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Crime Mystery Suspense

“Hi, Dalia, it’s Craig again. How’s the leaking faucet? I called HOA three times yesterday and they refuse--” 

Delete

“Hey Dalia. Not sure if you noticed, but some beige Mercedes has been taking everybody’s parking spots and the HOA continues to sit on their asses sipping their White Claws watching reels of that new country pop singer--what’s her name?--dating that one football player--what’s his name? instead of--”

Delete.

“Morning, Dalia. Did you see that letter in the mail yesterday? Someone’s been leaving a sock in the lobby door to prop it open for literally anyone to enter our building. What kind of building security is this? I’m--”

Delete.

“We’re in a pickle, Dalia. The cameras in this building are as ancient as I am, meaning they don’t capture the way they used to. When I called the HOA about replacing them, it’s not in their budget. What kind of--”

Delete.

“Dalia, I’m telling you. Something’s gotta be done. Please call the HOA or building security with me; no one ever listens to the senile old guy who lives alone with his cats, but--”

Delete.

“Please call me back. I’m afraid we have a bigger problem. Listen to me very closely, Dalia, and don’t repeat this information. Just the other day when I took out the trash, I--”

Delete.

“Wait!” I straightened in my chair and threw a hand up. Hot coffee slushed over my glass cup and onto my other hand; to my dismay, my white pants. I ignored the sting and said, “He was gonna say something important.”

“When does Craig ever say anything important? All the man does is complain about this whole apartment complex, from how wet the water is to how electric the lights are. If you weren’t only a fourth of his age, I’d think he’s tryna smash.” Gabe scrolled through the rest of my voicemail once more, double-checking the caller ID list, before crossing the living room and passing my phone back to me. “Guy’s a lunatic.”

I sighed and studied the crack on my phone screen. At the top, it displayed 10:26am. The same time Craig called me last night; the same time I angrily tossed my phone onto my side table to silence that deafening, middle-of-the-night shriek before the phone slid like a hockey puck and hit the floor with a loud crack! Gabe awoke instantly and didn’t believe me when I explained it was our hallway neighbor for the twelfth day in a row.

“Well, Babe. I blocked his number,” Gabe reassured, grabbing his black jacket from the entryway closet. He shrugged it on and pulled a black beanie over his thick, dark hair. “If we see him in the halls, we’ll just say your phone’s broken and can’t receive calls.”

“What if he starts knocking on the door?”

“We’ll deal with it then. I know I work a lot, but you can always tell him to call me instead. He has both our numbers; he just thinks you’re nicer.” Gabe kissed me goodbye and hurried off for work; exactly where I needed to be in a few hours.

As annoyed as I felt, I couldn’t shake the uneasiness in my stomach. 

Why did Craig always have to call after hours? Why had his paranoia escalated so profoundly these last few weeks? He truly was a nice man; his adult grandkids stopped by to visit him occasionally, and the first week we moved in, he brought me some fresh cilantro he grew on his very own balcony. All of his concerns revolved solely around keeping our apartment clean and friendly, and that’s what he mostly called to complain about since our building did such a terrible job.

But why did it feel different this time?

I finished my coffee and got ready for work.

Throughout my day at the Cafe, I allowed these questions to evade between helping customers and wiping tables. Occasionally, I’d check my phone in case somehow Craig wasn’t blocked, but the absence of his name left a slight pang in my heart. Was I being too harsh? I always took his calls…I just couldn’t take them anymore. 

By the time my shift ended, my phone was buzzing in my back pocket again. Before I could unlock my car, I had the phone at my ear. “Hey, Craig.”

“You heard?”

The high-pitched voice definitely didn’t belong to Craig. “Oh, hey Anna.” I ducked into my car and shut the door. “What’s up?”

Anna lived beneath my apartment; we met one day when Gabe and I played our music too loud that Anna came knocking on our door with a bottle of Tequila in her hands shouting, ‘Can I crash this party?’ 

