John knew it was illegal, but that didn't hinder the temptation. For weeks it sat there, its unread secrets wanting to escape its crinkled manila prison. No one in the local shop or cafe ever heard of Ellie-Mae MacIntyre, never mind living at this address. That only intensified the handwritten letter's draw. Its cursive script, beautiful, elegantly old school, as if it came from the past. Who even sends letters anymore? So alluring, so tempting, so…
He couldn't take it any more, that damned letter lurked on his console table for long enough.
With a lover's touch he stroked its creased corners, as though the answer to life's mysteries lay within. For all he knew, they did. He squeezed it, many pages, folded and packed with care. Or money. A syrupy smile smeared across his face. I could be rich.
Eyes darting from peeling wallpaper, to the mold seeping in around the door frame, he allowed himself a smile. Everything he ever wanted could be inside that wrongly addressed letter. Everything and anything.
Perhaps it was wealth, he imagined telling his supervisor where to stick his soul destroying shift work. To retire early, such a glorious dream. Enough for a house? Or even a deed to a house. In fact, a shed would be better than this shit hole. Maybe even…the not so distant ding of his microwave salisbury steak forced him back into glum reality.
He snatched the envelope in clammy palms. Everything could change, all he had to do was open it. But change isn't guaranteed to be good. He knew that better than most. All those wonderful possibilities would disappear with one little tear. It's opened, it's confirmed, no more dreaming. Schrödinger's damned first class missive. He looked around once more. Anything would be better than this solitary, dull, loveless, life.
With a cracked and dirt clogged thumb nail he sliced the secrets free. Unfolding, he licked his lips. Photos fluttered to the ground. Heart racing, he stepped back, eyes wide, jaw slack. A girl stared back from glossy six by fours, twisted, broken, gray lifeless eyes staring right through him. His guts twisted, teeth chattering. Forensic indicators marked the splatter and dash along the hallway. A familiar hallway. His hallway. One page rustled in his trembling wrinkled hand, he looked from it to the photos, then began to read. Two words in, he stopped - Hello John…
He checked the envelope again, Ellie-Mae, he wasn't going mad. Was he?
Small hairs tingled the length of his neck. What had he opened? Dropping to the marked linoleum on creaking knees, he swept the horrific photos towards himself. What had he let in? Gathering them he pressed them to his pounding chest before stumbling room to room closing the curtains. Why could he never just be content with his lot, always the dreamer, always the failure.
Closing the kitchen blinds, he laid all across the table in a bad impersonation of some movie detective. The photos were old, but reprinted, the wallpaper and furniture hailed from the eighties, the girl herself…he needed a whiskey. Filling a tumbler he threw it back, yet his hands still trembled. Another then. He lit a cigarette, taking long drags, falling ash dusting his blue threadbare jumper.
Something resembling calm took his hand, directed it to the letter, told him to lift it, to read.
I know you know who I am, just as I knew you would have to look inside, you couldn't resist something bearing my sweet Ellie’s name. You're no innocent John, I couldn't prove it, but that doesn't matter now.
I’ll be free soon, but the only thing I would ever want to return home to, you took from me. You owe me twenty five years, and a daughter. But that’s a debt no man can ever repay.
Strange what being in here can do to a man, people used to call me a gentle giant, wouldn't hurt a fly and such, but for two and a half decades I've gone to sleep every night pondering just the opposite. And boy do you learn some things here that no ones ever going to print in a book.
Point being, I’d prefer not to come back to this forsaken shit pile, so take this as a warning, you in that house when I get out, you're going to answer to me. It's only right after what you did.
See you soon,
John crushed the letter, crumpled the pictures, then rammed the lot into a kitchen drawer. How long had it sat in the hallway? He rubbed his face. Two weeks, three? What did it matter, it was obviously a different John. He paced room to room, smoke trailing and booze splashing his paranoid patrolling. Yes, it's a different John, if someone shows up they'll soon realise. Won’t they?
Every rumble outside, every barking dog, every passing stranger, gave him pause. Damn it, why did he look? Not looking wouldn't stop whoever was coming. Mistaken identity. Coincidence. Ring the police. They will understand. It seemed the logical answer.
