The system had been down for some time now. Three days, to be exact. Technicians were going to come and fix it, this Friday, but that left it rather useless for the next twenty-four hours. Undoubtedly, they’d arrive between the hours of eight and four. Always while I’m in the bathroom, taking a shower.. It made him wonder why he paid for the service at all, with the thing going down a few times a year, he never truly felt safe. Should’ve bought a dog instead of this damn security system. Cheaper too, he thought regretfully.
But there was no dog. No cat, no human being within one square mile of his home. Intentional, of course, as any living thing seemed to distract him from his writing. The only distraction he did allow was from the birds in his yard. They didn’t ask questions or need constant attention. The birds existed and went on with life regardless of his presence; they didn’t pester, need or want from him. He could sit and watch them, and not care for them; and they the same. A mutual understanding of indifference. Like some sort of luck charm, Winston kept his binoculars hanging from his neck. Without cable TV or internet there was seldom much to do for entertainment in the house. Armed with his book and binoculars, bird watching became a daily pastime for him. That and reading. Heck, he didn’t even get the newspaper way out here.
Just the way he liked it, too. There was something comfy, something cozy about being alone. He was never too good at companionship. As the years marched on, he secluded himself more and more. It let him concentrate on his work, on what he was actually good at. His father always reminded him to find a trade, and while it hadn’t been a traditional trade, writing was what he found he was best at. Crime novels, to be exact. He had made his living, bought this property and built a rather humble house (considering his net worth), because of a combination of words and sentences slapped on a few hundred pages. It surprised him, even now, how much money he had made for the novels he wrote. Almost criminal, really; the years had honed his skills, making the suspense writing simple a recycling of stories with different names and places. When you got to the roots of his books, he figured, it all was the same. Someone was killed, someone investigated and someone was caught.
It sold though. People gobbled it up. Regardless of the pattern, his readers were somehow left surprised, so he wrote.
It wasn’t what he expected he would be doing. Growing up, he wanted to an astronaut. As he grew older, his desire became more realistic and Winston got a degree in Economics. He was good at it. Great at it, in fact, but by fate, ka as one of his competitor called it, he was destined to be a writer. The house, his bank account and his retirement fund all pointed to the fact that he still used his economics degree—only less direct, he would admit during the interviews.
That’s why the knock at the door surprised him. It was late afternoon; the sporadic crazed fan sometimes found his home way out here in the boonies, but it was always early in the morning. Not when the sun was beginning to set in the West. He ignored the door and brought his collar up to his neck, the wind has begun to pick up and dark clouds began to roll overhead. Storm’s coming in, he thought pleasingly. The cold never bothered him, on the contrary, he quite liked it. As if realizing his time with the birds was short, he brought his binoculars up to his old eyes. His spying was interrupted by another persistent knock from his visitor.
Winston dropped his binoculars from his eyes and cocked his head for the door. Again, there was a knock. He walked in from the porch and closed the sliding glass security door behind him. His house was two stories, the floor below was made up of a living room, kitchen and his study. The second floor made up a small library—more book overflow from his study—and his own bedroom. Entering the house, he walked from the door and took the hallway to his right, entering the library.
There was another reminder at the door, as if he could forget the knocking. The Old Writer walked up towards the second story window. It jutted out from the rest of the house, giving him a bird’s eye view of his property. A window was placed on the side of the extremity, providing a sightline to the front door. He pushed the curtains gingerly and peered down to the front porch below.
There was a woman standing there. Young, attractive, probably in her late twenties, he deduced. Approximately 5’6”, blonde hair and light eyes. His mind made mental notes, a practice he did without meaning to anymore. It seemed his novels had rubbed off on him. If I’m going to be a victim, I’m at least going to be able to give a description, at least that’s what he used to tell himself. Now he did it subconsciously. She looked aimlessly around and once more knocked fervently on his solid oak door. She didn’t seem perturbed by the fact that he hadn’t answered the door the first six times she knocked on it, so she continued. The house was small, even from the outside it was obvious that not much could happen in one room without with the rest knowing.
