The pit bull’s bark sounded as though it blasted its way out of a bull horn, each bark making the postman flinch. In between barks it lunged at the postman, jerking against the heavy chain that kept him on the lawn. The dog bared his teeth and dripped saliva. Ruth Mason ran out of the house and pulled Alex, her attack dog, back by his chain, commanding him to stay. He obeyed but kept his blazing eyes fixed on the postman while emitting a threatening low growl.
Ruth snatched the manila envelope out of the postman’s shaking hand. The former undergarment model mumbled a hurried thank you and rushed into her living room with the letter-sized envelope. She unsteadily walked across the threadbare carpet, frowned at its faded green color, and pulled the shades down before seating herself on the easy chair. She glared at the frayed orange fabric of the upholstery. Once seated, she ripped open the heavy envelope. Her hand trembled as she extracted the contents. First, she read the cover letter.
November 13, 2017
Dear Ms. Mason:
You might already be aware, through television news programs or newspapers, that Mr. Richard B. Loewenroth, known to his readers by the pseudonym Trevor Van De Sleuth, passed away from heart failure on November 9, this year.
The enclosed envelope was found on his desk. It contains a document, a copy of which we have in our possession. However, the copy found on his desk has his latest entry, which we did not possess in our offices. We have made a copy for our records, sealed the original in the enclosed envelope, and placed it in the manila envelope you have received from our firm. Instructions were that this is for your eyes only.
Riley, Epstein & Furiello, Attorneys at Law.
123 Boylston St., Boston, MA.
Ruth tossed her long dark hair and, breathing heavily, began to read the spikey handwriting scrawled on the smaller envelope. It read: To be opened only by Ruth Mason, of 211 Elderberry Road, Inwood, Indiana, and only on my demise, disappearance, or if I am comatose for more than two months. Richard B. Loewenroth, aka Trevor Van De Sleuth.
Ruth’s pulse raced as she opened the smaller envelope and read the enclosed document.
You are aware, of course, that I am a very private person. Some would say I am a recluse. I know that at this writing, it’s been six years since I last spoke with you by phone, and eight years since you’ve seen me in person. You also know that my name, my pen name, that is, Trevor Van De Sleuth, is known by lovers of mystery novels the world over. You may wonder why, after six years of silence on my part, I am now communicating with you. You already know that I am just as much in love with you as I was when I first met you, eighteen years ago. You also are aware that I could not force myself to permit you to see me after my “accident.” I won’t re-hash the arguments we’ve had over my decision. Alright, now to the main subject of this memo.
Firstly, you will read this only if I am deceased, missing, or in a comatose condition. (Obviously, then, I hope you never will read this memo. That’s ridiculous. What I mean is I hope you will not read this for a very long time.) There are three things I want you to know: (1) My will provides you with approximately two billion dollars held in banks of Switzerland and the Barbados, plus a diamond mine in South Africa, oil wells in Texas, a beach house in Malibu, a villa in Tuscany. I’ll stop here; you will be apprised of the details when the time comes, which I fear is sooner than I would like; (2) I have been the victim of foul play; (3) the person or group (at this point, I don’t know which is applicable) with the email address: lucyF@aby.edu is in some way responsible. However, do not go to the police. Have nothing to do with that address. I don’t want you involved in this nightmare.
Can something out of the 14th Century impinge upon a man’s life in the 21st Century? I realize how ridiculous it is of me to ask you a question, since I won’t be in any condition to read your answer. Two months ago, I made the mistake of opening a message from the afore-mentioned email address. The writer gave his name as Elvis P. Q. Remington. It seemed to be a promotional message for an incomplete murder mystery which the writer expected to complete in a year’s time. The working title for this novel is The Inwood Horror, which takes place, according to the trailer, in the “half-horse village of Inwood, Indiana.”
Remington’s first message indicated that the novel will involve the Inwood Free Library and a writers’ group that meets on a weekly basis. This seemed ominous to me for reasons that will become obvious to you in the next paragraph. As you know, I never leave my house anymore because of the disfigurement caused by having acid thrown in my face eight years ago in your wretched town of Inwood. (While it is true that some people tend to react with undue passion when expressing their displeasure with books that vex them, it would seem this is even truer in your home town. Inwood, as you well know, is where the acid attack took place. Forgive me, but you know as well as I that Inwood is home to some pretty…unusual, shall we say, characters.) You have never seen me since that incident, and I intend for you never to see me in the future. I am hideous. Yes, Ruth dear, that is the only suitable word to describe my disfigurement: hideous. No one knows where in the whole wide world the writer called Trevor Van De Sleuth lives, not even you, dearest Ruth. Especially you.