Standing before the fireplace, he stared at the gray, scruffy, bastard in the mirror, a little too red eyed for lawful interactions. Regardless, he practiced what he would say.
"...yes, I'm being threatened by a letter from an unknown sender. I know I shouldn't have opened it. Yes officer I knew it was a crime, but my sad little life made that unopened letter the most interesting thing to happen in months. No, of course I didn't murder that little blonde girl, excuse me, why do I have the photos? That's what I'm trying to tell you, they were sent to me. No, they are not keepsakes. Perhaps you should be more worried about why these appear to be crime scene photos, these came from inside the house so to say…."
This was getting him nowhere, head spinning, stomach lurching he gave it up as a bad job. He should never have started drinking. Oh well, you've started now!
The back gate shrieked open, next door's dogs howled. They must know something he didn't.
He switched off the kitchen light before rifling below the sink for an old metal toolbox, mostly rust at this stage. Withdrawing a hammer, chisel, and screwdriver, he sat them on the counter. The venetians crinkled as he peered out. Sighing he cursed his jumpiness, the neighbour was taking out their bins.
Taking the hardware he careened into the front room. Maybe he was being paranoid. Maybe not. Slumping into his busted armchair he lit another cigarette, poured another drink and turned the hammer in hand like a swordsman balancing his saber. The hefty weight and warm liquor gave him new found confidence. Let the bastard come. Who does he think he is, this stranger, threatening me because I have the same name as some murderous shit bag. Let him come, let him…
John bolted upright, breath rapid, shirt clinging to his sweat drenched back. Squinting, he scanned about, the blue gray of early morning streaming between the curtains into the front room. Bang. There it was again, the noise that had woke him.
Wincing, he hobbled towards the hallway. He paused, the front door was swinging open for all the world to see. Closing it, lock clicking impossibly loud for his fragile, thumping, headache he rubbed his eyes. The moment before sleep evaded him. You must have gone outside, maybe those hoodlums came back, or that damned dog needed roaring at.
He downed two glasses of water, filled a third. Foolish was the word stabbing behind his bloodshot eyes, letting a letter get him so worked up. Old age, loneliness, and too much booze, that's what he put it down to. He’d phone the police today and…
The glass shattered on the hallway floor. Hello John, scrolled in black marker across his living room mirror, and the pictures were not in the drawer. No, they were pinned and taped about the message. He peeked into the corners of the room, thankful for once of its minute size. The door, the blasted door.
“Hello?” he called up the gloomy stairwell. No reply. Better or worse, he couldn't say.
Each slow step groaned like a ship at sea. He called again. Still no answer. He reached the landing, three rooms, none of the doors open more than a crack. Anyone could be within. The bathroom, unlikely, the bedroom, perhaps, the spare room, too full of clutter. Bang. He jumped, letting loose a string of curses. Bang again. From downstairs.
Fist clenched, he threw open the front door.
“Hello John, how are you today?” A young woman dressed all in blue held up a white paper bag.
“Your tablets, your prescription," she cocked an eyebrow. "Everything ok John? You're white as a ghost."
Creaking came from upstairs, shifting weight, footsteps. John's wide eyes followed the noise. "Do you hear that?"
A hinge squeaked, his bedroom door, more footsteps. "Hear what John?"
Pulling his overcoat from the rack, he grabbed his wallet from the console table. A shadow trickled across the landing above. John barged through the delivery woman and ran.
“I'm telling you Janet, I know what I saw, and heard, there's someone in my house, someone wants to murder me, for, for—”
“It’s ok John, drink your tea, I believe you, help is on its way.” She smiled from across the plastic tartan tablecloth, head tilted as people do when they pity the elderly. “I’ve asked Bill and Frank to go check it out."
“Thank you, here," John slid the house keys across the table, but Janet shook her head.
"Sure we don't need them John." She nodded to the two hulks in checked shirts at the cafe counter and they disappeared out the door, bell jingling behind them.
