Unhinged

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

Rafael Sabatini

Part 1:

You really suck up everything, don’t you? I am trying to change the dust bag on my vacuum cleaner without making a mess. It is always easier on TV than it really is. The cardboard top never slides down smoothly and when you detach it there is always dust floating out of the bag.

While I pull the bag down a brown spider climbs out. I scream and drop the bag on the tiled floor in the mud room. The beige colouring instantly got a gray layer. Now I have to vacuum again and possibly mop the floor to make sure that the dust did not get stuck in the grout between the tiles.

The spider goes straight for the baseboard and disappears in a crack in the corner. I look at the spilled dust. There is a screw in there. It is covered with fluff but still shiny. It has red and black painted rings on the cylinder. I pick it up, shook off the fluff, and walk out of the mud room leaving the mess behind.

The screw with its red and black coloured cylinder intrigues me. Where did it come from? I look around. What could possibly have a lot of screws around here? I check tables, chairs, the dinner trolley, and even look underneath the top of the kitchen island that functions as a bar when we entertain. Where could that screw come from? All DIY-jobs are delegated to my other half who gets to experiment in certain rooms only to avoid that a project takes over the entire house. So maybe I should look there.

The messy mud room now completely forgotten, I walk downstairs to check the finished and unfinished basements. The finished basement holds very little to solve my mystery. The tool box is not there and the room looks exactly the way I left it several days ago when I reorganized our shelving system. They were a do-it-yourself project. If one of those shelves was unsafe because it lost a screw it would be a disaster. We have those shelves with carved out holdings for glasses, wine bottles, and more. I put the screw down. I will subject the entire room to a meticulous inspection to see if anything is unscrewed. After two hours I am sure that everything is securely fastened. This means that I have to go into the unfinished basement.

I pick up the screw and stick it into the front pocket of my jeans. My feet don’t want to but I force them towards the door in the corner. That door badly needs a coat or two of paint. The previous owners had panted the door yellow to create some illusion of warmth and sunlight down here. Actually, they had painted every room in this house in a different colour. It had taken us weeks to repaint all the walls to cover up all the pinks, yellows, and Adobe baby blue hues.

The door’s knob is in an awkward place. The previous owners had placed all door handles at kid-friendly heights so aside from repainting the house we also re-handled the place. Naturally we only did the handles we use. By the time that we were done we were sick of it we decided to do other handles or knobs only when needed.

My right arm reaches down to grab the knob. It is really low so I need to lean in to the right. The knob does not turn smoothly. It turns a little but then it hits a ridge and it needs a short, firm upwards jerk to complete the turn. I use my left hand to push the door open. I hate this basement. First, there is the ice-cold wet smell of inferior wood that was used to build the basement stairs. Now combine that with old pieces of insulation, the rubbery smell of tires, and the aroma of old paint cans and paint remover. That’s what your nose meets first when you open the door.

But it is the dark that really gets to me. It isn’t just dark. It is creepy dark. I cannot describe it. It is the dark you see before you pass out, or when you wake up after surgery. You are somewhat awake and regain vision but without any images coming back into focus. I straighten my back and with my left hand I search for the light switch that hangs off to the left near the wall. You can hear the light come on. The flow of electricity is actually audible and it makes a crunchy sound connection with the bulb. Then the light comes on. It goes from very faint to instant eye-shattering bright. I close my eyes and slowly re-open them again.

I look down to make sure that I do not fall down the wooden stairs. They are unforgiving and since the wood is not treated, you will end up with splinters. I go down the stairs turning my feet slightly as the treads are narrow. I turn my body to the right and hold on to the railing but not too tight because that too is untreated.

The temperature difference is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and I wish I had a cardigan. My shoes hit the floor and make that sandy, scratchy sound like sandpaper on a rough surface. I crunch-crunch through the basement. I have to find out whether there are any projects down here that required colour coded screws. Who would colour code a screw anyway? While I think about this I cannot find anything that looks like a work-in-progress. Just the usual junk and items we should have gotten rid of decades ago but instead we moved it from house to house. Wait. If there are no projects here and we didn’t buy any screws than the only explanation is that someone brought the screw into our house.

