A young father receives an ominous note that has mistakenly threatened the wrong family...
The day had been long for William Hayes. As he sat in the crowded tavern, dim in the low-light cast by the few gas-light wall sconces, he wished only to be home with his family.
“Another one sir?” offered the bar-maid as she squeezed between a large group of men clustered around a table and the back of William’s stool. For a moment, William eyed the tray of empty glasses, balanced precariously by one hand, before responding to her query.
“No,” he sighed, rubbing his aching eyes, “one glass is enough for me.” She nodded in acknowledgment, though her attention had already been drawn away by the beckoning of a group of young men, not much older than William himself.
As the bar-maid swept away, William massaged his temple, eyeing the last few swigs his glass offered. A single drink was usually all that was required to separate the stresses of his occupation and the newfound intricacies of domestic bliss, brought about by the arrival of his first child, a daughter, only a few weeks before. Elizabeth, his darling wife, was occupied at all hours by Krysta, and any external pressure was something William sought to avoid bringing home with him. ‘Family life must be kept separate from the woes of the world,’ he thought firmly, washing down his decree with the last of his port. He attempted to push away the thought that slipped in quickly after “woes,” but, as all unwanted thoughts have a capability of persisting, found himself unable to subdue his concerns.
A week earlier an anonymous note had appeared under his door at home. The envelope was unscathed, no address of any sort, and so, questioning its origin, William had opened it and read the inked print inside.
It spoke of some great “cause” and threatened a form of punishment if the information referenced in a previous note was not published by the end of the week. The entire situation was suspiciously vague. William had not received a previous note and the letter did not name him specifically, nor anyone else. The foreboding text had even been crafted by a press, thus rendering it untraceable. Exhausted and short on patience, he assumed the letter simply to be a silly joke entertained by his jumpy nerves, worn thin by sleepless nights and endless days.
Now it was Friday. William’s work was over for the week, and even though the letter had strayed from his mind throughout the four days of relentless labor, it had suddenly cropped up again the moment he had left the gazette - the moment he remembered the deadline. A deadline he had consciously ignored. It was the strange warning of punishment that now occupied his thoughts, and the story, the one the letter demanded be told, the one no inconsequential mystery writer on the gazette’s staff should ever have received...
So immersed was William in his ever-rising whirlpool of worry, that he failed to notice the arrival of two men, the taller of the two swathed in a dark coat, buttoned up to his turnover shirt collar, his suit as foreboding as his pale disposition, and the other, a clean-shaven man in a light tweed Norfolk, which, though clearly well-worn at the cuffs, had been carefully mended in several places. They both slid into stools directly to the right of William’s seat.
Though the men peered warily around them as they commenced with whatever strange exchange they planned to enact - for clearly this meeting was meant for more than just casual conversation over an ale or two - they ignored William sitting beside them, his head now resting in his right hand, his young face lined with exhaustion and turned away from the ensuing meeting.
The bar-maid was beckoned and soon their conversation drifted over into William’s audible range. Though the strangers muttered under their breath for a majority of their exchange, many of their words failed to be adequately concealed from William, whose proximity allowed for easy eavesdropping. Shortly after commencing in their meeting, William was roused from his stupor in both interest and alarm.
“... done. They have been taken care of.” whispered the shorter of the two, who sat in the seat closer to William. The short, tweed-clad man continued. “Though she proved ... difficult at first, I succeeded in the end.” His companion nodded in response, clearly pleased with the report. William deduced that the closer of the strangers had accomplished some task commissioned by the tall man.
“Very good. I, of course, was not lacking in faith that you would succeed, only that the situation would not remain ... under a certain discretion for long. It appears my fears were misplaced.”
“Indeed, sir. My word remains as honorable as ever.” At this, the taller stranger chuckled ominously.
“Honorable. I would not exactly describe our trade as such, but amongst our fellow...how shall I put it eloquently... executioners, your word certainly does hold considerable value within our profession.” They chuckled again, and a barb of alarm worked itself up William’s spine.
