When the door swung open Penny was met by a face she didn’t recognize. A tanned and well muscled young man with an armful of packages stood on the little flight of granite steps that led up to her ground floor suite.
“I have twenty three items here for Penny Reinhart with Stranger than Fiction Magazine,” the postman said.
“That’s me. Where’s Fred today?”
“Fred’s on vacation this week. So you’re the editor of the magazine?”
“Guilty as charged.” Penny smiled and carefully balanced the stack of envelopes in her arms.
“You probably get some pretty weird stories huh?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Penny chuckled.
The mailman took a step forward and drew his face uncomfortably close to hers. He was attractive, but she was a mother of two and had been happily married for eleven years. A little playful flirtation was harmless, but the wry grin on his face danced farther across the borderlands of mischievousness than she was comfortable with.
“I couldn’t help but notice that this one was sent by Robert Bruce Argyle,” he whispered as he handed her the envelope.
“Yes.” Penny’s mind changed gears from flirtation to much darker avenues of thought.
“I also noticed that the return address is the Maine State Prison in Warren.”
“It would appear so.”
Penny felt her pulse race as the rivers of her thoughts were stabbed over and over again by icy daggers of recollection. Professor Robert Bruce Argyle – the coldest, most calculating and ruthless murderer of the Twentieth Century.
Without another word she closed the door on the mailman and stared at the name on the parcel. The handwriting was crisp and clear, and written in a style of medieval calligraphy that was beautiful, yet terrible to behold.
Professor Argyle had been submitting his works of fiction to her for years. Penny read them because they were raw and powerful. She destroyed them afterwards because they were more than mere fiction. Whereas other writers endeavored to forge fantasy into reality, Robert Bruce Argyle wrought his fancy from reality.
His was a bold, terrifying craft.
She brought the parcels into the reading room and set them down in a neat pile on her late Victorian era oak desk, which originally belonged to her great grandfather. Notched and scarred with the pocks of age, there was a lot of family history worn into the grain of that wood. Penny took comfort in that. She sat down in her cushioned office chair, grabbed a letter opener and a red pen and got back to work.
“Not another vampire story,” Penny muttered as she pitched the first manuscript into the recycling bin. Most of the other candidates weren’t much better, and when the last of the slush pieces landed in the bin her gaze shifted to the lone yellow envelope on the other side of her desk.
“I’ve got enough on my plate right now without adding a week of insomnia to the mix.” Penny threw the envelope into the trash and looked out the window. The billowing gloom of dusk had fallen on the brick and concrete heart of the Portland. Yawning, she rose and brewed a mug of bad coffee to get herself through the forty five minute commute home.
Penny only got as far as the front door. She returned to the reading room, took the envelope out of the trash and placed it on the desk in front of her. There it was in beautifully crafted letters: Robert Bruce Argyle.
The blood thundered hot through her veins. Professor Argyle was a megalomaniac, utterly evil and totally devoid of empathy or remorse. His fiction submissions were part of a game, the machinations of a brilliant yet demented mind. He sent them to her knowing that they would be discarded. But he also knew she’d read them, and above all else that was what his sick mind needed the most – an audience.
With trembling hands and a sick feeling in her stomach she tore open the envelope and removed the manuscript. “Balancing the Scales, by Robert Bruce Argyle,” she said aloud. Then, without any further hesitation she folded back the cover page and began to read.
“Nothing on this Earth can stop a predator on the hunt. Poor little Buttercup tried, but she was easily placated with a choice hunk of filet mignon. The fast acting tranquilizer did its work and within the span of a few minutes the guard dog’s hot entrails were steaming on the dewy grass. Canis lupus familiaris – such an admirable species. They are the only beasts in the known cosmos that will willingly give their own lives to protect a human master.
“As I approached the house in almost total darkness I went out of my way to make footprints in the dirt and gravel driveway. My sneakers were two sizes too small and the toes were cut out to allow for comfortable locomotion. All of the windows were dark with the single exception of the picture window in the living room. A lone figure lay on the couch watching television.
“It was a warm summer night, which made my entry into the home a trivial matter. I made a quiet tour of the first floor but found no sheep at all, only the lamb on the couch. It is a fascinating thing to watch your prey as they sleep. Their chests puff in and out with a slow, peaceful regularity that is intoxicating to behold, and the looks on their faces betray a sense of total serenity. They feel safe, which makes ending them all the more rewarding.
“It pained me greatly to have to stifle those delicious cries by placing my hand over its mouth as I slid my knife between the ribs and punctured both of its lungs. It simply would not do to spoil the party by alerting the other sheep to the presence of the wolf. As its feeble gasps became more and more sporadic, I cut the throat to hasten its destruction.
“I found three more creatures upstairs, still asleep in their beds…”
Penny stopped reading and shuddered. Like the others, this story was a crystal clear window into the mind of a madman. Professor Argyle wasn’t a gifted writer, but what lacked in his prose was compensated for by the raw power and realism of his first person narratives. She skimmed ahead several pages to avoid reading some of the more unpleasant details.
“I was tempted to remove her skin and wear it while dancing around the house in the manner of the Aztec priests of old, but my plans required that she remain alive. My literary agent was away on business, and the purpose of this affair was to ensure that he returned to find his life in pieces. Three children turned into inanimate works of art, and a wife with a shattered mind – what a glorious legacy I left for him. Any bumbling dullard can take a life. It takes a true artist to permanently ruin one.
“This was all part of our little chess game you see. I created stories of unparalleled realism and artistry. He destroyed them. I wrote them because in prison there is nothing better to do than to relish old glories. He destroyed them because he was afraid that by sharing my great works with the world he might somehow infect the minds of the plebeians.
