form drift beneath the camera, and hits, ‘STOP.’
He buries his face in his palms, his body rocks. Then he stands, goes to the mat and lifts the envelope. To his surprise he sees that the words Copy enclosed are hand-written on the back . . . His handwriting. He tears it open. A note, also written in his familiar, shaky scrawl. He reads through blurry eyes:
Dear Borehamwood Constabulary,
I would like to bring to your attention an incident that occurred on the 26th October, 1984, in a hotel called ‘Grange Arms,’ in Borehamwood.
A young girl – a prostitute called Belinda Witts – was murdered that night, strangled after being picked up for sex by an unknown assailant. Her murderer was never brought to justice, and the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence in May of ‘94.
I would like to inform you that the man responsible for Belinda’s death was a Mr Roger Hammond, of Park View, London. Mr Hammond solicited the girl’s services in exchange for money. He then strangled the girl, before proceeding to take advantage of her corpse.
Mr Hammond is still alive. He lives alone. His wife died in 2007 and he has no other living relatives. He loved his wife dearly.
He wishes to confess and, perhaps in some small way, atone for his crimes.
Hammond looks up at the cat through a haze of tears. In the distance, faint at first, the sound of sirens.
The cat says nothing, but it smiles.