An unfortunate tale of an old haunting.
First contact came from Scarborough. Like other men who had fame, Alex Blake wasn't alien to receiving communication from strangers. Most times, he wouldn't even give emails he received from people he didn't know a second glance. Odd thing was, he had created a new account for the sole purpose of filtering out this sort of unwelcome contact. Odd thing was, the preview line of the email intrigued Alex but he was going to delete it anyway. He points his mouse to the line and as he is doing so, drops a pen that he was holding in his other hand. As he bends over to pick it up, Alex nicks the cut on his index finger that he had opened days earlier while slicing an apple. He salves the wound with a plaster from his medicine cabinet. When he returns to his computer, the email was open.
I know you like Scarborough so I took this photograph. I know you're interested in this part of the midlands and that's one of the reasons why I'm interested in you. I thoroughly enjoyed your new book, but do you really like people or are you just one of those tortured misanthropes who make new email accounts as soon as they've a bit of local celebrity then drop those who have got them where they are today? I'll find out your dedication soon enough.
Your devoted admirer,
When Alex was starting out as an amateur writer, he responded to all correspondence to do with his work. Now that he was a paid novelist, any responses he gave took time away from his writing, and he simply didn't have the time, what with the demands of his publishers and their impossibly arbitrary deadlines.
There was a picture attached in the body of the message. The scanned in photograph of Scarborough was uninteresting, it was blurry and the colours were gaudy, as was typical of this type of toy camera. The photographer's bandaged finger obstructed a large corner of the photo.
As for the gnawing criticism, is he really a tortured misanthrope? Sure he likes his own company but who doesn't? He is all of a sudden acutely aware that perhaps he had revealed too much of himself in his writing. What is writing but a projection of the psyche of the author? He thought quietly. Don't stories sometimes take on lives of their own? Had Alex Blake revealed too much of himself?
As he shuts the computer, he resolves to be more careful to hide himself. A week to the day that he received the first message, the sequel to his first book hits several bestseller lists. It is also the day he received the second email. He thought it uncanny to even get another one at all since he was sure he had blocked the sender from sending him anymore mail. Perhaps it was his fascination for the unusual that compelled Alex to read further.
"You're interested in Spires aren't you? How do you like Norwich cathedral? I like it because Norwich is on the edge, just like you, isn't that right Mr. Bestseller? I admire that, but I admire the characters in your stories more, it's a testament to their hardiness what with all the shit you burden them with it really tests what they're made of. I love that!
Te quiero ami amigo
It was true that Alex was interested in Spires and Cathedrals. As a child, he sat for hours in the winter gazing at the high vaults below the structure of the Cathedral's skeleton, warmly illuminated by the stained glass windows. He sometimes fell asleep there until the coloured light dimmed at night time and he was left alone in the dark, deep aorta of the cloister.
He began to wonder about the sender. He speculated that this must be a woman, no man in his right mind, if he knew what was good for him would even think to send the great and talented Alex Blake this kind of message, so biting and backhanded in its criticism, he thought. Furthermore it had the scent of a woman all over it. All at once flattering, self conscious yet making him feel unsure of himself. For a moment he entertains the idea of replying to this person; to make it clear that the message hadn't affected him. He thought better not to play into the sender's hands, besides he wasn't the type to experiment.
Then he notices it, could it be a coincidence? Maybe but, he's suddenly unsure of himself again. A.B., Alex Blake. No that's ridiculous, there's no chance he could have written these messages to himself could there? But then again people did things like this, he thought, get so worked up and tense that to comfort their own minds they begin to create fantasies that spill over into the real world.
He decided he would show the emails to a friend and get a second opinion on the matter, that would put his mind at ease. Alex and his friend share a laugh after reading the emails together. It all seemed so absurd now.
"Mate, there's nothing to worry about. It's pretty obvious. I'm sure it's an obsessed fan who's in love with you and wants you to be interested in her. Ignore it and I'm quite sure this'll all go away. Now that you're famous you've got to take things like this on the chin!" They laugh. "But I understand that you're creeped out, I would be, this girl's obviously a fucking lunatic, and if she senses that she's gotten to you, she'll keep on."
Alex felt momentarily reassured. In the back of his mind, however. If he had sent the emails to himself, he must be the lunatic.
He was becoming aware that the whole business was consuming him, new thoughts and feelings stirred in him, all of them uncomfortable. He had a sense of what was to come. When it came however, it took him by surprise, it came in the same way the others had, he was at his computer at 00:00 according to his watch. The silence hummed like a kettle.