“Craig’s dead.”

I stopped mid-gearswitch. “Huh?”

“Craig. They found his body this morning.”

“What? Where?” Something twisted in my stomach. 

“In his apartment. I think his crippled legs finally gave out; his grandson found him lying in the kitchen with a gash in his head and the cats sleeping on him.”

I touched my throat and tried swallowing the lump forming there. How was he dead? When did he die? The last thing he said was…

“Craig had severe paranoia; one time he called security on me for falling asleep in the lobby when I blacked out one night. As sad as it is, I think everyone here will finally be able to breathe without a Karen micromanaging the halls.”

She had a point. But still…

I couldn’t help but imagine his poor, brittle body shrinking into the oversized black robe he always wore anytime he’d leave his apartment; his weak smile and friendly wave anytime he passed me with his cup of tea. Occasionally, his black cats followed him out, loyal as any dog, as he walked up and down the halls to admire the paintings of mountains and gorges spaced evenly on the walls.

I hoped he didn’t feel any pain.

We finished the phone call on a lighter note and made plans for her to drink with Gabe and I tonight. 

Gabe came home shortly after I did, and though I didn’t want to, we both mentioned Craig at the same time. Did you hear about Craig? We sat in silence, both likely thinking the same thing: what would have happened had we answered his calls? What about that last voicemail? Had he imagined something? Did that lead to his tragic fall?

Gabe suggested I unblock Craig so it wouldn’t appear suspicious in case anyone asked questions, so I did. As far as recovering voicemails…it was too late for that. All we could do was hope his grandkids didn’t come to us looking for mementos of Craig we might’ve accumulated in the four months we’d known him.

Anna came over that night and we drank, played cards, and blasted music a little louder than usual. It only quieted down when Anna said, “Poor Craig.”

The room thickened with tension.

Gabe nodded solemnly and looked at his feet.

Anna cleared her throat. “Did either of you talk to him recently?”

Gabe leaned over and grabbed a card from the center deck on the coffee table, a toothpick dangling from his mouth. His hazel eyes met mine. “He kept calling Dalia. Left tons of voicemails for her.”

Anna, sitting adjacent to me on the sectional, craned her neck to study me.

“They were all complaints,” I said, tossing an Uno card onto the pile. “But that last one…he was gonna mention something. He started by saying…we had a bigger problem? He warned me to not repeat it to anyone…and mentioned something about taking out the trash…”

“What the fuck,” Anna said.

“It was weird…” My stomach churched as I remembered my phone in my back pocket. “He kept complaining about building safety…he mentioned a new car parking over here recently? What could be bigger than people not following standard building safety protocol?”

“Literally anything,” Craig said. “You don’t think it was an accident?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just wish we hadn’t deleted that last message.”

Over the next week, the building felt quieter; somber, even. It’s never a good feeling knowing someone in your building--let alone, right across the hall from you--passed on.

Eventually it did return to normal. Craig and I continued going to work, Anna stopped by a few times, occasionally bringing a friend, and the HOA continued sipping their White Claws and pretending nothing bad ever happened in our building. 

I never saw the beige Mercedes Craig mentioned; every other car had a parking permit.

No one left any socks in the lobby door; everyone still used their keycards.

Maybe Craig really was senile.

At one point, I ran into Craig’s granddaughter just as she was emerging from his apartment.

When she made eye contact with me, her blue eyes carried sadness and fatigue, though she mustered a small smile. She held a box of personal belongings. “Hey.”

“Hi.”

“Dalia, right?”

I nodded. I’d just been scanning my keycard outside my door after a stressful day of work.

“You have any pets by chance?”

Pets? “No,” I said.

“Are you allergic to cats?”

“No,” I said again.

“Would you, by chance, want Craig’s cats? My brothers and I already have too many pets and our parents don’t want them. This box--and the cats--are the last things to clear out."

