Free Short Story: Are you Lonesome Tonight?

 

Nigel stared at the photos in the local newspaper as he ran his hands through his thinning hair. They had turned him into a laughing stock. His clumsy fingers traced the letters of the caption. Nigel No-friends?, it read. Beneath the photos, they had portrayed his attempts to make new friends as a joke.

Life had been lonely since his mother had died. Cooped up in the house caring for her for the past twenty years had robbed him of any chance of a social life or forming solid friendships. He had tried, in the early days, to invite a few people home but his mother had chased them from the house with her groans of pain and suffering. That, or her scratched Elvis records she played too loudly because she was hard of hearing. Once she had actually wet herself. Right there at the table. He was certain she had done it with intent. She seemed to like having him all to herself. After a while, he had just given up and satisfied himself with her company.

Now she was gone. A strange grin played across his face at the thought.

He returned his attention to the newspaper. There it was. His first letter he had tacked up on the fence post outside the bowling alley.

 

Hi,

I like stamp collecting. If you do too,
meet me here tomorrow at 4pm. I can
bring my collection and maybe you can
show me yours too. If you like bowling,
I’ll shout you to a game, but you’ll have
to pay for your own refreshments.

Nigel

 

He had liked bowling the one time he had tried it as a young man. He hoped to find a friend who did too. He had waited nearly an hour but not one person had shown up. He did not understand. Wasn’t anyone interested in making friends any more?

They had also photographed another of his letters that he had posted up outside the local mall. He had seen a lot of people just sitting outside the doors loitering, probably just as lonely as he was. But on the day he asked them to meet him there to go to the pinball arcade together suddenly not a single person was present, even though he had challenged them to a game for fifty cents prize money. Again, he could not understand why.

Well it was certain that nobody was going to show up today for his latest letter he had posted outside the library. Not after the mockery the newspaper had just made of him. There was no point to him even going. He could feel his blood begin to boil, the way it did when his mother had chastised him about not getting her morning cup of tea just right. If there was just a little too much milk, or it was slightly weaker than she preferred… He pushed the unpleasant memory from his mind. He did not have to worry about it anymore.

The old house creaked as it moved and settled in the wind. He shifted in his seat, trying to push away the feeling that she was still watching, just waiting for him to fail in some way so she could pounce. He knew that was not possible.

His anger coursed into his big hands so that when he turned the page of the newspaper, it separated with a loud tearing sound. He picked up the page then screwed it into a tight ball, throwing it away from him as hard as he could.

He tried to return his concentration to the newspaper but the quaint stories about all the do-gooders in his neighborhood only amplified his anger. Why couldn’t anybody notice him and the sacrifices he had made all these years?

As the thought faded, he glanced down to see the obituary page staring back at him. An idea started to form in his mind. He got up in search of a pen and paper. Then he sat down to compose his next letter. When he finished it, he addressed it to an infamous serial killer he had read about, care of the prison in which he was interned.

For the next week, Nigel checked his letterbox for a reply with religious regularity. He had almost given up on receiving a letter back. When he heard the idling of the postman’s motor scooter at his front gate, he ambled down the path anticipating disappointment yet again. The rusting letterbox groaned in complaint as he slowly lifted the lid. When his hand pulled the yellow envelope from the box with the prison stamp on the top left corner, he almost dropped it from his shaking hand.

He raced back to the house then propped the letter up on the table against the salt and pepper shakers. They were the good crystal ones his mother nagged him to use only for special occasions. Now he could use whatever he liked so he kept them on the table all the time, just to spite her. The letter looked so good against them that he hardly wanted to disturb the arrangement. He moved to the sink to make a pot of tea.

Nigel sat sipping his tea, not taking his eye off the envelope. Finally, his eagerness got the better of him. He slit open the top of the envelope with the carving knife that he had set on the table just for this reason. He held the knife up against the light, admiring it yet slightly concerned at the way it glinted menacingly.

Dear Nigel, the letter began. He read it aloud so he could hear how it sounded. “Dear Nigel.” He smiled broadly. Yes, that was how one addressed a friend. He read on, hoping he had finally found someone to connect with over a common interest.