"I'm almost there, I am coming nearer, I'm at Oxford now, the Cathedral is lovely. It truly is the city of dreaming Spires. I hope I've inspired you. That's all you want isn't it? A muse. Well here I am, I've been reading your work, living in them, some will say.
Te quiero, always
Panic stroked Alex Blake. It dawned on him that every new message came from a location geographically closer to him than the last. I am almost there. With the new email came a new picture. Scrawled across a handheld whiteboard in jagged letters is the word HELLO. Behind the whiteboard, a mask of bandages and no face. Nutter, Alex thought. This wasn't happening. He picked up the phone and dialled the police. They were much better suited to dealing with these matters.
They said that the emails were likely to be a hoax and that he had no cause to worry since A.B. would never show up in the flesh. Like Alex, they too believed the sender was a woman. They continued to ask questions that seemed to Alex, scripted. Like they were going through the motions, they had done this before. He felt relieved. They told Alex not to worry but if he was still worried, to call them as soon as possible and they would send someone to look after him. Comforted, Alex sat down at his desk to write.
As he looked up to follow with his eyes, the police car leaving his drive, he noticed one of the novellas he had written that had failed to be published many years ago. To this story he poured every malediction and hate into his antagonist. He had created a being of absolute evil and darkness. A hollow soul with an unnatural and unwavering vindictiveness, he had worked himself up with the idea of this dark, creeping creature that he had almost frightened himself with it, once upon a time.
It was odd that he couldn't remember the man's name. As he flicked through the pages of his manuscript, even now he felt strange. What he might remember, what feelings might surface now that he was digging. Yeah, there it is = Aldous, he read more to find out the surname - Bailey. Aldous Bailey. A.B. They were his initials. It was absurd to think there was a link, but it tainted his thoughts and he began to obsess. No, this is what she wants! he thought. She must have information on him and was setting him up! He'd have to be stronger; he resolved to put it out of his mind once and for all. He would set himself to work as never before, as though he could work and found that eventually it flowed from him as water does in a stream. The more he worked, the more he found the thought of the stalker slipping from his mind. He received three notifications in quick succession. Red and imposing they were, he'd have to avoid them. He doesn't want to open them, it's almost certainly the stalker. Much to his surprise they open without his consent anyway - was this a new feature? They're always pushing content to the site without warning. He avoids reading the messages but his eyes are drawn towards them and he catches a few words.
He throws the old manuscript into the wicker waste bin underneath his desk. The bell tolls. Pages slip from his hands and the sheet bearing that long forgotten name floats in front of his feet. Aldous Bailey, he notices. The bell tolls. Just after dinner, when guests are most unwelcome, there, standing behind the community gate below a flickering lamppost, he saw a policeman. The Met Police had been true to their word, they had sent someone over to guard him. As relieved as now he was, he felt a pang of guilt at the ridiculousness of his fancies and the toll it must have cost this overworked body of men. Should he welcome his guardian in? Offer him a cup of tea? He would have rather have liked for them to share a laugh at the absurdity of it. Alas, he was resigned to believe that his security was at it's strongest and greatest when the source was impartial and anonymous. Every now and then, Alex would peer up from his writing desk to check on his guardian. Often when he did the man was not there. Maybe he was walking around, a man needs to stroll around for sure. As he settles into sleep, he hardly bothers to text his girlfriend goodnight but leaves the lamp next to his bed on as a signal to the policeman. The silence hums around him like a kettle in the warm, comfortable room. In his half sleep he had turned off the lamp. He did not even hear the doorbell until it had been ringing for quite some time. A visitor? Now? 23:46 the clock blinks. He didn't know if it was for the cold but he was shivering and his legs were trembling underneath him. He went to the door, not knowing what he would find or expect to. It was to his great relief to find a policeman occupying the doorway. Without hesitation he invites the man in.
"Officer, you're here, please come in, I was worried that no one would be sent round, I wasn't expecting you. I'm relieved you're here. Come in, come in." He offers his hand to the man, but it is not taken. "It must have been freezing out there, I didn't know it was raining though, he said, seeing how wet the man was, his hair cast over his eyes beneath his helmet and a few dead leaves on his shoulders; strange that- it was Summer. "Come in out of the cold, have a cup of tea with me."
"Right, I can't stay, I have a mission to carry out but it won't take long, no not at all."
"Sorry I dragged you all the way out here, I bet you would rather much prefer to be with your family instead of entertaining silly old me."
"Well we all have to pay our dues Mr. Blake, some more than others, believe you me."
"So I g-guess you know what this is about right? The emails?
The policeman gave him a nod and a smile.
"I'm quite safe now that you are here, do you often get calls like this?"