Surely she should realize that he either wasn’t home, or didn’t want to answer. But it seemed she cared little. The woman brought her hand up again to the door, then stopped. It froze curled in a fist, poised three inches from the door. She turned her head towards him, he shut the blinds quickly; she spotted movement in the curtains upstairs.
“Mr. Underlock?” she called from the yard below, “Mr. Underlock, are you there?”
He waited, hoping she’d simply go away. He hadn’t time for talk or tea, he was behind on his most recent novel and needed to finish it. His answering machine read “17 unread messages,” all of which he assumed were from his Badge Publications; no doubt reminding him of his missed due date.
He moved to the other side of the house, silently as possible and putting his weight heavily on his wooden cane. When he made his way to his room on the other side of the floor, he looked through a crack in the curtains at her. She backed away from the house, looking through the windows, searching for a sign of his presence. Reaching the edge of the path that lead to his house, she looked down at her phone and made a phone call. It was brief, an exchange of a few words, Winston supposed, then she trotted back up the road.
Where’s her car? Winston thought, confused. It would be madness to walk this far, the nearest town was twenty-five miles away. She looked fit, but by no means the type that would walk twenty-five miles only to knock at a door and walk away. And what was she doing here?
Was she a salesperson? A door-to-door missionary? No, that couldn’t be right. She had no bag, nothing on her that she could have sold to him, item or ideal. She couldn’t have come far, her clothing seemed more appropriate for spring than for a winter afternoon. That meant she was either a neighbor or a visitor. He hadn’t seen her before, or anyone that age in this area so that ruled out the former.
The Old Writer assumed she was here for different reasons. In a deep, recessed part of his brain he believed foul intentions were at play, but it was only a small feeling. Almost unfelt. It was a hint at a hint of a feeling. The years had drown out those hunches that always ended with self-sabotaging. He couldn’t believe a thought like that, he reasoned, because it had never been true. It had always lead to incident.
Something wasn’t right about her, not right at all, Winston knew. He brought up his binoculars and watched her casually trot down the gravel road that lead to his house. Fifty yards away, her figure was drown out by the great pine trees that surrounded his property. He dropped his binoculars and turned to the staircase that lead to his foyer.
He gingerly walked down the stairs, arm reached down to the railing and took each step one at a time. His hips hadn’t been the same since the car accident, any rapid movement was quick to remind him of his age and his history. Finally, at the bottom of the stairs, he reached for the white security panel. Comcast Security System was scrawled on the front of it. His fingers flipped open the cover, revealing a series of buttons he had yet to find a use for. The pointer finger of his hand found the button he had pressed many times in years past, albeit uselessly.
Sending Call… marched across the screen.
Thirty seconds later, it beeped and the screen marquee notified him Call Failed.
“Piece of shit security system.” He uttered under his breath. The system would do as it always did and retry every thirty minutes, beeping every time it failed. And every thirty minutes the same Call failed message would display itself across the neon green display of the piece of garbage as it had for the past three days.
It was no matter, really. In fact, he was almost glad it didn’t go through. Yet again, he was placating to the paranoid thought processes of his mind. No call meant he wouldn’t have to explain to the police what happened. His explanations always sounded good in his mind, but once he heard it, once he heard himself tell the police and watch their reaction, he knew it was foolish, knew that he was simply scared.
“Maybe cut down on the crime novels, Mr. Underlock,” the last office had scolded him. They regarded him with pity, he could see it. He was the boy who cried wolf. The one who saw monsters in the shadow. But that had been so long ago, he hadn’t listened to the scared voice in his mind in years now. He no longer knew the name of the officers who came, which gave him a strange sense of pride.
His tirade at the security system was cut short. Outside, he heard a car door slam shut, then another. There was a voice beyond the wall of his home. He made his way to window in his living room and again pushed the curtains aside to look at the source of the voices.
The woman was back, this time with her car. He smiled at being right. Writing mysteries had given him the adept ability to see patterns.