Maybe it is the cold combined with the smell and the dark talking but a screw is a swindle so it could be a code to set a con into motion. The red and black could be the code for time, place, partners, and maybe even the type of con to take place.

My head spins into all directions. What had my partner once told me? What he did before we met was in another lifetime and didn’t matter anymore. And since he took that high paying engineering job it never occurred to me that maybe that other lifetime could be filled with things I do not want to know.

A screw, a swindle, a tell. A tell that someone left here and I wasn’t supposed to find it. That means that unless my partner was supposed to find it, there is someone else who will come to our house to find it. We are in danger!

I feel a panic attack coming up. I run towards the basement sliding windows and block the moving panel. I turn around and my eyes widen in horror. The coal chute! We always thought of the metal door as quaint relic of the past. We never thought about securing it from the inside as it didn’t seem wide or high enough to let a grown-up through. Aside from that, we have gravel outside the house where the coal chute is so we would hear it if anyone tried to approach the house. Come to think of it, we have gravel along three sides of the house and the front is not accessible without our motion sensors going off. So it is the roof!

I sprint up the basement stairs and kick the door open. I sprint through the finished basement and up the stairs to the first floor. I race to the kitchen where the builders attached another pair of stairs leading to the second floor. This house, a ranch, didn’t originally have a second floor. That was added later when the original owner sold the house to a family with kids. I have to pace myself here. This is a spiral stair case and if you run up too fast and bounce too hard on one tread you feel the entire staircase shaking. On the second floor, I go to the laundry room, grab a ladder, and carry it down the hallway. My heart is beating in my throat but I cannot stop now. I have to know whether someone is trying to get into the house through the roof.

I yank the rope to unlock the pull down stairs and yank the steps down. They hit the hallway hardwood floor and I am pretty sure they made a dent. I don’t care and secure the steps in their place. Like a chipmunk so fast, I climb the steps making sure that I do not hit my head when I stick it into the attic. I immediately get hit in the face and I scream. I forgot, the duct vent from the forced air unit faces towards the stairs. I open my eyes and carefully climb up trying to adjust to the minimal light in the attic. Then I walk over to the panel and turn the lights on.

I feel like I am in an out-of-body scene. It looks like I can see myself standing there trying to decide which side of the attic to inspect first. One side has equipment like the heating/AC unit, a dehumidifier, and some other unit but I cannot remember exactly what that unit does.

OH.MY.DEAR.GOD.

I do not know what that unit does but it is in my very own house! Of course that has to be related to the screw and the people behind it. Right now I regret that we do not have any weapons in the house. We do not have kids either so there are not even toy weapons around or a baseball bat. I turn left and right spinning my hair so often that it gets stuck in my mouth. That’s it!

We have Halloween costumes up here and some include wigs and other materials. I start rummaging through those bags until I find it: hairspray! I arm myself with Elnett and sneak up to the unit. His illusive presence in the attic ends now. I charge and attack it with a wolf like howl only to be bitterly disappointed. The unit isn’t a unit but merely a metal box.

It is dented, greenish-brown, with a lid on the top. The lid is rusty and doesn’t open immediately. I hesitate. Maybe I should check the rest of the attic first before exploring the box. Reluctantly I get up and start to inspect the rest of the floor and the roof. Nothing too suspicious. Just construction, insulation, and wiring. I have to assume that the wiring is for the heating/AC units. I am not sure why but I lean closer to the wires. I see red and black wires. And in between those red and black wires there is one that is red/black coloured. My heart beats in my throat and I just know that I have found the connection to the colour-coded screw. My eyes follow the wire and I see it goes down the wall. It leads to the metal box that isn’t an electrical unit.

This is it. My heartbeat just won’t go back to normal and the tension makes me dizzy. I carefully lift the metal box to see if there are any wires going through the ceiling down towards the second floor. When I touch the box something rolls inside it and I hear a sloshing sound from liquid.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and squat to lift the box. It smells awful. A metallic odor combined with rust and smoke. It isn’t heavy and now that I stopped panicking it is smaller than I first thought. It isn’t attached to anything. I carefully go down the stairs back to the second floor.

