You have something about you I want the message began, and that struck me as both novel and ominous. Not to mention grammatically awry. My first instinct (beyond that of the editor) was that the sender was mistaken. That they had the wrong person, the wrong man. Had to have. After all, I’d never had anything anyone wanted before.
Including, regrettably, the manuscripts of numerous mystery stories, jenga-towered to the left of my laptop.
This message represented a statistical anomaly, and, as such, was not to be trusted. A fundamental law of the truly good mystery story: everything is wrong, everyone is screwy, even the clues that turn out to be red herrings are far from harmless. If something stands out too much from the curve, it’s likely it’s more wrong than regular. Mysteries work by tapping into that (very rich) vein in the human psyche that is trained not only to accept the uncertainty of reality, but, through that very acceptance, to learn to fear it also. There are only multiple strata of malfeasance, there is no absolute good. Hence the reliance on anti-heroes. Hence the alcoholism. Hence the bad language, the paranoia. The femmes fatale.
How you make a story out of all that uncertainty is you pick the thread that you most want to follow, the face you most want to bring out of the shadows, and you focus on that. Any other thread, any other face could be equally important, if not, ultimately, more so. But that would be a different story.
Having said that, I sometimes have trouble following just the one thread. I guess that’s why my stories aren’t what you’d call of publishable standard. Yet. I run off at the mouth. At the fingers. I take wrong turns too easily, and am usually too lazy or curious to turn back straight away. Once I do get back on track, I can get myself worked up, overcompensate, rush things.
So, pardon this digression, is what I suppose I’m saying. Try and understand where I’m coming from. Be aware of my flaws.
Anyhow, after reading those words, I closed the browser.
Sat back in my swivel chair. But didn’t take the liberty of spinning in it. That seemed too frivolous an act to fit the moment.
I was unnerved.
Standing, I moved to the window. I keep three things, out of habit, on the inner sill. A potted plant (I’ve gone through many, due to my fingers being more ink-stained than green, but this current one is an aloe vera. Survival time five weeks and counting), which is necessary to remind me that nature exists; this high up, everything outside my window is either grey buildings or grey clouds or grey birds, which no longer seem natural to me. I also keep a camera, for those times when the sun actually shows behind the fine-boned scrap of city to the east, or the grey clouds part, coagulate or otherwise form an intriguing shape, a shape that means something to me; pareidolia, that phenomenon’s called. Seeing what we want to see. Following the threads we want to follow.
It works both ways. We can deny what we see. Not-see or even un-see the things we don’t want to.
Helps to keep the stress levels down, if you can master it. Kind of inner-city Zen.
Smoking helps with that too, I find. That’s why the third item on the window sill is a packet of cigarettes. I used to keep my lighter on my person at all times, but I got tired of doing that whole self-frisking half-dance whenever I wanted a smoke. Especially in public. I keep it in the packet now. Take two cigarettes in succession – one of the rare times I acquiesce to the chain-smoking impulse – whenever I get a new pack, just so as I can make room for it. I only buy those fluorescent throwaway lighters. They fit easily.
These are pretty much the only things I own of any real note. All my kitchen stuff is hyper-generic and coated in the type of non-stick that flakes and lets the rust in far more quickly than it should. Most of the books in my apartment aren’t really ones I own, so much as ones I haven’t gotten around to returning to the library. Yet. But there were plenty of other copies of each when I took them, I promise, which is the main reason I haven’t been too rushed about getting them back. Mystery books, you know, by pretty big-name authors. Crime thrillers, they mass-produce like rabbits.
Anyway, the point is, knowing that to be the case, I couldn’t think of anything I had that might interest anyone enough for them to want to send me such a message.
I lit a cigarette, and, as I did so, allowed a weird little paranoiac vision to play in my mind. Thought up one of those grim what-ifs that hit me, sometimes, when the clouds aren’t putting on a show. Have to let them play out, in case they lead to an idea for a story. Prune them all back and you might end up with one long-stem rose (I read it in a non-mystery book I got hold of in a bid to try and grant my plants longevity), but that’s only good for poets, not storytellers.
What if – I thought – whoever it was who’d sent me that message, whoever wanted some as-yet-unspecified item from me, was watching me at that very moment? From a rooftop, out in the concrete canopy, or through the window of another flat, not too far away. Through binoculars, perhaps, or maybe through a sniper scope.
What if they were curling a finger inside the trigger case?
What if my standing up to smoke beside the window gave them just the opening and opportunity they’d been waiting for?
Needless to say, no shot came.
This isn’t one of those bullshit tales where – surprise! – I’m narrating from beyond the grave. I tried writing one of them once, and it turned out even worse than the others, so I resolved not to try it again.