“My literary agent learned a hard lesson that day – censorship has a price.
Penny’s heart skipped a beat and her breath came in wheezing gasps. She gripped the oak desk so tightly that her fingernails scored the surface of the wood. With a strength of will that only mothers’ posses, she grabbed her purse and sprinted out of the office.
The November breeze was brisk and howled down the city streets with a ferocity that sent a chill through her. The sky was dark and the lone streetlight between her office and the parking garage did very little to set her mind at ease. She clutched her keys in one hand and a can of pepper spray in the other, and covered the ground with long, quick strides.
About halfway up the stairwell she stopped suddenly and her whole body trembled with the icy fingertips of fear. Was the shuffling she’d heard the sound of her own footsteps echoing throughout the stairwell, or something else?
“Hello?” she called out. Her voice reverberated strangely off the glass walls and cement steps. She held the pepper spray out before her and continued up the stairs slowly. When she reached the third floor landing, a metal door slammed shut below. Penny fled as fast as her legs could carry her.
The garage was nearly empty and she spotted her car immediately.
Penny lost her footing as she ran, and one of her shoes went careening off under an old green truck. Panic had taken over, and she did not stop to retrieve it. She threw herself into the car and locked the doors. She peered over her shoulder in every direction, scanning the lot for a figure lurking in the dark. There was no one.
She felt a sense of relief as her vehicle rocketed out of the garage and onto the street. Her gaze shifted back and forth from the abandoned streets to the rear view mirror almost constantly, until she reached the solace of the freeway. The presence of other cars and drivers brought her a measure comfort, and after a few minutes she abandoned the notion that she was being followed. Instead her thoughts returned to her family.
Her hands fumbled about desperately within the bowels her purse, until she realized that she’d left her phone on it’s charger in the office. Penny felt overpowered by a sense of dread, and the rest of her commute was made at speeds far in excess of the legal limit.
Her heart thundered as she eased her car into the garage. She flung the kitchen door open with wild abandon and was about to call out to her children when she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye.
Penny’s fear instantly transmuted into the protective instincts of motherhood. She removed a large blade from the knife-block perched near the end of the countertop, and slowly stalked down the dark hallway in search of the intruder. The door to the downstairs bathroom was open, but as she peered in and found it empty she thought she heard a scraping sound in the laundry room at the end of the hall.
After she’d crept more than halfway down the hall she remembered that the hallway light switch was in the kitchen behind her. Every instinct in her body told her that turning her back on the laundry room would be a fatal error. Instead she steeled herself, and shuffled step by step towards the doorway. Brandishing the knife before her, she pivoted into the room and switched the light on with her other hand.
The only living thing between her and the dryer was her tiger cat, Sampson.
With a relieved sigh and an embarrassed smile, she turned and walked calmly back down the hallway and up the stairs. She cracked the door to the boys’ room and found them both asleep in their beds. She padded over and kissed them on their foreheads. It was truly the happiest moment in her life to find them safe and sound. She realized she’d been working too hard, and felt guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with her family. Penny made a mental note that things would be different.
Her husband awoke with a groan when she flipped the bedroom lights on. After rubbing his eyes for a moment, he cocked his head and gave her a questioning look. “Did you have a strange day at the office?” He gestured towards the knife she still held in her hand.
Penny laughed long and hard. It was the kind of healthy, soul cleansing laughter that only someone who has survived a traumatic experience can appreciate. “You don’t even want to know,” she said. She gave him a kiss and went back downstairs to pour herself a glass of wine.
As she made her way over to the living room it dawned on her that she was only wearing one shoe. She flicked it off and let out a belly shaking cackle that might have sounded crazy under any other set of circumstances. She settled into the couch with a sigh, closed her eyes and pressed the cold glass against her forehead. Her cares melted away – all except one.
The telephone receiver made an audible click as she took it off hook and dialed. After three rings an official sounding voice picked up and answered.
“Maine State Prison, can I help you?”
“Actually yes. I have sort of an odd question for you,” she said.
“Robert Bruce Argyle – is he still in your custody?”
“Hold one moment please ma’am.” The voice was replaced by the sound of music.
Penny lurched upright, spilling wine on her pants in the process. “Oh my god – he’s escaped,” she gasped aloud. Her head flicked over one shoulder, and then the other, but the room was empty. After a terrifying wait that seemed to last for hours, another voice crackled across the receiver.
“This is Lieutenant Walters with the Department of Corrections. I understand you have a concern regarding Robert Argyle?”
“That’s correct,” she replied sharply.
“May I ask who I’m speaking with ma’am?”
“My name is Penny Reinhart.”
“And what is your relationship with Mr. Argyle?”
“I’m his editor, well I used to be. He submits short stories to my magazine, although I’m not exactly sure how this is relevant. All I need to know is if he’s escaped or not.”
“What makes you think he’s escaped ma’am,” the officer said.
“Nothing. Well actually, this afternoon I read a manuscript that he submitted to us…”
“And it caught you up in one of his head games.”
Penny took in a deep breath and let it out slowly; all of her fears left with it. “So he’s in custody then?”
“He most certainly is, and I wouldn’t let his little tricks get to you ma’am. We have him locked down in solitary confinement 24 hours a day. He’s not going anywhere.”
“Thank you. That’s good to hear. Thank you so much.”
Penny eased back into the couch and brought the glass of wine to her lips. Then a thought occurred to her and she shook her head and sighed. A hundred miles away, in a cold, dark cell, a deranged old man was laughing at her.