"Yes and no, I'll tell you more in a sec," said the policeman, and then the telephone rang. Alex excuses himself and grabs the phone from inside the lounge in the other room.
"This is the Met Police," said the voice. "Am I speaking to Mr. Blake?"
Alex confirmed that it was.
"Is everything alright at your place now? I ask because there was a slight error on our part, one of our interns cocked up and I'm sorry to tell you that we forgot about the job we were supposed to do. Our wires got crossed this time, I'm afraid."
"No, no that's quite alright," said Walter "you sent someone."
"No, Mr. Blake, we didn't."
"What? But there's a policeman here as we speak, he's in my hallway."
There was what seemed to Alex, an infinite pause, the voice grew grave.
"That's not one of our chaps, it can't be. Did you see his ID number at all?
"Can we send someone over now?"
"Y-yes please, send someone."
Alex returns the telephone to it's cradle. "What do I do now?," he asks himself, "Where's that key? I need to lock myself into this room. Or, no, no the window, do I ran into the street?" While he was debating, the door opened and his guest walks in.
"What's the use with all this privacy, Mr. Blake, I felt that we knew each other well enough to do without the secrets." he hushed. "Did you forget I was a policeman?
"What do you mean, was? said Alex, inching back from him.
"I've been so many things Alex, a criminal, a terrorist, a downright fucking bastard, not to mention a murderer. Don't act the fool, you should know."
The man was moving towards him and Alex suddenly became alive to the meaning of spaces. The space between one piece of furniture to the other, the distance to the poker in the fireplace, the space covered between one footfall and the next.
"Who are you?," he said, "I've never met you before, I've done you no harm."
"You haven't, have you?" the man said. "You've been thinking about me though haven't you, you've been telling everyone of what I get up to, - his voice rises- all the crazy shit that was in your mind, the insane fantasies that you never had the balls to carry out, you made me do. You've been making fun of me haven't you? Did I prove you right? You made me as nasty and horrible as you've been telling everyone I've been haven't you? You didn't care did you? Or if you did you were just interfering, making me look bad so that you would make yourself look more perfect. You didn't pity me did you? It was an uphill struggle you know, as it's always been. Especially when you're a scapegoat. Well, whatever. We all need to pay our dues now Mr. Blake."
"I'm telling you, I do not know you, just get the fuck out of my house!"
"Now you don't know who I am? You try to ruin me and now you don't know who I am? In a way, I'm glad to be rid of you." The man's voice became high as if there was something obstructing his throat, as if he were holding something back.
"You've forgotten Aldous Bailey."
"Yes, you unloaded all your self-hate on me didn't you? Did you feel good doing that? I didn't realise what you were doing until it was nearly too late. You've got to pay Alex, you've got to pay. Now, from one man to another, what shall we do? Shall we play out one of these disgusting scenes you orchestrated? I particularly liked the one where I chased those women in my car. Or shall we play here instead?"
"I-I-I d-d-on't know," stuttered Alex Blake.
"You must know, come on now mate, it's just a game, don't forget that. What would Aldous Bailey do if he met his old pal in a quiet place with nothing but a fire and a poker? You know I'm not as dark as you portrayed me. I was a kid once too."
"What do you want? The combination to the safe is 3498, there's money there."
"I don't want your money, money infects the soul like any other virus, once it's corrupted everything there, it'll move on. I want to save what's left of me."
"Then what do you want?"
"Okay, tell you what, if you can tell me one good thing about me, I'll leave."
"And if I don't?" replied Alex with an unusual burst of courage.
Aldous Bailey inches closer towards Alex.
"Well, that'll be it then won't it? You have one minute from now to remember."
Each of them looked at the clock, each second passed like a judge's gavel, heavy and dull. The movement of the hand froze Alex in his place and he scanned his memory for something, anything. Then, like a dream and with perfect clarity, each page was there in front of him clear as night. There was nothing. Nothing good to be said about this man.
"I can't say anything good about you, but you know that already, I'd rather die than lie for you."
Bailey's nose was touching his. "Die." he said.
The police found Alex Blake crumpled in front of his fireplace. In light of what happened earlier, they did not exclude the possibility of foul play. The pathologist was unable to determine accurately the cause of death. There were clues but they led nowhere. He had one page of a manuscript in his hand, but it contained nothing that was of any use. From the front door leading to Alex Blake's body were pools of black water and wet, brown leaves. It might have been this that had killed him for it was found in his stomach, and analysis of the substance showed it to be poisonous. What the liquid was, and where it came from, remained a mystery, for it was Summer and there had been no rain in that part of London for the last three weeks, or for that matter, the day that Alex Blake died.