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© 2011 by Sean Cummings

Chapter 4

Walter the cat has it all figured out. His life is a stress-free vacation that includes staring out the bedroom window and squawking loudly at birds that land on the windowsill, taking naps in selected locations throughout my apartment and unraveling freshly installed rolls of toilet paper all over the bathroom floor. How he came to live with me is a story I’m sure he wouldn’t care for me to share with anyone because the fact that I bought him for ten dollars at a garage sale might lead you to believe he is a fraud. It is wrong for anyone to say they own a cat. How can you own something that has the ability to make you do what it wants? I can’t say he is a companion because that word implies he lives with me in the capacity of a helpful friend. Walter isn’t helpful at all—he helps himself. I’ve known many cats in my life and he is the only one with the ability to open a refrigerator with the goal of seating himself on the bottom shelf so he can consume a stick of butter. He enjoys the sound of elbow macaroni falling on the kitchen floor at 3:00

in the morning, and I’ve recently installed a set of childproof locks on the cupboard doors so I can get some sleep. He is the feline equivalent of an irresponsible roommate, and his body resembles a stuffed turkey. He refuses to play with his collection of cat toys, and the only time I have ever seen him run is when he races into the kitchen after hearing the hum of my electric can opener. I’ve received numerous rebukes from the veterinarian about Walter’s ballooning girth, and now I suffer the nightly embarrassment of walking my cat around the perimeter of my apartment building in a harness as part of an exercise regime. I know—what kind of crime fighter complains about his cat? I do seriously need to get a life. I was in a sour mood as I dragged Walter along the sidewalk outside my apartment. I’d just finished reading a special edition of The Greenfield Examiner featuring a full page spread about the death of Stephen Hodges, and needed to get some fresh air. The headline proclaimed, “Body Found Lashed to Tree,” confirming Stella Weinberg’s theory that Stephen Hodges was murdered, and authorities were refusing to comment on reports from members of the search team that the body was missing its internal organs. Obviously a disemboweled body meant this was much more than a random killing. The murderer must have targeted him for some reason and he would have put a great deal of thought into his method of killing, so why hadn’t I foreseen it? I’d glimpsed into many other murders waiting to happen over the past ten years, all of which I’d successfully prevented, and none of them were as graphic or as violent as what happened to Stephen Hodges. As we crossed the street and headed back to back to my building, I heard a familiar voice overhead. “Smile and say cheese!” the voice shouted. I looked up to see Marnie Brindle aiming her cell phone at me. “Listen, I don’t want my picture taken, okay?” I shouted back. “I like your cat’s pink harness,” she teased. “Don’t you have anything better to do than snapping pictures of me with your cell phone?”

“Nnnnnnnope.” “Yeah, well stop it. I have a knot in my face.” “Jeez, chill out. Hey, I’m coming downstairs—be right there,” she said, and then disappeared into her apartment. Lovely. I was less than thrilled that Marnie Brindle was inviting herself over. I’ve lived alone all my adult life and the prospect of entertaining guests makes me uneasy because it implies that some kind of relationship exists between the guest and me. It leads to more visits in the future and statements like, “You should consider getting new drapes for your place, it would brighten everything up.” As I opened the sliding door to my living room, I made a mental note to give Marnie Brindle a reality check about bad manners. “Helloooo, Mister Conraaaad! It’s me, Marnie!” Her voice sang out loudly as she knocked on the door, making me reconsider whether I should let her in. “What?” I grumbled, as I removed Walter’s harness and watched him tear into my bedroom. “Let me in so we can hang out and listen to your David Cassidy records!” she teased. “I don’t have any David Cassidy records,” I groaned. “That was a joke. Are you going to let me in or not?” “Fine!” I snapped, as I opened the door. “You shouldn’t invite yourself over to a stranger’s apartment. I could be a freak for all you know.” “Oooh scary,” said Marnie, making a spooky gesture with her hands. “Well, if you’re freaky then it was worth the trip downstairs, wasn’t it?” “That’s not what I meant. Listen, I don’t know you from Adam and I’ve got a ton of things to do,” I grumbled. “Sure you know me. You’ve sampled my cooking and survived, that has to account for something,” she said, as she took off her sandals. I gave her a disapproving glare.“I’m serious. Haven’t you read the newspaper? That kid who went missing in Crossfield was murdered.” “Yes, I heard about it,” she said. “I don’t think whoever is responsible for what happened to that kid would be warning me that he might be a killer. Are you going to