“Oh.” My heart ached for her, and now it ached for those poor fur babies. We had enough strays roaming the streets around here, and his cats didn’t seem like high maintenance. “I can talk to my boyfriend.”

“Okay, here’s my number. Just let me know. I’ll give you his keycard.”

I thanked her, offered her a hug, and we said our goodbyes.

Later that night, Gabe and I discussed taking the cats, and after only a few seconds of hesitation, he agreed. It was the least we could do for the old man. 

I texted Craig’s granddaughter later that night, and she said she’d leave the keycard under my door at some point during the week.

Who would’ve thought, though, that Craig’s death wasn’t the worst news we’d receive that month? Who would’ve thought that Craig’s death finally prompted the HOA to listen to his calls?

It started with the letter. Everyone got it. The HOA added it to an email that went out to all residents in our building. Anna saw it first, then Gabe and I. We reread it over and over again, until our stomachs twisted with guilt and chills crawled down our spines.

‘Evening, Residents. On behalf of some reports we received by one of our late residents, it is with deep regret we inform you of a breach in our building. Last week, maintenance discovered trash, needles, and various undisclosed items in Apartment 362, and upon further police investigation, learned of an unknown occupant living in the building. Said occupant has since run, and police are handling the situation. Please continue to close lobby doors and report any unknown people or vehicles on behalf of resident safety. Thank you.’

Unknown vehicles.

Unknown occupant.

Craig was right. Something was off. He knew it. He saw it. And then…he died.

Could it have been connected?

It was a drug addict, Anna suggested.

He was a criminal, I added.

Maybe he was homeless? Gabe offered.

None of us had the answers. But I still remembered that last voicemail: Just the other day when I was taking out the trash, I--

Did Craig have a bad encounter with him?

Did the man notice Craig? 

Why didn’t he want me to tell anyone? He reported it to the HOA, so he didn’t have any problem with someone knowing, unless…

Was there something else? Was there additional information only I needed to know?

I couldn’t stop the stream of questions from cutting into my sleep, haunting me in my dreams, creating new realities imagined each time I parked in the lot, or scanned my keycard, or climbed the stairs to our floor. They became relentless, harrowing, insistent, even, as if there was something I could have done differently on my part and I couldn’t rest until I pieced it together.

At one point, I found myself taking an extra flight up the stairs to stand outside apartment 361, but it was barricaded with yellow caution tape and a warning about fines and jail time if tampered with.

“It’s just weird,” I said one night as Gabe and I ate Chinese food at the table. “Craig leaves a string of voicemails, warns us about something, turns out he’s right, and he’s dead?”

Gabe scrolled through his phone and popped a piece of sesame chicken in his mouth. “Don’t let his paranoia get to you, Babe. It’s just the guilt of not answering him. What could you have done?”

“I don’t know. Called the HOA with him? Knocked on his door right after that last voicemail?”

“Well, if you bring it up now, the voicemails are gone. I’m sure they could recover them somehow, but why stir up something and stress out his family more? They didn’t find anything strange. Let the man rest in peace and let his family grieve him peacefully.”

He had a point. I was scaring myself. Guilt gnawed at my bones. At least in the future, I wouldn’t ignore any calls…even if they were excessive.

The next morning, I finally mustered the courage to pick up Craig’s cats. His granddaughter had left the keycard earlier in the week, I just couldn’t bring myself to enter his apartment yet. As far as I knew, the cats had one of those self dispensing feeders, so I chose to rely on it for as long as I could. 

Now? The least I could do--the only thing I could do--was take care of Craig’s cats. 

It was Friday. Gabe worked, but I called out so I could get the cats and set everything up for them in our apartment. I scanned his keycard at the door, heard a click, and pushed my way inside. 

Cold air hit me. All that remained was a blue cat tower and the cat dishes by the sliding balcony door. I shut the door behind me and crossed my arms. 