‘There is something very wrong, terrifying even, about these men,’ he thought, but quickly brushed his fears aside, judging his paranoia to be a consequence of the tedious day he was struggling to place behind him. His rationality kicked in, and he attempted to place profession to person. ‘Businessmen probably, or even politicians,” was his first assumption, yet he still thought the tavern an odd place for politicians to meet and discuss matters of clear import to at least some part of society.
He caught another chilling phrase from the men. It came from the more distant of the two, the one he assumed to hold superiority over the other. “... and the child?”
At this, William’s heart faltered, images of Krysta flooding his mind. Krysta in her crib, swatting playfully at Trixy, her stuffed elephant, Elizabeth with Krysta held fast in her arms, gently swaying around the brightly lit sunroom, laughter bubbling up as his wife nearly trips over the tasseled Persian rug. His mind lingered on one especially precious moment, a memory of Krysta in his arms, fast asleep as he gazes into her little face, almost glowing in the afternoon sun. His Krysta…
“... asleep.” The stranger to the man’s right nodded again, and William was brought from his reverie, the small smile blossoming from the thought of his family quickly extinguished at the tall stranger’s next words.
“She will be next if the warning is not received …” For a moment, the closer man fell silent, his next phrase hesitant, fearful even.
“Sir … I worry that my next assignment will be ... unforgivable in the eyes of God. Unforgivable in even my own eyes, eyes that have seen death countless times before. Adults are guileless, deceitful, I feel no guilt at their expense, yet true innocence, as that which you would have me extinguish ….”
“It may be …” the other man replied. “But it must be done. Would you rather it be your own life sacrificed?” At this, the shame in questioning his superior was evident by the shorter man’s hasty apology.
“Of course sir, my loyalty is unfaltering to the cause. Whatever you ask shall be executed accordingly.” In acceptance of the shorter man’s admission, the stranger to the far right nodded curtly and quickly drained his glass.
“Very good. Now drink, let us have no more talk of business. What is done is done.” He gestured for two more glasses - one for him and his associate - and their conversation quickly turned to lighter topics.
Their merriment was much in opposition to William’s sudden terror. His hand, which clutched a now empty glass, trembled. In recognition of this alarming fault, he dropped the glass to the bar ledge, where it clunked on the dark wood, and fumbled for coin to pay for the tavern’s service.
The light in the tavern grew darker. Strange shadows, menacing beasts - animal yet terrifyingly human- prowled the walls. William stumbled out to the curb, keeping his face turned away from the two men at the bar as he frantically tried to digest, rationalize, and subdue his fears. His doubt of the letter’s origin festered within his mind.
Somehow he hailed a cab, awkwardly climbing in and falling abruptly against the cushion as the driver flicked his reins, the horses leaping forward, fearful of the sting of the whip.
William struggled to calm himself. He had misheard the men, he had jumped to extreme conclusions, the strange note he had received only a week before was a practical joke, the story, the letter, the imagined threat just some sick misunderstanding...
Streets blurred into one confused maze of obstacles as Williams' heart galloped in time with the horse’s hooves. ‘What was the chance the conversation in the tavern concerned him? Little to none.’ At least that was what he told himself. Yet, when the cab rounded the corner of his street, and he leapt onto the curb, he knew his far fetched suspicions had for once been correct. He needed no key this time, the door was already slightly ajar, and from the scratch marks around the lock it was evident someone had broken in. He raced upstairs, dreading what he would find when he reached the second floor…
* * *
Humming softly to herself, Elizabeth unfolded the strange unmarked envelope her husband had left open on his desk. She read it once, skimming over the printed text, anticipating the usual correspondence; requests for the payment of the household bills, invitations to luncheons, a meeting with Harold Turvey, the Gazette’s head and informal landlord of their small residence. Sometimes mail would accidentally be placed in William and Elizabeth’s box, as Mr. Turvey had sold them his house upon his removal to the newly renovated estate adjacent to his previous small lot, thus a few of his associates lacked the updated address. Sometimes mail would accidentally be placed in William and Elizabeth’s box, as Mr. Turvey had sold them his house upon his removal to the newly renovated estate adjacent to his previous small lot. A few of his associates lacked the updated address, and would often send mail to the wrong house.