give me the grand tour or what?” I rolled my eyes. She obviously wasn’t taking the hint. “You’re in the front hallway, the kitchen is beside you and I watch television over there,” I sighed, pointing toward my sofa. “It’s the same layout as your apartment.” “You shop at Ikea!” she chimed, as she strode into my living room and plopped herself on my couch. “I never took you for someone who prefers trendy furniture. Hey, where’s Walter?” “Probably traumatized and hiding in the closet,” I snipped, as I sat down on my old vinyl easy chair. “We don’t usually have visitors come over, and he’s sometimes skittish.” “No visitors, huh? What up with that?” “Nothing. I just don’t have many friends,” I said. “How come?” “Because I enjoy my own company.” “How come?” “Because I am a cranky old fart who hates small talk and nosy neighbors.” “I see. Hey, where’s your remote?” she asked, ignoring my comment. “I don’t have a remote control for the TV. It broke a couple of years ago and since my television is only five feet away, I just get up and change the channel,” I said. “What are you, some kind of Ludist?” she asked, as she rifled through the pile of clutter on my coffee table. “The word you are looking for is Luddite,” I said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t own televisions.” “Gotcha. Hey, are you pissed off at me for coming over, because I can go if I’m bugging you,” she said, half-smiling. “I just thought it would be cool to hang out for a while, or at least for the next couple of hours.” “Why for the next couple of hours?” I asked, in a suspicious tone. “Oh, it’s nothing I should bother you with,” she said, as she looked nervously through the sliding door at the street. “Hey, I’ll go okay?” “What are you staring at?” I grumbled. “Nothing.”

“I might have long conversations with an overweight cat, Ms. Brindle, but I’m not an idiot. Five minutes ago, you were all smiles and chuckles and now you’re staring out my living room window like you’re keeping an eye on something. What gives?” She turned toward me with a look of genuine fear on her face. “I think I have a stalker, that’s all.” “Well, you should be reporting it to the police instead of hiding out in my apartment,” I lectured, impatiently. “What’s stopping you from calling them?” “What’s stopping me is that I don’t know who it is. I just know I’m being stalked,” she said, still glancing over her shoulder and out the window.. “In what way?” “Just a bunch of dumb emails from a webmail address. You can’t trace those, can you?” “Probably not,” I said, realizing something had spooked her. “When you say ‘a bunch of dumb emails,’ how many are we talking about?” “Eight,” she said as she fidgeted with my broken remote control. “They were sent to my personal email address and that’s what’s bugging me, I guess.” This was serious. Her cheerful manner disappeared, and I immediately felt like a heel for giving her a lecture about visiting strange men’s apartments. It was clear she had received a threat of some kind immediately before she started taking pictures of me on her balcony. “I know you don’t really like me, Mr. Conrad,” she admitted, her voice barely a whisper. “It’s probably kind of weird that I’m sitting here on your couch complaining about a stalker.” “You don’t have to call me ‘Mr. Conrad,’” I said, sounding sympathetic. “I don’t dislike you either. It’s just that I live alone and I don’t exactly have many attractive twenty-something female friends who hang out at my apartment on a regular basis.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Yeah, that’s me—attractive.” I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t know how to respond to that statement. There was an awkward silence for about a minute, and then she began to speak. “You know, I’m not a bimbo,” she huffed. “I know that most men think I’m hot and nearly every guy I meet stares at my boobs instead of looking me in the eye when we