Nigel had filled his bookshelves with real life crime books, much to his mother’s dismay. She had made him keep them in his room, out of her vision, but now they held pride of place on the bookshelf in the living room. When he had first heard about Boris the Butcher, he had been the first one outside the bookshop on the morning of its release. He had posted his copy to the prison and to his delight it had returned as he had requested, personally signed by the serial killer himself. Boris had not written Dear Nigel that time; just signed it with his bold signature. He clutched the letter to his chest before reading on.

Boris had outlined for him all the details of his first crime. From the way he chose his victim, to the weapons he used and the way he disposed of the body. By the time Nigel had finished reading the letter, he felt armed with all the information he needed to plan his first crime. He did not want to follow everything Boris the Butcher had done. He wanted people to know him for his own methods. He sat down to compose his next letter. He had to come up with something that would bring at least one person to his chosen location. He scratched the dry skin on his arms absentmindedly until it came to him. Of course! He would offer a reward. His pen started to move across the page.

 

Hi,

Last night I lost a small diamond ring
near here. If you find it, meet me here at
5.30pm today. It was my Mother’s
ring so I will be happy to pay a
small reward for its return, or if you
prefer you can drop over for a cup of tea.

Nigel

 

Nigel had watched the crowds of people that herded out of the train station around 5.30pm each day on their way home from work. He had a good view of the station from his mother’s bedroom window and had always envied them their freedom. He waited until about four o’clock the next day to post his letter on a light pole in the station car park. He placed the ring not far from the pole near a garden bed so the person who found it would be likely to see the notice, or vice versa. Now he just had to hope that someone honest found the ring. If they took it, he would try again tomorrow. His mother had a jewelry box full of rings that were no longer of any use to her.

Nigel wished he had a car. In most of the abductions he had seen in crime shows, they bundled the unsuspecting victim into a car. He doubted he could abduct someone successfully on his bicycle. He would have to rely on his charm and wit to lure the victim home.

He sat on the station wringing his hands in his lap, trying to look as if he were waiting for someone from the train. As the train pulled into the station, he stood then melted into the crowd. He noticed a few people stop briefly to read his letter then look quickly around the immediate vicinity, before moving on with little regard. Maybe he had left the ring too far away from the sign. The last of the crowd passed the light pole without even a sideways glance. Nigel dropped his head. He would have to try again tomorrow. He was about to walk over to collect the ring, when an elderly woman hobbled out from the train platform with the aide of a walking stick. It had taken her longer to walk the long platform than the younger members of the workforce.

She stopped at the post for a rest and peered at his letter for some time, pushing her wire-rimmed glasses closer to her eyes. She turned around slowly as a cloud moved away from the failing sun. There was just enough light left in the sun to cause the diamond to glint. She leant down with great effort to pick it up.

Nigel looked at his watch. It was 5.29pm. He walked toward the woman with an affable smile.

“Hello there. I’m Nigel. I see you’ve found my ring.” He had practiced in front of the mirror so that the voice that came out was kindly and gentle.

The woman looked at the piece of jewelry in her hand. “It’s beautiful. You must have been so distraught to have lost it.”

Nigel played along. “Oh yes. You remind me of Mother, you know. Such a dear woman she was.

The elderly woman seemed to glow under warmth of the compliment. He sensed some of his own loneliness beneath her smile.

“Look, I’d really like to give you a reward for finding it. It just meant so much to me,” Nigel smiled back. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you.”

“Oh dear, that’s not really necessary.” The woman paused. “But the pension doesn’t really go far these days…”

“Mother found it hard too.” Nigel pointed across the road. “See that green house over there. That was hers. I used to help her to look after it. Now I live there. Sometimes, I think she still looks over me.”

The woman squinted through her glasses. “Yes. It’s very grand.”

Nigel patted his pockets. “Damn, I’ve left my wallet at home in my race over here. I was running a bit late sorry and didn’t want to miss anyone who might have found the ring. Why don’t you just come over with me for a minute so I can give you a token of my appreciation.”

“Well, I don’t really know.” She looked at her walking stick as if summing up whether it would be a reliable weapon. Then the thought of the additional money must have overcome her fears. “OK. But my bus will be here in fifteen minutes. I can’t stay for a cuppa or anything.”