As her eyes flicked over the page, preparing to place it on top of the pile of loose papers she was tidying, a few harsh phrases caught her eye. The melodic tune caught in her head evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and she found herself sinking into William’s comfortable leather desk-chair, her countenance awash with sudden, profound concern as she re-read the text once, twice, three times. This note did not belong to her husband, she was sure of it. William would have told her if he was mixed up in some conspiracy - or if he had been threatened …. She paused, considering the possibility that William had sought to protect her from the truth. This truth, however, was completely uncharacteristic of William, who, despite his passion for fictional writing, was a largely practical and level-headed individual. Conspiracies and temperamental societies were not his general correspondents.
Assuming the letter to have been misdirected in the post, yet another accidental address, she resealed the envelope, and strode to the entry hall to set the letter upon the spindly table adjacent to the door. William would take the letter with him to work the oncoming week, and deliver it to its rightful recipient; Mr. Turvey. She sighed as she settled the note upon the fine wood grain of the table, it was not the first, and far from the last time, unwanted correspondence would infiltrate their neat little home.
As the day drew on, she found herself upstairs in the nursery, the strange letter quickly put from her mind by the constant demands of her infant daughter. At one particularly trying interval, Krysta began, as babies often do, communicating with every inch of her being her sudden desire for sustenance; tiny clenched fists, purpled face, squinched eyes, earsplitting wails and all.
It was thus no surprise that Elizabeth failed to decipher the faint scratching and accompanying creak of the hinges and well-worn floorboards as someone pushed through the entrance and stepped inside her residence.
The intruder quietly traversed the first floor and climbed the staircase to the second, noting the high-pitched cries of a child echoing above him. This man, short, clean-shaven, and dressed in tweeds, appeared ordinary, parading as a typical middle-aged man passing down the street. His intentions, however, set him far apart from the crowd of average members of polite society. Death was on his mind, and sentiment was not a priority.
Krysta faltered in her tantrum, wails quieting to whimpers, her hunger momentarily satiated. Elizabeth rocked back and forth with Krysta nestled in her arms, facing the empty hearth and lost in thought. Before she was consciously aware, her instincts arose; shortened breath, the nearly invisible hairs rising along her arms and the back of her neck, alerting her to the presence of something, someone, foreign to the quiet house. Her rocking ceased, attention drawn to the stranger that approached from behind. The safety of her child being her first priority, Elizabeth’s eyes swept to the left-hand corner of the room, where the crib was settled beside the fireplace as resolutely as the decades-old statuette of a lamb atop the fireplace ledge. In this house, family had always been and always would be a constant.
Silently, keeping her back to the stranger, she made her way to the crib, maneuvering around plush toys scattered upon the pastel rug of the nursery. Krysta sighed in contentment as she was gently lowered into her crib and tucked under the soft sheets with a sense of finality. Elizabeth stepped back, noting the stranger had not moved as she placed her child safely inside the crib, though she assumed they watched, analyzed, her every move.
Her heart doubled its beat in her chest, and she slowly turned, at last meeting the gaze of the man that sought her life.
His ordinary appearance first caught her eye, and she was confused, yet either his stance or expression (or the fact that he had broken into her home) compelled her to retain her guard.
They stood, eyeing each other, sizing one another up. Elizabeth was not one to wait for death to find her, and so began to talk.
“What do you want from me?” she began bravely, though in her heart she already knew the answer. The letter’s veiled warning, though misdirected, shook off its opacity. The man did not respond, advancing silently, slowly, as one would approach a frightened deer in a forest. When he spoke, his voice was soft, as though his aim was to appear understanding, a counselor in her moment of pain.