Silence. I was certain my voice would echo if I spoke. 

One of the black cats peeked its head out of the tower. Uncertainty flooded his bright yellow eyes, and he studied me curiously.

“Hey, baby.” I crouched down and held out my hand. “It’s okay. Come here.”

The cat still didn’t move. It wasn’t until I walked towards the cat bowl that he ran up to me and rubbed himself against my ankles.

Once again, I crouched down and petted him. He started purring. My heart broke. These babies had no idea what happened to their owner.

Except…that’s when I noticed it.

On his collar was a tiny square no bigger than a house key. I knew what it was because I’d seen it before: a cat cam. Some cat owners put one on their cats in case they ever got out. It made perfect sense Craig had one.

But wait. Had they been working that night?

I had the whole day, so I took my time: I played with the cats, gained their trust, and once I had the chance, put them in Craig’s cat backpack and transferred all the cat things, one by one, to mine and Gabe’s apartment.

The cats hid the moment I brought them inside, but I managed to take one of their collars off beforehand. How did these even work?

I pulled out my laptop and searched up how to download files--if there even were any--and spent the next hour trying to figure it out. 

Finally, after downloading the compatible app to my laptop and calling the company to give me a temporary password to log in (explaining the situation), I was able to access the files.

Several files over the last few weeks popped up. Instead of skipping or deleting any, I clicked on every. Single. One. Most of them merely contained the cats staring out the window or running around the house, or occasionally following Craig’s granddaughter around, until I caught one dating back to That Day.

It wasn’t the day Craig went to the trash. It was the day we deleted the voicemails. My heart stopped. My stomach sank. I only stopped because someone familiar caught my eye.

In that frame…was Gabe.

I clicked, ‘play.’

Someone knocked on the door. 

The cats stood back, watching.

Craig hobbled to the door.

Gabe: Hey! How’s it going?

Craig: Hi…

Gabe: Look, about what you saw by the trash the other night…it’s not as bad as you think. My friend Jackson just needs time to get back on his feet. No one’s lived in that apartment since we moved in, so I’m only helping him till then. He’s a good guy in a bad situation. We won’t throw needles away there again. Just don’t call the cops on him, okay?

Craig: He can’t live here, rent free.

Gabe: I’ll pay it back.

Craig: It’s unsafe. We don’t know anything about him.

Gabe: I do. I promise, it’s fine.

Craig: Does Dalia know?

Gabe: No. Let’s keep it that way.

Craig: I left her a voicemail. She’s gonna hear it sooner or later.

Gabe: It’s gone now.

Craig: Well, let’s call her right now! You’re one filthy--

Craig hobbled to the phone. The cat followed. In the frame, only two pairs of feet showed: Craig’s fuzzy black slippers, Gabe’s black work boots. There was a crash, a thud! And then…Craig was on the floor.

From there, the cats crawled on top of him, purring, and the door slammed shut.

I looked up from my screen. Suddenly, I felt like puking. 

He knew. This whole time…he knew.

Why couldn’t I just answer the phone?

February 24, 2024 03:58

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5 comments

S.d. Schwarz
16:48 Feb 27, 2024

Author's Note: I was rushing to finish this and didn't have time to edit; sorry for all the typos... lol.

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Tamarin Butcher
16:47 Feb 29, 2024

Ooh, what a twist! I enjoyed this very much. I thought it was gonna be Anna who knew something, but it was Gabe! Poor guy...

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S.d. Schwarz
17:14 Feb 29, 2024

Thank you so much for reading :) I appreciate your feedback!

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21:37 Feb 28, 2024

I didn't even notice the typos because the story is amazing I love the little twist at the end. I wonder how Gabe could pretend like nothing happened. I would never be able to lie like that!

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S.d. Schwarz
17:15 Feb 29, 2024

Aw thank you:) I was hoping the main plot would still get across despite the typos lol. Thank you so much for reading! <3

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