It’s ironic: I am fabulously wealthy, as a result of my life-long toil, my scrimping on the pleasures of life in order to invest, invest, and invest. And my novelistic output has brought me fabulous wealth. But what good is it to me now? Another rhetorical question. Forgive me. The wisdom of my investing history and my mystery novel writing means that it was not only hard work and self-deprivation that brought me to this state of being one of the richest men in the world, but is also due to my superior intelligence, my strong imagination, my writing prowess, and my shrewdness in decision making. And all that means nothing to me now. Absolutely nothing. Except I will have the pleasure of knowing that ultimately you will enjoy the fruits of my labors.
Perhaps with the wealth you have inherited, you will be able to benefit your strange little town. Heaven knows, due to strange crop failures in your part of Indiana, the silos of Inwood are practically empty. I would advise the farmers in your blighted district to cease experimenting with those weird crops such as the one you people call broom corn and those bizarre plants with frighteningly purple and black stems and leaves supporting blood-red flowers. They should get back to planting sweet corn, alfalfa, and whatever other grains they used to grow. But I digress.
To return to the subject, I belong to a writers’ group that meets in the public library of a very small town, Sinclairville, in rural Western New York. I know, I know… I said I don’t leave the house. Correct. The group allows me to attend meetings by Skype. Naturally, I wear a mask when participating. Anyway, the premise of Remington’s mystery novel is disturbingly similar to my present situation.
Enough background. That email and attached trailer wasn’t the end of the matter. A second email informed me that The Inwood Horror “could provoke real-world events.” Those were the exact words he employed: “could provoke real-world events.” This second email revealed that this mystery novel revolved around a murder and an encyclopedia. This put me somewhat on edge because my writers’ group, Circular Writing, was in the midst of composing a group story with each member writing one page based on the previous pages. It too is a mystery novel in which the plot is sparked by a mysterious death and the copy of an encyclopedia that contains an entry on a country called Utopistan. So Remington’s novel and my group’s novel are both mysteries that revolve around an encyclopedia and a murder. Coincidence? It doesn’t seem at all likely, does it? There I go again, asking a question the answer to which I’ll never hear or read the answer.
A third email message came a month later. The message started with the quotation, “There are no coincidences. There are no accidents.” The quotation was attributed to one J.B. Anderson, a member of the writers’ group in the novel—Remington’s novel! This really unnerved me because a particularly productive member of my group is named Janelle Boswell Andersen. The fictional character only has initials for the first and middle names and her last name ends with –son, whereas my writing colleague’s family name ends with –sen. Still, it was much too close. There were too many “coincidences.” And, let’s not forget the opening two sentences in Remington’s third email to me: “There are no coincidences. There are no accidents.”
I started to have difficulties sleeping. When I do manage to snatch an hour or two of sleep, I have grotesque nightmares, usually set in what seems to be a library. The books in this oneiric library have beautiful leather covers with decorative designs as well as the title and the author’s name stamped in gold lettering. But when I choose a book and open it, to my horror I find that all the pages are blank! Blank! This is a recurring dream that lasts longer each time it invades my sleep. In a recent nightmare, I found a book bound in red leather with gold lettering proclaiming it to be the Encyclopedia of the Invisible World. This volume showed the range of entries as running from Rar to Vor. The dream ended when I started to open the tome.
On the following night, the dream continued. I opened the book to page 116 and found the entry Utopistan. Remember, my dear Ruth, the group project my writers’ circle is producing begins with the mention of this unheard-of Utopistan! Well, that’s not really very strange. A person certainly can dream about something that happened or is happening in real life. In this case the dream concerns fiction being written in the real world by me and the other members of the writers’ group. I should clarify: I mean, there’s nothing peculiar about my dreaming about the work being produced by my group. Is there? How stupid of me: once more asking you a question in a memo you will see only if I no longer am in any position to read your answer.
