The door was locked. Katelina knocked and rattled the knob, but the only answer was silence. This was just like him. Their relationship might not be committed, but it should involve basic respect.
She moved the grocery bag to her other arm and struggled the key out of her purse and into the lock. The door clicked and, with a gentle push, swung inwards.
The small apartment was dark except for the bright swath of light let in by the opened door. It was like a glowing path that beckoned her forward; a yellow brick road bound for hell.
She followed it.
The light switch felt lose as she clicked it. Part of her was screaming, “Don’t turn around! Just walk away!” but she didn’t listen to it. She couldn’t. The past couldn’t be changed by shouting at it.
She turned around and a strangled cry escaped her lips. He lay on the floor in a heap. A puddle of congealing gore, so dark it looked black, spread out around him and made the carpet fibers stiff. The flesh of his throat was torn away. Muscles were stripped to reveal the gleam of his spine shining through the gelatinous, clotted blood.
Her knees gave in and she fell to the floor. Oh God, she needed to call someone – the police, an ambulance, but she couldn’t even stand-
The voice tore through her thoughts and brought her back to the newspaper office. She sat on a stool in the break area, her elbows planted on the counter top. A forgotten mug of coffee steamed next to her, untouched.
She swung her eyes to see Sarah standing next to her. Her friend was the picture of independent feminism; soft brown curls framed her face and her khaki dress clung in just the right places. Though she usually wore a smile, her eyes made it clear that nonsense was not acceptable; she had things to do, places to go and people to see. At the moment, though, those eyes reflected uncertainty.
“Are you all right?”
Katelina shook her head to chase away the tattered remnants of a nightmare become reality. “Yeah,” she answered flatly. “I’m great.”
“You don’t look great.” Sarah’s lips clamped together as she scrutinized her. Though Katelina’s blonde hair fell down her back in a tight ponytail, and long bangs carefully framed her pale face, her blue eyes were rimmed with lack of sleep and a month’s worth of depression. She’d tried to look “okay”, but it wasn’t enough.
“Are you thinking about Patrick again?” Sarah asked softly.
Katelina waved her hand as if she could make Sarah’s concerns drift away like smoke. “No. I’m fine. What did you need?”
“You have a phone call.” Sarah sighed and then added softly, “If you decide you want to talk about it…”
“I’m fine, I told you. So who’s on the phone?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah turned teasing. “It’s a man. He asked for you by name, said it was personal.”
“Personal? I bet it’s just the police again.” In the last month they’d called more times than she could count. Always the same questions and the same answers. “No, I don’t know who might have wanted to kill Patrick. No, I don’t know who he was last with. No, I wasn’t really his girlfriend; we just had an arrangement…”
She wound her way through the office, her shoulders slumped, and cautiously approached the secretary’s desk.
“I have a call?” It was more a question than a statement.
The secretary glanced up, her eyes narrowed and her tone acidic. “Make it fast. You know the rule about personal calls.”
“Of course.” Katelina wanted to say that there was no need to be so impatient. She hadn’t asked for any of this. But she kept the thoughts to herself and pressed the receiver to her ear. “Hello?”
The voice was deep, warm and, despite the fact that very few people had her work number, unfamiliar. “This is she. Who is this?”
“I know who killed your lover.”
She blinked and lifted a hand to her throat. A flash of Patrick’s mutilated form appeared behind her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“I know who killed your lover. Meet me tonight just as the suns sets. I’ll be at a house on Farm Mill road; it’s the only house, the road is a dead end. Come alone.”
The phone clicked loudly and she called, “Wait – I . . .” but there was no point. Her only answer was the quiet buzz of disconnected line. She clutched the receiver to her ear, as if it would bring the stranger back.
Sarah appeared in front of her. “Who was it?” At Katelina’s expression, the smile died on her lips. “What?”
“I – I don’t know,” Katelina whispered. Her shock was replaced by sharp anger. “Some kind of joke.” She slammed the receiver into its cradle and ignored the dirty look from the secretary. “I need to go home.”
“We only have an hour left.” Sarah softened in sympathy. “I’ll take you.”
“No thanks. I didn’t feel like walking, so I brought my car today.”
“At least tell me what it was about.” Sarah followed her to retrieve her purse and then to the time clock. “Who was it?”
“I don’t know who it was. They said they knew who killed Patrick.”
Sarah’s green eyes went wide and her voice came out low and strangled. “They know who did it? Who?”
“They didn’t say. They want to meet tonight.” She stuck her badge in her pocket and stopped to run distracted fingers through her bangs. “I’m sure it’s a joke.”
“A cruel one.” Sarah’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not going? That’s how people get killed!”
“To meet some stranger by myself? Are you kidding? Give me some credit!”
Katelina headed for the door and Sarah followed her out and down the sidewalk to the parking lot. Katelina stopped to dig through her purse, searching for the familiar pack of cigarettes, when her friend gently reminded her, “You quit.”
“Oh, right.” She managed a sick smile and resigned herself.
“I’m proud of you, you know. For not smoking. Even with all of this.”
Katelina nodded, but didn’t tell her how bad the cravings were. It wasn’t the nicotine she wanted, just something to hold on to – something to make the world normal again.
The pair made their way to Katelina’s red car. It waited for her under the late autumn sun, dead leaves sticking out from beneath the wipers. Katelina plucked at them absently before she unlocked the door and climbed into the driver’s seat. She gripped the steering wheel as if she could strangle it.
Sarah stood stubbornly next to the car like a guarding sentinel, worry on her face, until Katelina said, “I’m not going to meet ‘him’, so you don’t need to worry. And I’m not buying a pack of cigarettes either, though I wouldn’t rule out a bottle of brandy.”
