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The Stranger

by Susan P. Blevins

Susan was born in England and moved to Italy when she was 20, where she lived for 26 years, taking a couple of years off to go live in Alaska and work in various canneries, and in Nevada, where she worked as a croupier in one of the casinos. She moved to Taos, NM, and renovated an 1830’s adobe, building a garden around it that was on HGTV and on the cover of various magazines. She left her garden paradise in 2006 and moved to Houston, where she currently resides. Fortunately she is an introvert so the Covid isolation is no hardship for her. Her home is her castle, where she loves to read, play piano, work in her tiny garden (and those of her neighbors), and of course write. She had a weekly column in an international newspaper when she lived in Rome, and now has work published in various literary magazines across the world. She hopes to resume reading for the blind when the pandemic dies down. She is cat-crazy and currently lives with Jamila, the most beautiful cat ever. 

Sitting on the sidewalk outside my neighborhood cafe this morning reading my book, I glanced up when I heard shuffling steps, and saw an old man, whom I vaguely recognized as living just two doors down from me. He sat down at a table to peruse the menu and I found myself studying him, though with circumspection. His complexion was waxy and sallow, his head cadaverous. He was holding up a pair of baggy shorts on his angular, coat-hanger body, boney legs slightly bowed, and on his unmuscled chest he wore an expensive shirt, hanging loose and too large on his slight frame. But it was his eyes, and the curve of his mouth, that caused me a sharp intake of breath. His eyes were the color of stainless steel, and just as warm, and his mouth, turned down at the corners, was thin and cruel. I sensed that here was a soul beyond redemption.

He had a magnetism about him that I did not understand and was powerless to resist. Covertly I continued watching him, sipping my cappuccino with an unease quite new to me, pretending to read my book. He must have sensed something, for he turned his hard gaze in my direction, and I found myself staring at pure evil. Never had I seen such malevolence written on anyone’s face, but his eyes, oh my God, his eyes told a story I didn’t want to know. His gaze was adamantine, the harshest eyes ever to challenge me, and, like a fencer in a duel whose rapier is deflected by a more skillful opponent, I lowered my eyes in surrender. So malignant was his demeanor that I shivered involuntarily, in spite of the summer heat. I looked away, but kept being drawn back towards the sinister pall pulsing around him. I could not stop my imagination from careening out of control. I had no doubt at all that I was sitting downwind from a man who in his long life had killed, and killed without compunction. My God, an old man who’s a serial killer living almost on my doorstep? In such a respectable part of town?  How was it possible?

I saw him dressed in the uniform of the Gestapo, seated at a table, delicately drinking champagne and eating a bloody steak, while in front of him a prisoner was being systematically tortured by two soldiers.

As I was in the middle of this horrifying daydream, he reached across his breakfast eggs and bacon and dunked his bunched fingers into his glass of orange juice. His fisted fingers plunged into the juice up to his knuckles, which he then proceeded to suck. This too became part of my inner scenario.

I saw him get up from his meal, steak knife in hand, go over to the prisoner in his final agony, and stick the knife into the wretch’s belly. He sliced back and forth until blood and guts ran onto the floor and down his unrelenting arm. Like a ghoul, he plunged his fist deep into the bloody cavity, stirring it around, a demonic smile lurking on his face, almost childlike enjoyment emanating from him. Then he pulled out his fist and started to lick the blood from it, finger by finger, like a fancy socialite after a lobster dinner at La Tour d’Argent in Paris.

I jerked myself out of this unexpected nightmare and sipped my coffee with heart now pounding precipitously. I could not understand what was happening to me, but no sooner had I uprooted this vision from my mind, than another scene followed, more terrible than the first.

I saw him coming home when his wife was not expecting him, finding her in bed with her lover. The monster knew exactly what he was going to find and had come home prepared. He brought his 9 mm gun from behind his back, silencer already attached, and calmly shot them both dead. Their bodies lay bleeding on the white sheets, witnessed by my reluctant eyes. But no, this was not the end. He was not going to allow himself to be caught for this vicious crime. He padded on bare feet into the kitchen and returned with a roll of plastic sheeting, a meat knife, a saw, and the clippers used to cut a whole chicken into tidy portions.