Well, I guess that was a rhetorical question. Of course, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a person to incorporate elements from his real life into a dream. I fear I’m being repetitive. It’s my nerves. Moving on, just two days ago I received another email from this Elvis P. Q. Remington asking me if I had ever traveled to Utopistan!! When I read those words, I felt my pulse quicken and the blood drain from my face. I think you can understand my anxiety at reading those words. How could this person know about Utopistan? I involuntarily leaped from my chair, knocking it over, and paced around the house in circles for about twenty minutes. I felt as though I were dreaming, except I couldn’t seem to wake from this nightmare.
I took a sedative that my doctor had prescribed when I complained I couldn’t sleep. I fell into a fitful slumber and dreamed. Was it a dream within a dream? In this serial nightmare I again selected the red leather-bound volume and turned to page 116. This time there was not simply a vague article on Utopistan, but there were photographs of a city built illogically. That is, there were staircases on the outside of buildings that led nowhere. I mean there were no entrances to the building anywhere along the staircases. And they just ended at a blank wall ten feet short of the roof. The city itself was a labyrinth with twists and turns and dead ends. And then I saw a reproduction in miniature of a man’s portrait in oil. Under the picture was the identification: Dari Jaja, last ruler of the Shurra Dynasty, 14th Century. His eyes were dark and deep set. They seemed to be alive, rather than something in a lifeless painting. When I first looked at the portrait, his expression was serious. But as I stared at those shadow-shrouded eyes, I had the feeling that there was something depraved radiating from them. Meanwhile, his mouth, no longer expressionless, began to curl up at the corners in a malevolent smile. I wanted to wake up. That face, seemingly reading my mind, laughed a low, evil laugh, and said, “But you can’t, Trevor or Richard, whichever you prefer, you cannot, can you?”
But I did. That time. I was drenched in perspiration, and when I stood, my legs felt rubbery. I staggered into the living room. There, over the mantelpiece, was the dream painting! I don’t like looking at it, but I somehow can’t find the courage or energy to take it down.
The following night I had the same dream, only it was more frightening than the previous ones. Nothing in the nightmare was different from the details of the previous dream, except the painting did not speak at all. But the feeling of dread was much stronger. It felt five times more powerful. I experienced terrific pressure throughout my entire body; I was sure I was about to explode. I woke in a panic. My pajamas and sheet were soaked with my perspiration which was turning cold. I dragged myself out of bed and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. Glass in hand, I glanced at the wall next to the table and –Oh, God!—The same painting, only half the size of the one in the living room, was staring at me. I felt as though I were falling down an elevator chute. I hurried to the dining room: It was there in place of the painting of an 18th-Century schooner! I went to the bathroom and a miniature copy was on the wall. I ran through the house trying to pull the paintings off the walls, but they wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I pulled.
I scurried to my bedroom and collapsed onto my bed. I looked up at the ceiling and the image was there! It was about five by four feet in size. It had no frame. In fact, it seemed to be painted directly on the ceiling. There was no way I could sleep in that room, staring at that malignant face. That face staring at me.
Once more I wearily hauled myself out of bed to go… Where? Where, exactly, could I go? I never leave the house, for the reasons I’ve explained, but I could not stay in any of the rooms. I ran to the cellar door, wondering if the image would appear down there. I trod the stairs carefully, flashlight in hand, and descended. I aimed the light around the basement and, thank God, the image was not there. Relief surged over me like a refreshing ocean wave on a hot day.
Relieved to find a place in my home free of that terrifying face, but profoundly depressed at my defeat, I took my sleeping bag to the cellar and there, in the dank, dark basement I slept. And here I live, if you can call it living, in this filthy dungeon, going upstairs only to accept delivery of food and mail, which are brought to my door. Ironic: I am fabulously wealthy and have this beautiful house with a magnificent view, and here I live, a prisoner. My jailer is that creature of my nightmares.
But how could a painting seen in a nightmare, of a man of the 14th Century, be suspended over my mantelpiece? And then multiply? All over my home? Yet there it was. There they were. There he was. The only possibility –the only sane explanation—is that someone broke into my house during the night and placed the painting over my mantle, and then later, placed copies in all the other rooms. But that’s not really sane, either. Who would do such a thing? For what purpose? Is this the work of some kind of evil monster? Or some pagan god returned from oblivion? I don’t know what to think. I’m starting to lose track of time. I can’t remember today’s date.