“You have a lovely home,” he said by way of greeting. His statement was said with a strange conviction and his gaze fixed upon her face as he advanced, a terrifying red light pulsing in his eye’s dark depths. With nearly any animal, there was always a line which, when crossed, propelled the creature into their instinctual fight or flight modeThe man always approached his victims in this way, treating them like a frightened animal, counting the distance, the time before an attempted escape. His first mistake was underestimating her courage, for he continued upon his silent path, waiting for her to bolt as the other women, and even some of the men, so often did. Elizabeth held her ground however, refusing cowardice out of sheer moral strength. She would not let this man near her child.
The intruder stepped even closer, about halfway across the room, and was surprised to find her unmoved. One step closer, and her stance remained true to her character, she was stronger than he originally thought. One more step, then another, and suddenly, he was a foot away, close enough to see her chest quickly expanding and contracting, her fear almost palpable.
He spoke again, though his voice had dropped to a murmur, intent rounding out each of his phrases. Even his speech was a statement of confidence in his mission - and confidence in his ability to carry out his mission.
“You think you are unique, that I shall be at your mercy instead of what was originally supposed. For this I am sorry, but your husband received our warning, and yet did not act upon it. We must have our message declared, and your death is the way to a brighter future.”
The cold deliverance of his speech made her shudder internally. His “bright future” was not one she would ever willingly witness.
“No, I stand here not for heroics, but for the single fact that I will not die today. My husband is not the man you intend to threaten with my death. Your organization is mistaken-” He cut her off with his objection.
“I do not believe you. Lies are unbecoming to your character.” Her eyes narrowed.
“You know nothing of my ‘character,’ I demand you leave my home at once, you have wrongly threatened my family, and I would never support a ‘cause’ that requires the death of innocents.” Suddenly enraged at the slander of his ‘cause,’ he caught her by the throat, and dragged her towards him. Her pulse beat rapidly beneath his calloused fingers.
“The Cause is glorious in its mission, you shall not speak of it in such a way. Did innocents not die for the formation of your country as well?” His face purpled with rage, his breath hot on her cheek as he spat out his retort.
Elizabeth, floundering for freedom as her face paled from lack of oxygen, managed to knee him in the groin in her struggle. Luckily, his grip was weakened enough that she was able to kick herself out of his grasp. Wheezing coughs shook her slender frame, and in her disoriented state, an ill-placed step backward sent her falling to the ground after tripping on Trixy, Krysta’s beloved plush toy. She knocked her head against the brick edging around the base of the mantle, and then lay still.
As she slipped unconscious, the world blurring before her, an echoing knock came from the door. Confusion contorted the countenance of the man before her as someone shouted something through the door. Elizabeth did not see the man stumble towards the doorway, surprised and suddenly fearful as he became aware of his mistake. Darkness blacked out her vision, and she fell into an unbidden sleep as her body fought for control over her injury.
* * *
Elizabeth awoke to find her neighbor continuing his shouted plea for her to open the door. It was difficult for her to sit up, especially because the foggy cloud that now shrouded her mind kept calling her back to the dream she has experienced while unconscious. A train ... there had been a train, and William - holding Krysta - had been aboard, hanging out one of the windows as it pulled away from the station. Elizabeth had watched them go as she stood smiling and waving at the edge of the platform, though for some inexplicable reason she knew that they were leaving for good. Once the train rounded the bend, she would never see them again …
But the train had never reached the bend, where a line of trees signaled a vast forest, for she had woken up before then to the shouts of Mr. Turvey. A low roaring now filled her ears, and woozily, she thought “the train ... it’s leaving ….”
The knock finally registered and slightly more alert, she climbed to her feet, her hand finding the spot on the back of her head where she had knocked it against the bricks. There was a little cut, nothing extreme, and yet when she unsteadily focused on the hand that had touched the wound, blood dotted her fingertips. “Oh …” she murmured, struggling to keep her eyes focused on her hand, slow panic pooling within her heart, the molten lead encircling her brain pulling her down once more to the ground. “Oh no, that's not good.” Everything was slowly coming back into focus, but her emotions were slower, unprocessed.