Nigel had to bite his lip to stop from growling. She really did remind him of his mother. He would not be making tea for any elderly ladies ever again!

He walked slowly so the woman could keep up. When he got to his front gate, she put her hand on his shoulder to hold herself up. He could see she was puffing from the exertion of crossing the road. He suddenly felt sorry for her.

Who was he kidding? He was no serial killer. He wasn’t even able to kill the mouse that his mother complained about constantly. She had asked him to poison it, but instead he left out tidbits to encourage it to stay. Partly he had done it to annoy her, but partly because he felt sorry for the timid creature that frequently wore the end of his mother’s broomstick which was as sharp as her tongue.

He reached down then opened the woman’s hand, placing the ring into it. “Look, why don’t I just give you this. I’m sure you will value it as much as she did.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” the woman said but she met his eyes with an expression of longing. She slipped it on to her finger then admired it in the last rays of the sun.

“Take it, please,” Nigel coaxed. “I really want you to have it.”

“Well OK, if you insist. I promise I will cherish it as much as you both did.”

Nigel walked the woman back across the road then left her safely on the bus seat.

 

The next day Nigel stood outside the workers’ pub down near the wharves. A grand old lady in her heyday, the pub was now a dilapidated building with peeling paintwork and rusted iron balustrades. The clientele consisted of tattooed, beer-bellied men in dirty singlets and the occasional woman who looked like she could do with a good scrub. He felt out of place in his short-sleeved business shirt. He wondered for a moment if he should remove it, but his pristine white singlet beneath would have made him stick out like dog’s balls in this crowd. He snickered at the thought of using that phrase aloud. His mother would turn in her grave.

He sidled up to the bar then sat on one of the vinyl-covered stools. The sharp cracks in the time-hardened coverings bit at his legs as his shorts rode up his thighs. He pulled them down as far as he could as the bartender approached him.

“What’ll it be mate?”

Nigel had not drunk anything but a small sherry with his mother for years. He hesitated, looking at the beer taps. He would need a bit of Dutch courage to strike up a conversation with some of these painted clowns. “Make it a XXXX, heavy,” he replied.

“Schooner or pot mate.”

“Heck, make it a schooner.” He was feeling daring tonight.

After two more beers, Nigel’s courage had built. He struck up a conversation with a large red-nosed gent to his left. He looked safer than the loutish fellows brandishing pool sticks across the way.

“Done any time?” Nigel asked part way into the conversation.

“Yeah mate, a few break and enters, car stealing, is all. How ’bout you?”

“Never been caught mate.” He smirked.

“Caught doing what?”

“Murder.”

“Ya jackin’ me. You don’t look like the type.” The man moved his stool closer, eager to hear more.

Nigel lowered his voice and gave him all the details that Boris the Butcher had sent to him in the letter.

“How do I know ya not just yankin’ me chain?”

“Hey buddy,” Nigel summoned the barman. “You got today’s newspaper handy?” He took it from the barmen then handed it to his new friend without opening it.

“Cook’s the name. Check it out.”

The man started to flick through the newspaper, not sure of what he was looking for. Nigel helped him by lifting a few pages until it opened at the obituary section. There is was. A heartfelt message from his late wife and family, the Cooks. Taken from us before his time, Nigel recited.

“Whoa, that was you?” The man patted him on the back. “What ya drinkin’ mate? My shout.”

When Nigel put his head down on his pillow that night, he found it difficult to sleep in his energized state. He had just made a new friend. Glancing over at the clock, he decided to get up again and watch television until he was tired. There was nobody there to complain about it any more. He could even fall asleep on the couch if he wanted to.

 

Over the next few weeks, Nigel found himself frequenting bars similar to the one in which he’d revealed the details of his first crime. He never returned to the same bar, just in case someone woke up to the fact that he had not really murdered the deceased people he had been selecting from the obituary section. His story seemed to work. He found new friends in every bar to listen to his stories and hold him in esteem. He had now started sharing them with small groups of people and sometimes the bartender would even listen in. It was this growth in confidence that proved to be his downfall.