I do not go back to the spiral staircase. Instead I walk into the master bedroom and kick open the balcony doors. They open into a wrap-around porch that goes around the back of the second floor and winds down to the first floor. It was built by the previous owners who had a wheelchair-bound child and they wanted to give him some independence.

I never understood that because at the same time they installed a spiral staircase. Why would you install a spiral staircase when one of your kids is… unless there was a third family here! But the realtors only told us about two families. The original owners and the people they sold it to, the ones who installed the second floor with the spiral stairs case. Why would the realtors hide that there was a third family? Unless the realtors were making it possible for that third family to move in here and be inconspicuous until someone would come to pick up the metal box!

It all made sense now. The people in the swindle were the realtors and the third family. The colour-coded screw was a tell to indicate what it was they needed to come pick up. But the tell never reached the intended receiver in time. The third family moved away without picking up the box. I feel my nose tingling and I know I am hyperventilating again.

I reach the bottom of the wrap-around that ends into the front yard. I walk over to the driveway. If you look down the driveway you have a beautiful view of the mountains and forests. I love looking at the mountains. I close my eyes and I inhale the fresh air. It calms me. I look at the metal box and put it down.

I squat, place my left hand on the edge of the lid, take the handle in my right, and yank it open. I didn’t have to use a lot of energy and honestly, I feel a bit disappointed. Inside the box is an old Tupperware container with clear liquid in it. And there is a small cylinder box. The kind that used to hold film rolls.

What’s on the film? What’s the fluid? If it isn’t developer, what is it? I shake my head and wonder if my mind has come unhinged. The sun feels comforting on my face. I am mad at myself for not being in control. I sigh deeply, blow some unruly hairs out of my face, and mentally make a plan.

First, I am going to place the box in the unattached garage and secure it. Then, I am going to check our files to find the name of the realtor and the notes we made during the appraisal process. Then I will go online to see what I can find out about all these people.

Part 2:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am honored to be your keynote speaker at this symposium on the human mind. Let’s go straight to the presentation. The case I wish to discuss with you is a complex one. Patient-doctor confidentiality prevents me from disclosing certain details but I can share the following.

My patient’s mental breakdown occurred just a few months after moving into a new home. The house is a ranch e.g. a one story house and it has been remodeled several times. The original owners had no children. They relocated and sold the house to a family with children. That family installed the second floor with two stair cases: one standard one at the front of the house to reach the second floor and one spiral stair case in the kitchen. The new owners explained that decision as follows: the spiral stairs would give the wife and the children the possibility to use the kitchen unseen when the husband was hosting faculty and/or students.

Since hosting large meetings was a regular occurrence in that household, they decided to invest in that second staircase. The original staircase’s location is in the foyer across from the glass paneled front door. That door and location of the stairs make it impossible for the rest of the family to use the kitchen unseen. Slide #1 shows you the original building plans and here we see the adjustments made by the second family.

The authorities investigated the family and found no criminal records. The husband has an excellent reputation in the academic world and I do not doubt the family’s wish for privacy. The spiral staircase is in clear view in the kitchen. Had it been hidden behind a construction than I might have been tempted to further explore the second family. Therefore we will only concentrate on the third family that owned the house before it was sold to my patient and her husband.

My patient’s mental breakdown started when three things happened simultaneously: she was exchanging the dust bag from her vacuum cleaner, a spider crawled out, and she found a screw.

Analysis of all three occurrences is listed here on slide #2:

1: Changing the dust bag cannot be the cause of her current condition hence it will not be further explored.

2: the brown spider is dismissed as well.

3: the screw my patient found in the dirt that spilled out the dust bag had red and black painted rings on the cylinder. These painted rings set off a frenzy to find the place of origin. My patient’s initial reaction was that IF the screw was inside HER vacuum cleaner than the screw MUST have come from inside HER house. It never occurred to her to disregard the screw as miscellaneous dirt or to wonder whether the vacuum cleaner was a first or a second-hand purchase. As we will find out later, this screw played a major role in my patient’s behaviour.