have a conversation. I get hit on all the time, even by middle-aged men like you.” “I see.” “I moved to Greenfield to get away from all of that stuff, you know? I mean in Boston, it’s practically a way of life,” she said, with a hint of resignation in her voice. “I figured a smaller place would be easier, I guess.” “Assholes are not exclusive to large cities,” I said, trying to sound conciliatory. “Your family lives in Boston? Is that why you wanted to come over to my place?” “Yes. That and I don’t know which of my so-called ‘friends’ is stalking me,” she said. “Hey, you know something?” “What?” “You did a nice thing for me the day you delivered my magazine. You could have just left it on top of my mailbox. That’s what most people would have done.” “You’re welcome,” I said. “You didn’t stare at my boobs, either,” she joked. “That would be impolite.” Marnie tried to smile. “I don’t take you for someone who worries about what people think of him.” “What makes you say that?” “Well, from what I’ve observed, you don’t enjoy the company of others.” “Ohhh, from what you’ve observed. Great, now I have a stalker.” “That’s not funny Marshall, but your comment proves my point.” She frowned. She was right. I had just put both feet in my mouth—right up to the ankles. “Listen, I’m not good with people,” I apologized. “Anyway, the main issue here is finding out what makes you think you’ve got a stalker.” Marnie sat up and looked around my living room. “Do you have a computer with an internet connection?” she asked. “In the spare bedroom—follow me.” “Oooh, you’re leading me to your bedroom,” she teased. “Shut up,” I groaned, as I padded up the hall. “You’ve got a stalker, remember?” “If you haven’t already noticed, I disguise my fears by the careful use of bad humor.” She sat down at my computer and logged into her web-mail account. “I assumed

you would have figured that out by now.” “You’ll forgive me if I haven’t decoded your idiosyncrasies,” I said, as I watched the web page load on the screen. This was the real deal. She’d received eight consecutive emails over a two week period, each one said “How do you solve a problem like Marnie?” in the subject block. “What are the attachments?” I asked. “Pictures of me,” she said, as she clicked on the first email. “This was taken at the bar.” I examined the photo and noticed the date on the bottom right corner matched with the date the email was sent. “Scroll up,” I said. “You see, this is why I’m reluctant to talk to my friends. Everyone I know was at the bar, so it could have been any one of them.” Her right hand was shaking as she gripped the mouse. “I’m totally creeped out by the fact the emails are just snapshots. The guy could have been drinking with me one minute and snapping pictures of me the next.” “You look drunk,” I said. “You probably wouldn’t remember who took it in the first place.” She clicked on the second email, and the picture showed Marnie filling up her Honda Civic at the gas station. “This one must have been taken from inside a car. I can see the window frame.” I nodded. “Yeah, I see that. Listen, I want you to save them to my hard drive so I can have a closer look at them later. Meantime, you need to think hard about your interactions with males over the last little while.” “Why?” “Because stalkers are usually guys who’ve been rejected by the object of their affection,” I said. “You’re a very attractive young woman and it’s possible that your stalker is a fella with a broken heart who wants a little payback.” She spun around in my chair. “Great, so it’s my fault?” she snapped. “Do you know how many guys I’ve rejected in the last month? The last six months?” “Beats me,” I said, reminding myself that I hadn’t been on a date in more than a decade. “Look, nobody is saying this is your fault. The reality is that we don’t know who

is stalking you, and you should probably take some steps to protect yourself.” Marnie looked at me pleadingly, her face a mask of fear mixed with confusion. “What kind of steps?” I clicked off the screen and spun her around in my chair so she was facing me. I didn’t want to overstate the likelihood that her stalker was the real deal, and I didn’t want her to feel that I was being dismissive of her situation. I dropped to one knee and gave her an empathetic smile. “First off, you probably shouldn’t be alone right now,” I said. “That’s going to be difficult since you don’t have a roommate, so you’re welcome to come to my place if anything spooks you.” I scribbled my phone number on a sticky note and handed it to her. “Here’s my number. I want you to program it into your cellphone and your house phone. You can call me anytime.” “Thanks,” she said as she began programming my number into her cellphone. “What are you going to do with the pictures I saved on your hard drive, stick them in a Bat-Computer and find the bad guy?” I tried not to laugh at the irony of her last statement. “I’m going to look at the pictures and see if there’s anything you might have missed. It might surprise you to learn that I have a law enforcement background, Marnie.” “Ohhh… you’re a cop? I never did ask you what you do for a living.” “Kind of,” I said, reassuringly.

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