When I first saw it, his expression was that of a mad dog baring its teeth as it growls. It reminded me of that rather…spirited…pit bull of yours. But the instant he caught sight of me, yes, he saw me… I’m sure of it. When he saw me, his lips closed and formed a smile. A smile, but the kind of smile a hungry man exhibits when he sits down to a sumptuous meal. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the expression on his face resembled the tightly controlled ferocity and single-minded concentration of a ravening tiger’s face as it stealthily, silently, approaches its quarry. Those dark tiger eyes drill into me with evil intent. I feel like the goat, tied to a stake, as it catches wind of the predator. The goat frantically darts in different directions, trying to escape, only to be brought up short at the end of the rope. Its eyes are wide in alarm. It shudders helplessly. I have a panicked urge to flee. But to where? In what direction? Only to my basement, which is becoming like a subterranean mausoleum. I hate my life!
As I write this letter, I look up and see… Oh no, no, no! His face is on all four walls, on the ceiling, on the floor of my last refuge. He’s glaring at me right now, those tiger eyes boring a hole through my chest as I write this. My hand trembles, smudging the ink. Ruth, I think I’m going mad. I must be going mad. I feel as though
The letter abruptly ended with the incomplete sentence: I feel as though. The corners of Ruth’s scarlet-painted mouth curled into a satisfied smile. “Finally!” she breathed. She thought, That weird creep finally croaked. Now I’m set for life. The doorbell rang. She gave a start. I didn’t think Joey got away from work this early.
The shapely brunette rose, strode to the door, flung it open with a big smile, and found the brown-uniformed FedEx man holding a large flat package. Puzzled, she put it on the kitchen table and stared at it. Somehow, this harmless object produced an unsettling sensation. Without knowing why, she felt it to be ominous. Her curiosity struggled with her anxiety for several minutes. Finally, with a sense of black foreboding, she ripped the wrapping from the object and discovered a magnificently-framed 3 x 5 painting. It was a portrait of a man with dark, deep-set eyes. Those eyes seemed to be alive, rather than something in a lifeless painting. But as Ruth stared at those shadow-shrouded eyes, she had the feeling there was something evil, something menacing, radiating from them.
Suddenly, she recalled a disturbing dream she had just before awakening. All she remembered was that this profoundly troubling face, the one now before her in the oil painting, had appeared in it. A sudden chill coursed down her spine. She had the sudden desire to dig through the trunk in the attic to find the quilt her mother had made. She wanted to suck her thumb and hold the quilt to her face as she did as a child when the lights in her room were turned off. She fought off this infantile need.
Ruth hurriedly walked to the front door and called for Alex, her pit bull. She detached the chain and let him enter the house. She needed the animal’s protective presence to calm her. The dog came bounding into the living room, panting and wagging his tail. She petted him and scratched his head. Alex’s head snapped up and faced the spot in which Ruth had placed the painting. The dog, his tail suddenly between his legs, whimpered, hunched close to the floor, and pushed himself backward, continuing to whimper. This behavior further alarmed the woman.
Something caught her attention. A white card had fallen from the painting and now lay on the dull green carpet. With quivering hand, she bent down, seized the card and forced herself to read it. In purple ink, the flowing, arabesque letters conveyed the message:
The contract has been fulfilled. Don’t trouble yourself about the methods employed; you wouldn’t be able to comprehend the explanation. I will instruct you on methods of gaining even more wealth with very little effort on your end. I will impart this instruction in person. Oh, I won’t look like that handsome devil you met at the Hoosier Daddy Cocktail Lounge, in Indianapolis, three years ago. I had a somewhat different appearance at our first meeting. First impressions are so important. Don’t you agree? When I visit you, however, you will certainly recognize me. I will be the “spittin’ image,” as you folks like to say, of the face in the portrait.
Keep in mind, I may ask you to do various favors for me every so often. Our association will be long lasting. One could even say it will be an eternal partnership. I look back with fondness on that time you told me you would give your very soul to get your hands on Van Der Sleuth’s fortune. You will no doubt be delighted to learn that I intend to take up residence in your town; I feel a great affinity with the denizens of Inwood.
In anticipation of a mutually beneficial partnership, I remain, Forever, I insist, Yours,
Note: Dear Ruth, the above name is just one of many I employ.