As I mentioned before, the house was owned by three families before my patient and her husband bought it. The second family never invested in finishing the basement. They did finish part of the basement to make sure that the children had extra room to play. This is the finished part my patient uses for storage as you can see on slide #4.

When this family moved for reasons completely unrelated to this case, they sold the house to another family with children. This family too had no interest in the unfinished basement hence their reluctance to invest in finishing. This means that the basement never progressed past what the original builders placed inside the home: an unfinished standard model basement with untreated wooden stairs and unfinished walls.

The third family made significant changes to the house and these did play a role in my patient’s behaviour. One of their children was wheelchair bound. To encourage his independence, the parents had a contractor change all handles in the house to his level. The other children agreed that their sibling’s independence would be greatly improved if he could move around the house on his own. An example of the adjusted handles can be seen here on slide #5 that shows you the door to the library.

Slide #6 shows you the definition of a screw and as you can see the informal use of the word screw includes “a cheat or a swindle.” Why my patient thought that the coloring on the screw were code or a tell is something that stumped us and we are still exploring this. Now on to the wires.

My patient found several wires in the attic but mainly red ones and black ones. Those single coloured wires did not worry her as much as the one that was red/black. Upon further inspection, it turned out that the red/black wire was actually one red and one black wire that were rolled together. Due to age, they had become sticky and at-a-glance they looked like one wire. If she had taken a closer look she would have seen that the “single wire” was in fact a combination of two wires.

My patient panicked when she saw a box she didn’t recognize. As it was next to the loose hanging wire she assumed it was leading to it. The illusive red/black wire is simply a never removed remnant from a previous installed and removed heating system. It wasn’t attached to anything and after a safety inspection, it was removed. Now the metal box in question is another matter and I will get to that in a minute. Are there any questions so far?

Before we discuss the third family further I need to point out that my patient did indeed pick up the unknown box and took it to the unattached garage. There, she stored it in a locker. Several of my colleagues have pointed to this moment as it conflicts with appropriate behaviour. When in doubt about unknown fluids and materials found one should always call the authorities first and not store it anywhere near or inside a residence. It could be a health risk.

Other colleagues immediately pointed to the risk of combustion if certain fluids were stored in a hot, unventilated garage. My patient clearly did not think about these risks to her, her husband, the house, and the neighbourhood.

Can we get the next slide please? Thank you.

Here you can see the alterations to the house made by the third family to the house. As you will recall, this is the family that lowered all handles to accommodate a wheelchair bound son. They built a ramp from the second floor to the ground level to further enhance his independence. My patient used the ramp to walk down with the box towards the unattached garage. She rightfully questioned why the ramp started in the master bedroom. She speculated upon the parents keeping strict control over the son’s comings and goings as he would have to pass through their bedroom.

If you please look at slide #7 you can see that the master bedroom was the only upstairs bedroom with a bay window. Construction crews were able to transform that bay window into a double wide entrance. No other bedroom on the second floor gave the parents that option without breaking through supporting walls.

On slide #8 you see how the second floor was altered. The contractor made another master suite from two smaller bedrooms and one of the two hall bathrooms. The rest of the second floor was not altered.

As you will recall, authorities found no criminal records or any kind of complaints against the third family either. Their move was a result of their children’s college choices and the parents’ desire to not be too far away from them. After the break will go further into the treatment sessions we conducted with this patient.

Part 3:

“And so despite the fact that you did not know what fluids were in the box you thought it was a safe and prudent idea to store the box in an unventilated garage in a residential neighbourhood?”

“Yes, but … “

“And despite the fact that the entire box had terrified you before, you thought it was a safe and prudent idea to store that same box in an unventilated garage in a residential neighbourhood?”

“I wasn’t thinking straight I just…”

“Yes or no!”

“I really wanted to …”

“Objection, your honour! He is badgering my client.”

“YES OR NO!”

“Objection, Your Honour. Intimidation!”

“Answer me! YES OR NO!”

“Objection! Objection!”

“Counselors, in my chambers. Now!”