Nigel was dressing for another night out when there was a loud knock at his door. Who would be visiting him? He never gave out his address. He opened the door cautiously to find a boot thrust in the opening then a strong set of shoulders pushed the door into him.

“Nigel Waller, you are under arrest for the murder of Jodie Frank. You have the right to remain silent but anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

Nigel stared at the police detective, dumbfounded. Jodie Frank was the name he had taken from the obituary two days ago. He had not known who she was, and he certainly had not murdered her. He barely heard the rest of his rights read out as the burly detective slapped the cuffs on his wrists then shoved him toward the police car.

When they reached the station, the detective led him into a brightly lit interview room, removed his handcuffs then left locking the door behind him. Nigel sat in the hard plastic chair biting at what little was left of his fingernails. He had not been game to utter a word since his arrest. He jumped as the door opened then the detective came back into the room, taking a seat opposite him. A uniformed officer stood at the door exuding menace into the room.

The detective slapped a series of photos down on the table that depicted a woman with deep stab wounds to her body. She was naked except for her shoes and earrings. The photographer had taken close up shots of these. It also looked like someone had taken care to freshly apply her lipstick and comb her hair.

Nigel looked up at the officer in bewilderment. This was Jodie Frank? Someone had killed her in the very same manner that he had described to a group of men at a dodgy bar two nights before. It just couldn’t be.

“A fairly reliable witness has told us how you gloated to him about committing this murder. Start talking,” the detective demanded.

So he did. Nigel told them the whole sorry story about how he had just wanted to be liked and admired and make some friends. The detective shook his head and spoke condescendingly, making him feel the same way his mother had made him feel. He looked down at the table in shame as he continued with his story. When he had finished, he looked up, making eye contact with the detective again. He was not sure what he saw in his eyes now. Was it disbelief, pity or a mixture of both?

“How the hell do you expect me to believe that cock and bull story when the details of the crime exactly match what our witness told us?”

“I…I…don’t know,” Nigel stammered. “But I swear it wasn’t me.”

“Did you tell anyone else about this?”

Nigel let his mind wander back over the past few weeks. Yes. He had used the same M.O. before. It was the very first night at the wharfie pub. He’d run out of stories so he had reworked that one two nights ago. He relayed this to the detective and gave him a description of the man he had talked to that night. Could he have committed this crime? How ironic that he had picked the murdered woman from the obituary pages two days ago.

They threw him in the slammer anyway. He’d had to share with a dirty man who snored loudly. When they came to get him the next day, his bladder was ready to burst. He had refused to use the urinal in the cell for lack of privacy.

“You can go mate,” the detective grumbled. “And don’t be going around telling stupid stories any more, ya hear me, or I’ll have you arrested for wasting my time.”

“Yes detective. I promise I won’t. But can you tell me. Was it him?”

“Yeah, got his DNA from the crime scene. Guess I should thank you for tipping us off.”

The fear and bewilderment that had surrounded Nigel the previous evening was replaced by a cool complacency. “No problem detective. I told you I never killed anyone.”

Nigel walked out of the police station then sucked the fresh night air into his lungs. When he got home he showered, washing away the stench of the prison bed and his filthy cellmate. There was still a nasty odour in the air. He replaced the canister in the automatic air freshener unit. It must have run out overnight while he was away.

He headed toward the basement with another can of air freshener in his hand. He unlocked the door then was overcome by an even fouler stench. He walked down the steps absentmindedly humming his mother’s favourite Elvis song. He sprayed the can as he went.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he stopped dead. The movement of one of his mother’s arms startled him. He picked up the large carving knife beside her then plunged it into her chest, just as he had done that night when he finally couldn’t take any more of her criticism.

A set of whiskers appeared through the tear in the fabric, followed by two jet black eyes. “Oh, sorry buddy,” Nigel said to the mouse. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You know I wouldn’t even be capable of harming a fly.”

The Elvis song still played in his mind as he pulled a piece of cheese from his pocket. “Are you lonesome tonight too?” He put his hand down in front of the mouse with the cheese in his palm. It raised its tiny nose with an appreciative sniff then climbed onto his hand. Without looking back, he ascended the stairs with his new friend.

Reproduced from The Appointed Hour, © Lea Scott 2012

 

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Lea Scott