John could feel the eyes of everyone in the cafe on him. Probably think I'm a damn fool, old man scared of his own shadow.
He looked up from his third cup of sugary tea to a narrow bespectacled man in a gray three piece. Without invitation the stranger slid into the red leather booth chair.
"Do I know you?" John asked.
"Do you?" He leaned back, laced fingers resting across his stomach.
"Are you…" John gripped the cup a little tighter, ready to weaponise it if the need arose. "Are you the one who sent that letter?"
"No. I'm the one trying to help you find that person."
The cafe door jingled, Frank and Bill lumbered in carrying John's old rusty toolbox.
"Was there anyone there?" John asked. They didn't answer.
Sliding the rusted tool chest onto the counter they turned to the stranger, "Hammer, chisel, and screwdriver, were taken out."
The stranger removed his glasses, as Frank lifted out the tools in question and laid them on the table. "Why those three items John?"
"What the hell is this, who the fuck are –"
Someone squeezed his shoulder, Janet, eyes sympathetic wide, head still tilted in pitiful belittlement, "John, you're ok, Doctor Creed here just wants to help, we all do."
"Doctor? Doctor! I don't need medical help, I need the police, there's a man in my house."
"And yet," Creed began polishing his glasses with a red pocket square. "You didn't ring them did you, why is that?"
"Because…because, I shouldn't have opened that letter."
"So you felt guilty, would that be correct?" The doctor put back on his glasses and plucked something from his inside pocket.
One, two, three, pictures. Blond girls, no older than eleven, smiling and posed as if for a school photo. Each next to a implement. The doctor leaned forward pointing to the first.
"Sarah Whitworth, chisel to the temple," his finger moved to the next, "Louise Caldwell, screwdriver in her neck." The doctor paused and double tapped the last, pushed the picture in front of John. "Recognise her?"
"I don't understand any of this, I didn't do anything. I swear."
"That's the problem John, I believe you. This you. What's her name?"
It wasn't hard to infer, yet John's lip trembled as the words bubbled out, "Ellie-Mae." Soundless tears streamed now his aged cheeks.
"Yes John, yes." The doctor's poise broken, he shuffled forward, excitement tingeing his every word. "Where is she? Where is her body?"
"I don't know, I honestly don't, it was just on the letter, what's all this about? Please?"
"Who is she John, who is she to you?"
"You sure?" Creed pushed the photo closer still.
Those blue eyes, so big, so familiar. He saw them before, his wife's eyes. That flaxen hair, like silk, the smell of lavender and coconut. Her tiny red hand squeezing his finger in the hospital…
His shoulders shuddered, heart and soul cracking, "She's my daughter." He pressed the photo close to his heart.
"Where did you bury her?"
"Me? no, I never, not my little–"
"Yes John, you. Don't you realise your both things at once, the victim and murderer. The other you, the one that's been living with you for twenty five years. The shadow on your conscience, your guilt John. You opened the door for him last night, invited him in. We need to speak to him, John. Help me, help you and all this will be over."
"No, no, no." John jumped up when a meaty hand gripped his shoulder and forced him back down.
"Yes John. John MacIntyre, a.k.a the toolbox killer, Ellie was your first, the only one we've never found. Help us John." Creed gave the slightest nod. "Next time, don't run. Confront the shadow, ask him where your daughter is. Anything for me to take to the Governor, anything to prove this program can work."
John winced at the stabbing pain in his neck. Slumping into the chair he rolled his eyes toward the woman in blue, empty syringe in hand.
The world got warm, fuzzy, inviting. His lids grew heavy, sounds muffled.
"Ok, everyone, let's reset. Janet, a little more psilocybin in his whiskey and Frank get them dogs barking more, fear seems to…"
John woke with a start, head pounding, palms sweaty. He rubbed his temples, he knew he needed to stop drinking so much. A hinge squeaked in the hallway, followed by a soft fluttering.
He stumbled out, there was a bright white envelope on the doormat. Lifting it he admired the beautiful handwriting, who even sent letters anymore? More to the point, who the hell was Ellie-Mae MacIntyre?