Inside his room, Judge York Callahan looked both counsels in the eyes. They knew better than to try and speak first. Both had dealt with him before. He saw that both were exhausted. The trial had been the result of a very public battle in which the media didn’t even bother to uphold one shred of integrity. It had been a slam dunk case as far as they were concerned and if tar and feathers were available, the defendant would not have made it into this courtroom.

He let his eyes wander over the court appointed criminal defense attorney’s. He had studied the defendant. She was gasping for air. Her face red and swollen. Her mental state was more than fragile and he was tempted to call recess to resume tomorrow hoping that she’d calm down. She worried him.

He glanced at his calendar. It didn’t look good. He could call recess but resuming tomorrow meant that several long scheduled trials would again be postponed definitely leading to a flood of Sixth Amendment appeals.

Judge Callahan grabbed his temples and rubbed his bold head. “Counselors, I am breaking up cross and will recess until after lunch. After that I expect patient and civil tones. I think we can wrap this up today. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

“One request, Your Honour. May my client be allowed to lunch in the conference room with her parents?”

“Any objections from the State?”

“No, Your Honour. No objections.”

“Granted.”

Back in court, Judge Callahan watched both counselors return to their seats. Then he raised his gavel. “We will be in recess until 1pm this afternoon.”

“All rise!”

Part 4:

“Hey babe, it’s me. How are you holding up?”

“It is hard to see her falling apart. She pled guilty to negligent homicide. I thought I could handle it but… “

“Pull yourself together and man-up! This was YOUR plan and you WILL see it through! Oh, God. I am so sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like that. It’s just that…”

Bitch, you greedy bitch! “I know, I know. This is getting to all of us but if we want to be together you better keep your cool too.” If not, I’ll kill ya!

“Yeah. Does she suspect anything?

“Nah, she did once ask me what I did for a living before I met her but I told her it was insignificant. She never brought it up again after I took the engineering job. Hey babe? I gotta go. I meet with the realtors tomorrow early, then the closing, and the lawyers. I will be in meetings all day so I better get some sleep.” And I don’t want to deal with you right now. I wonder if the guys are playing basketball later this evening. I might still be able to make it.

“How soon will you get the money?”

What the f… “The realtor from the buyers is bringing the banker’s check so right after my lawyer reads the contract and I sign, it is a done deal. The house is theirs and I get the check. Everything was in my name so…”

“Awesome!”

I am not sharing, babe. 

“And the divorce?”

There we have it. Pushing, pushing, pushing. “We have to be careful with that. We should wait until her first appeal is denied and then use that as leverage. I know that I can make her believe that being married to her while she’s incarcerated will be bad for my job situation. And I will promise her that we get married again after she gets released.”

“She’ll fall for that?”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure.” Of course she will. I know her better than anyone.

“And then you tell her that we met again and then what? Will she put two and two together?”

Well, she might. She’s more intelligent than you are. Dang it, I’ll miss that. “Babe! She has a history of meltdowns and mental illness runs in her family. It will be easy. No worries. I got this!” As long as you shut up!

“OK then. I trust you.”

And that will be your downfall. “I trust you too, babe. Gotta go now.” Yeah, right.

“Night, I love you!

“Yeah, yeah.”

Why does he never say I love you back?

Writing 101, Day #4: the serial killer

microphoneDay #4 and the assignment is right up my alley: serial killers. My background is in criminal law and criminology and I love that I can make this story fiction. I don’t know how many parts there will be but here is your introduction to …

The Substitute Lead Singer

Rodney was looking through his papers. Absent-mindedly, he sorted them in several piles: to file, to delegate, to shredder, and private. Cleaning up his desk did not turn out to be as easy as he thought it would be. An overwhelming feeling of loss had crept over him ever since he got some boxes from Deb, the secretary.

“You are the best boss I worked for, Chief. Gonna miss you.” With that she had handed over four folding boxes. When he looked down he saw she had already labelled them: private property of Vance County Police Chief Rodney Luc.

I swear I can see tears. Silly woman, so sentimental. But I am gonna miss her. The best and most efficient secretary on earth, that she is.