As if sensing his prideful arrogance, fate threw a curveball at him. Another girl, years younger, emerged from the other side of the car. He supposed she couldn’t be past the age of fourteen or fifteen, also with blonde hair and light eyes. He looked down at his Seiko: 3:14pm.
What’s someone that age doing way out here on a Thursday? It wasn’t holiday. It was the middle of the week. Surely she had school. The acknowledgement of that thought made it even more odd; there wasn’t a school in this secluded small town. Closest high school was two cities down, forty-five miles away. Because of its student body, it was aptly named Tri-cities High School.
The child didn’t have a backpack, or school books. Instead, she and the first woman were carrying two large gym bags. Black and chock full of something. He wasn’t sure the contents, though unused part of his paranoid mind began to whir again. Whatever was in the bags jutted out in every which direction. Like spokes from a bike, they protruded and poked this way and that against the fabric of the bag.
In an experiment of insanity, the woman knocked at the door. This time, he didn’t freeze. He slowly walked to the couch and lifted his hooked cane from the arm of the furniture. With the artificial third leg, he made his way away from the door and towards the study.
Knockknockknock. Three swift raps on the door interrupted his movement.
“Mr. Underlock, I know you’re in there. Let’s make this easy on both of us and just open the door.”
He stopped, like a deer in headlights and waited. Easy on both of us? The scared part of his mind scolded his complacency. There was no way they were here for autographs or interviews.
“You’re just delaying the inevitable, Mr. Underlock.” The woman outside reminded him.
He didn’t offer a response. Instead his mind began to race. He shuffled through options like a Vegas dealers shuffle through cards.
He couldn’t run, that much was certain. He could barely outmatch the pace of leaves as the raced across his backyard. He could hide, call the cops and hope to scare the women off; the system was down but 911 would still do the trick. But he wasn’t sure what they wanted.
They weren’t crazed fans, that much was now certain to him, but they weren’t sales people either. They wanted something more from him. Were they going to rob him? Take his things? At this point, that would have been fine. He’d be ok with answering the door and ushering them in the same way someone invites a moving company in. But that wasn’t possible either. Their car was too small. The automobile could barely fit the two of them comfortably with their two large black bags. The curiosity of the situation began to worry him. He practically hoped they were here to rob him but even that began to feel too good to be true.
A battle waged in his head as the realistic part of his mind fought the animalistic; understanding vs. fight or flight. Reason said they weren’t here for trouble. Reason and experience reminded him that of all the panic attacks he had, all of them had been fruitless. Reason dictated that 99% of the time, people don’t get robbed, they don’t get hurt and they don’t get taken advantage of.
But that left 1%, and that 1% was what his animalistic brain hopelessly clung to. His heart quickened its pace as he began to revert to his old ways; as he began to accept the 1% as the improbable reality.
There was a feeling in his gut, a feeling he oft wrote about in his books. His characters had it at the rising action of his tales and it only went away in the falling action of the plot. He was all too familiar with the feeling of being uneasy; the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. That same uneasiness was happening to him now; and he was beginning to understand the disdain his characters felt. All of the sudden he felt a pang of guilt for the fictional people in his dozens of books. He regretted writing their make-believe pain for now he felt like a mouse caught between two cats.
He reached for his phone silently, just fifteen yards from the front door, he did not want broadcast his position. After lifting the receiver, he waited for the familiar sound of a dial tone.
But nothing made a reply, there was no dial tone or operator’s voice. The phone, like he was sure to be soon, was dead.
“And don’t bother with the phones,” the first voice scolded from beyond the door, “Come now, you know how this all works. Phones first, Mr. Underlock.”
His thoughts were interrupted by a few swift clicks at the door. He heard its old hinges cry out for WD-40 as the door swung open.
“Mr. Wiiinnnstonnn,” a smaller voice called out in his foyer with a melodic tone. A playful giggle escaped her lips, as if she thought of something rather funny. The girl entered into his home, indicating their malevolent intentions.
Panic gripped his chest as he now understood they weren’t here to steal his possessions.
They were here to steal his life.