He carved the bodies into chunks on the plastic sheeting, all the while whistling a tuneless tune to himself. When they were neatly bagged, he put all the bloody evidence in another bag, together with his own sodden clothing, and carefully tied everything up.   After a quick shower, he slipped into clean clothes, then ferried the bags to the roomy Yukon SUV in his garage, and drove off to dispose of them far out at sea from the deck of his boat.

By this time, a cappuccino was not enough for me. My heart was now running amok. I stood up, almost knocking over the table, intent only on escaping as fast as possible from this monster and the sulfurous fog of evil swirling around him. I needed a whiskey, even though it was only midmorning. I headed towards the nearest bar I could find, heedless of the time or what people might think. I was afraid as never before in my life, afraid he could somehow penetrate my mind and discover what I had seen, or worse, discover where I lived. I did not want to catch his eye again, nor did I want to sit within a hundred miles of him.  

At the thought of what he was capable of inflicting on me, I felt the suffocating embrace of fear squeezing the breath out of my body, to the point where I had difficulty walking away from the café on trembling legs. I felt his eyes boring into my back like red-hot pokers intent on skewering me alive, like another butterfly to add to his collection. My lurid fantasy trailed shamelessly behind me like a spurned lover, as I walked away down the busy street. I had to put an end to my hellish imaginings at once, and regain my composure, or I would not sleep a wink tonight.

The rest of the day was troubled and disturbed, and I could not focus on any of my tasks in hand. I could not shake off the negative mantel of fear he had cast around me.  I sat down at my piano and tried to play a Chopin nocturne, but my fingers shook too much. And now, the bed time I had dreaded all day is here, and I am loathe to put out the light.  I try reading my book to distract me, and eventually feel sufficiently sleepy to turn off my light and drift into an unsettled sleep.

With a start I awaken, or think I do, hearing a noise which seems to come from downstairs, perhaps someone opening my back door. My breathing is irregular as I hold it, listening to the alien sounds. I hear one of my stairs creak and adrenalin floods my body. Silence follows and I lie in my bed uneasy and sweating slightly. I open my eyes and see the old man from the cafe standing by my bed, and just as I had imagined in my earlier fantasies, he has a knife in his hand. Our eyes lock in the dim light coming into the room from the street lamp outside my window, and like a cobra’s prey, I feel paralyzed and cannot move. He slips off his backpack, pulls out cords and proceeds to tie me to the bedposts, arms and legs spread-eagled.

He turns on my bedside light the better to see what he is doing, and pulls something else from his pack: oh dear God, it’s the same clippers I’d seen him use on his wife and her lover in my earlier imaginings.

“How did you find me?”

“Oh that was easy. I knew who you were. I’ve seen you going to and from your house regularly. I saw that you needed a drink before walking home earlier.” He paused, smiling slightly,

“You usually count sheep to help you fall asleep, don’t you?”

I nod my head, dumb as though he had cut out my tongue.

“Well, tonight you can count something else. I’m going to cut off the joints of your fingers, and you’re going to say out loud ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, each time I cut off a piece.

“If you cut off my fingers I’ll never be able to play the piano again,” I sobbed.

He gives a mirthless laugh and says,

“You won’t be able to play the piano or do anything else by the time I’ve finished with you. When I’ve removed all your extremities I shall kill you. I saw the way you looked at me this morning at the cafe, and I could see that you knew what I am, and worse, who I am. I cannot allow you to live, and I will make you suffer for your psychic vision. I’ve got away with murdering not just my wife and her lover, but a nosy neighbor too, so you really think I can’t kill you and get away with it?”

He takes my hand quickly in his and snips off the last joint of the little finger on my left hand. The pain is sudden and shocking. He prods me with his clippers.

“Well, start counting.”

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