Eventually, as she sat on the pastel carpet, skin clammy, nausea roiling in her stomach, Mr. Turvey appeared at the door. Apparently, he had found the door open as well, as William would only a few hours later ....
“My goodness! Mrs. Hayes, talk to me …” He knelt before her, and reached for the bloodstained hand that pressed against her wound. Somehow, in her woozy state, she had remembered the particulars of how to address an actively bleeding injury, and now attempted to apply pressure to the wound. Mr. Turvey quickly drew her hand away, replacing it with a wadded handkerchief. Elizabeth answered him, now a bit more alert than before.
“There was a man ... and a letter ... he wanted to ... kill me.” Mr. Turvey’s face paled at her words, though Elizabeth, her gaze still focused on the carpet, did not see his reaction.
Mr. Turvey glanced toward the crib, in which all of his own children had been raised.
“Did he harm Krysta?” Elizabeth sighed, and her gaze fell to the floor.
“No, he only wanted me." She paused, closing her eyes before the blow, "And ... the letter ... it was meant for you.”
Mr. Turvey’s eyes widened, for that was the reason he had come to their house that day. He was expecting the letter at either the office or his home, and had been preparing a counter-statement to the demands, threatening to involve the police. He was a powerful man and would not be taken advantage of by some lunatic organization. Only, the letter that outlined the next step of their plans had never arrived, and so he had decided to check at the Hayes household, knowing about the mail mix-ups that often occurred. All at once, Mr. Turvey became extremely grateful he had arrived at all. Death had missed him by a yard (quite literally,) and now he felt the guilt that rose from problems of his own falling upon his innocent neighbors.
Mr. Turvey helped Elizabeth to a chair, and went to check on Krysta who by now, had resumed her fervent crying. Time quickly slipped away as Elizabeth recovered and Mr. Turvey tended the child. Just a few minutes later, he called for the constable to take a statement, and finally the doctor. As the minutes passed, Mr. Turvey became more and more anxious, pacing back and forth and mentally tormenting himself for not involving the police sooner.
Thankfully, it was a swift business, as Mr. Turvey used his influence to quicken the investigation process. In only three hours, the house resumed its quiet atmosphere.
It was then that the door creaked open a final time that day, signaling William's arrival and his rush upstairs to find the nursery empty, Elizabeth nursing a head wound in the bedroom, and Mr. Turvey and his wife (whom he had quickly called over to more readily attend Elizabeth and Krysta) fussing around the second floor.
William rushed to his wife, eyes immediately falling to the bandage around her head and her ashen face. He knelt beside the bed and gently took her hand in his, blue eyes stinging as he pushed away tears.
“My darling, please forgive me. I was not here with you when you needed me.” At this, Elizabeth carefully sat up, and cupped his cheek.
“Will, I could never blame you for the unpredictable, and I had a hand in at least this head injury." Weakly, she gestured at her head. "Though" she began again, "... perhaps it saved me from an even worse fate.” Her eyes took on a faraway look as she measured just how close she had come to death. The thought of the letter brought her back to the present. “And, I must tell you, that letter in your study, it was not meant for your eyes…” she trailed off, and William suddenly understood.
“It wasn’t meant for me,” he thought as he gazed upon his wife, “It wasn’t meant for me ....” And yet he had paid for the fault of his own superior.
Silently, Mr. Turvey watched from the doorway, the concern on his face only a fraction of the guilt he carried in his heart. An idea came to him, and his hand reached for the letter he had discovered on top of a table near the door. As he scanned the page, the words, at first cold and demanding, became the ramblings of a group of foolish men now facing both legal action and social destruction after the atrocities they had committed.
“Publicity, that's all they wanted,” he realized, “Just attention for their terrible 'cause.' Well, I’ll give them publicity, teach them that when they interfere in the workings of the public eye, the truth will always be revealed. I do own a newspaper after all ….” Mr. Turvey chuckled dryly and began to formulate the title of the leading article for tomorrow. Taking his leave, he checked one last time on his neighbors, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed to the office. It was going to be a long night ...