“Thank you, Ms. Brynn. I will miss you and the entire staff. Just promise me not to throw any last-minute parties, ok? I am not sure I can handle that … I mean, I’m not one for parties. OK?

“Yes, sir.”

I just know the guys have something planned. I just hope they will keep the speeches to a minimum. 

Back in his office, the outgoing Chief started to sort his files. All ongoing crimes, administrative papers such as his notes from Town Hall meetings and his monthly reviews with the local Fire Department Chief could stay where they are. The new Chief could reshuffle the content in the drawers if that’s what she wanted.

I wonder how she’s gonna hold up with all these guys. I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff here. I gotta warn her for Peeter and Zeke.

The new Chief had been elected a few weeks ago after Luc announced his retirement. Having been the Deputy Chief under Luc did not guarantee her the position. She had faced quite some competition especially from Chiefs from other states who had applied.

What had secured Athena’s election was her loyalty to her men and women through the worst crimes that had happened while Luc was in command … and had failed to provide leadership. Without once shattering her boss’ image and reputation she had silently stepped in and taken over from behind the scenes. Patrol knew who gave the orders. Investigations and Special Events were all aware who had designed their strategy. Athena had handled the briefings with grace and had instructed public relations. The official for the department was a trustee. Nobody ever knew.

Needless to say, Luc was grateful and so were the men and women who served under him. Thanks to Athena, the town stood united with their officers when Vance was hit.

Rodney looked up from his papers and grabbed a photograph from his desk. It was a picture taken backstage. Athena on his right, and the rock band on the left. The picture was unique as it featured the band’s front man. Normally, that would never have raised one eyebrow with anyone. But during one period in this band’s existence, they had a substitute lead singer.

“Chief?” Rodney looked up and saw Athena in the doorway. A short, strong woman with unruly curls look at him. “Are you ok?” The concern in her voice was obvious. She had agreed to stay in her own office for the first months of her tenure as Chief. No rush, that’s what she told everyone indicating she held Luc in the highest esteem and allowed him to set the pace in the transition.

“Remember this one, Teena?” Luc was the only one who was allowed to call her Teena. For everyone else especially the Mayor, she was Deputy Chief Hanson.

“Yes” she said softly walking towards the desk. “I read their last tour was a major success. But they are taking a break now, maybe do some recording.” Her eyes drifted to the spot in the Chief’s neck where he has the puncture wounds. The scars had faded over time but the skin had discoloured where the needles had entered his neck attempting to pump air into his aorta. Luc touched the spots. He knew she was looking but from her, the woman who saved him, he could handle it.

As his fingers caressed the scar tissue, his thoughts went back to the time the Benedict Brothers’ tour brought them to Vance for three concerts. All sold out within minutes after the ticket office of the Vance Stadium opened.

It had been a bad winter and many were down with the flu. The band was struggling too. The band members were all under treatment. Luc and Hanson had met with the manager. He had impressed on them to have their finest physicians on call. “If Adam catches a cold it will affect his voice and we are ruined!”

The ruin did not come from the flu. It came from the past where someone had watched Adam and the band. Where someone had made use of the many press releases, Twitter updates, and photography to plot a course while strengthening their muscles and studying the band’s repertoire. Especially Adam’s vocals, mimics, the mike’s position, and his breathing pattern.

Of course, the band traveled with some musicians who had performed with them before and who were familiar with their repertoire. But replacing Adam meant a radical change. As front man, he was their face, he got the fans going, and his voice … unique. The band had experimented with different singers when Adam took paternity leave. The fans understood but the sound … it just wasn’t the same.

“Who knew that he was bat-shit-crazy?” Luc shook his head. Athena sighed and sat down. “We missed clues in the beginning, Chief. We disregarded the mother’s warning because she was so obviously spiteful.”

“A mistake that costs us people.” Luc turned away to study his calendar wall. While he took that moment to compose himself Athena’s hand searched for the pendant Adam gave her after he recovered. The inscription said simply “With Love, Adam” but it meant much more.

UPDATE: this post became a long short story of 13 parts and is included in my ebook.