“Alcohol won’t help,” her friend said sagely, eyes still locked on her. “Maybe you should see someone. My therapist . . .”
Katelina cut her off, tired of the never ending suggestion. “I don’t need to see anyone. I’m fine.” She shook her head and stuck the key in the ignition. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll stop by after dinner. Unless you want me to cancel with Brad?”
“No, you’ve already moved this date twice. You two go and have a nice time. He may never get another night off.” She forced a tight smile. Sarah deserved an evening out with the sexy bartender. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Sarah mumbled an appropriate goodbye while Katelina started the car and backed out of the parking lot. She glanced back in her rearview to see her friend standing next to the empty parking stall alone. The breeze played with her soft brown hair and whipped the khaki dress around her knees. An eerie feeling crept over Katelina, but she shook it off and turned the radio on. She let the blaring music drown out her thoughts and memories.
Whoever made that phone call deserved to be tortured to death.
She welcomed the comforting familiarity of her apartment above the book store. After double locking the front door, she dropped onto the couch and stared past the pink curtains. The view from her windows wasn’t spectacular, but it was comforting. Situated on what was once Main Street, the building across from her was a dance studio downstairs and an apartment with tightly drawn curtains upstairs. Until recently it had been empty, but someone had moved in a few months ago. During the sleepless nights since Patrick’s murder, she’d taken comfort in the glow of the windows. It reminded her that, despite her nightmares, she wasn’t really alone in the world.
She turned back to her own small apartment looked over the living room as if she’d never seen it before. Two book cases dominated the furnishings while her couch and chair sat pressed against the wall, both splattered with creamy colored flowers. A coffee table was stacked with various items including books, knickknacks, a bottle of nail polish and a disused ashtray that had been a gift.
She scooped up the delicate glass piece and balanced its weight in her palm. With a smile, she thought how impossible it would be to wash ashes from the cut glass pattern. It had been something trivial and odd, a strange present from a strange person.
Closing her eyes, she pictured Patrick and just as quickly she pushed that image away. He’d been so delighted when he’d presented her with the stupid ashtray, proud that it matched the candy dish that sat on top of her television. He’d grinned, his breath scented sweet with alcohol, while his deep blue eyes laughed at some private joke.
Patrick, with his blonde hair, easy smile, and dark moods...
Six weeks ago she’d found him in his apartment, the doors and windows locked, his throat torn out in a mess of gleaming gore. At first she’d thought a wild animal had gotten him, but an animal would leave behind hair or saliva and the police didn’t find any. Neither had they discovered any fingerprints or footprints out of the ordinary; not even a stray hair or a flake of skin. Because of that, she’d been grilled relentlessly. They’d called her home, her job, even her mother, always wanting to know if her boyfriend had told her anything that might be some kind of clue.
A strange smile flitted across her face. Boyfriend. Lover. Everyone had a label for him – except her. In the year she’d known him they’d slept together off and on, called one another now and again, and went out sometimes. When they’d exchanged Christmas presents, her mother had gotten excited and started calling him her boyfriend too, no matter how many times Katelina had denied it. Patrick was a lot of things: he was sweet, charming, special, moody, and temperamental; most of all, deep down, he was as fragile as spun glass. But he was not her boyfriend.
However, there was no denying that she had feelings for him. She’d been very careful never to scratch their surface to find out how deep they really ran. She preferred to think they were shallow but, sometimes, late at night, she wondered if that was true.
She dropped the ashtray to the table and sagged as the deep warm voice replayed in her mind, “I know who killed your lover.” It sounded like some cruel trick designed to embarrass her or worse lure her, alone, to the middle of nowhere. Maybe so the murderer could kill her, too?
She grabbed the bottle of blue nail polish and repeated the ritual of touching up her chipped nails. The sharp smell brought her back to the present and shoved away unhappy thoughts and feelings. It left room for nothing but here and now - and right now she’d left work an hour early. They’d dock her pay for it, and tomorrow she’d have to face the wrath of Mr. Fordrent. More fun.
When the polish was dry she turned on her phone – “turn it off when you come in the door” was Fordrent’s policy. The screen blinked notifications; voice mail. She started to check it, but the minute her mother’s voice greeted her ears she hung up. She didn’t need another lecture. “When are you going to find a nice man? When are you going to settle down? When are you going to get married?” Marriage was the last thing Katelina was interested in at the moment, or so she told herself. She had plenty of time left.
She padded towards the kitchen and realized that the call might be about Grave Day, as she called it. Every year, on the anniversary of her Father’s death, she and her mother took flowers to her father’s tombstone, despite the fact that he’d died when Katelina was a toddler. It was a day filled with her mother’s memories and tears. Good times.
Katelina stared blankly into the refrigerator. Half empty drink cartons and condiment jars dotted the back of the shelves. She needed to go shopping, but she’d been so busy she hadn’t had a chance to think about the mundane parts of life.
Her stomach rumbled and she checked the cupboards. They were equally bare. With a final resigned sigh, she ducked into the bedroom, changed into jeans and a dark blue sweater, then grabbed her keys and headed out the door. She told herself that she’d make a quick trip to the store for something to eat, then come back and spend a relaxing evening at home; just her and her television, lost together in mindless entertainment.
As she locked the door behind her, a strange sense of foreboding swept over her, as though a dark cloud had crossed the sun and left her in shadow. She looked back at her apartment door; at the tiny gold numbers and the little wooden name plaque Sarah had made for her. She laughed at herself and her melodramatic mood.
“Don’t worry,” she assured the empty hallway. “I’ll be right back.”