I finished my cigarette and went to sit back down. Didn’t re-open the browser. Couldn’t bring myself to do so, not just then. Despite the fact I knew I was allowing it to itch at me a bit too much, and I was coming on too Marlowe-esque, too Sam Spade-y, I found myself gazing, glancing, rather rapidly around my room. I looked at every object. All of it straight out of the catalogue, the newsletter, the social network page. This year’s, so all of it still very much on sale. Still easily obtainable. Couldn’t be any of that tat. Unless I was overlooking something.
Unless the answer lay at the end of one of the threads I wasn’t following.
I stood up again, moved over to the bookcase. I withdrew each and every book in turn, flipped their pages, shook them out over the carpet. I half-expected some paper-thin MacGuffin to float out of one, but none did. All that tumbled loose was dust.
I cough quite often, nowadays. I blame the fact I don’t clean this place as well as I should – dusting and vacuuming and all that is one of those habits I’ve never acquired – but I suspect that smoking has something to do with it too. I’d place it in the line-up, anyway. I’ve been waiting for a reason to quit, I suppose, though none has turned up. Yet.
Still, the dust, and the way it made obvious my lack of domestic gifts or care, switched my mind onto an altogether more worrying track. Sent me looking for a different face in the shadows.
What if the sender wanted my apartment?
What if they had been watching it, only in a different way to that which my jumpy little mind had assumed a few moments before? Perhaps the sender was an acquaintance of my landlord, and said landlord had voiced his dissatisfaction with my tenantship to said sender, and what if the sender had said they’d be happy to move in instead, and even to buy out the rest of my allotted time here?
What if the sender was playing head games with me, trying to get me so worked up, so freaked out, that I left the place, with the intention of getting as far away as possible, leaving them to swoop in and occupy this very room. To sit in this very chair. What if this message was only the first part of a protracted campaign?
I had to make coffee. Thinking all that was making me shake.
I knew for sure I wouldn’t cope out on the streets, and I don’t have the money to afford anywhere better. I barely have enough to afford here. There’s nowhere I could safely keep my aloe vera, not on the sidewalk, not on a park bench, is what was on my mind. Of all the stupid things. And I’d have to start storing my cigarettes on my person, which would mean performing that Sir Frisk-a-lot number to a rolling, endlessly disparaging crowd.
The only bright spot I could discern in that scenario was that I might find more interesting – and more varied – subjects and locations to photograph.
As bright spots go, it was kind of like a very distant star. By the time its light reached me, there was a disconcerting awareness that, back at its source, it had already died out.
I stood leaning against the kitchen counter, blowing on the top of my coffee – black, three sugars – eyeing the computer in the other room. I didn’t want to, and had a mind to delete it and proceed as normal, as though it had never arrived, but I felt I should finish reading the message.
If nothing else, it might stop my hypothesizing, and give me an answer. Good or bad. Well, bad or worse. Besides, it had looked quite short, so at least it wouldn’t take long to get through. I’d enter the aftermath, the endgame, much faster if I read it all now.
I waited until I’d finished my coffee and then returned to my swivel chair.
I took a deep breath.
Re-opened the browser.
You have something about you I want I read again. And noticed, this time, that it wasn’t a clear-cut case of bad grammar and absent punctuation; that the sentence didn’t, in fact, finish there.
You have something about you I want you to know that I like. Can we go for drinks sometime? Wednesday would be good. Yours Cassie (you know from the bar)
Suddenly, I hoped the sender wasn’t mistaken after all. Hoped it was only me who’d made a fool of myself and got the completely wrong end of the stick. Misread the thread I was following.
I remembered Cassie. Brown hair in a bob, and big, matching brown eyes. The sort of woman I’d always felt to be way out of my league. And she wanted me.
She wants me.
What a turn-up.
I’m scribbling this on my pad on the window sill. It’s a new one, but it’s looking old quickly. Ash keeps falling, freckling across, and when I brush it away it smudges and muddies the crisp bleach-white of the page. Still, I might start writing a different kind of story after this, I don’t know. Draw a line under what I did before now. These half-baked crime things. I’m too wired to think straight tonight. I’ve had a few cups of coffee. Four, maybe. I’m smoking again. Hence the ash. Just a quick one. Or a quick couple. Depending. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m nervous. This all feels new to me.
I should put it out and get going. I should finish this coffee. I shouldn’t think about mysteries.
I don’t want to be late.
Dan Micklethwaite lives, writes and film-watches in West Yorkshire, UK. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in a range of magazines and journals, including BULL: Men’s Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, Notes from the Underground, 3:AM Magazine and The View From Here. Other examples of his work can be found on his blog: http://smalltimebooks.blogspot.co.uk