Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, and elsewhere.
The letters were always the same, a single sheet of paper in a plain white envelope with no return address. Typed and centered on the single sheet was:
I know you killed them
Bill and Molly Dartz used to live in the house across the street from me. They were a friendly couple with three well-behaved pre-teen children. Bill grew a lawn that was the envy of all the brown thumbs in the neighborhood and washed the family car in the driveway on sunny Saturday mornings. Molly baked cookies and cakes she dispensed freely on birthdays and hosted the annual Neighborhood Watch party. The Dartz family was the kind of family anyone would want in the house next door.
Then one night they were murdered, all five of them.
I didn’t kill them, but I am glad they are dead, especially Molly. I had a thing for Molly. She was hot and I was interested in her but she didn’t openly reciprocate. Instead, she dismissed my subtle but unmistakable advances with an airy insouciance that made me want her even more.
About a year before their deaths I had a patio party and invited neighborhood friends, including Bill and Molly. It was a good party. People were on the patio relaxing under the flowering jacaranda trees, eating, drinking, yakking it up and having a great time.
I went into the house for something and a few moments later Molly came into the kitchen where I was and stood so close to me I could smell her perfume.
She said, “What a wonderful party, Karl. We should have these more often, so we get to know each other.” She rattled the ice in her glass, took a sip and smiled at me. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were on more intimate terms?”
That was it, the signal I had waited for. I spun her around, pushed her face down on the kitchen table, pulled her dress up and her panties down and took her. She grunted repeatedly as I rode her but she didn’t resist. Her glass thumped on the table every time I thrust into her. After I finished, she straightened her clothing, threw the remains of her drink in my face and said, “You bastard,” and rejoined the people on the patio. Neither she nor I ever mentioned the incident and we went on like nothing had happened. Bill didn’t say anything about it either, which meant Molly didn’t tell him. Bill Dartz wasn’t the kind of man to let something like that slide, especially if it involved his wife. Her death freed me from anybody ever knowing what I did to her that night.
Paul, Jake, Vinny, George, and I got together for our weekly poker game at my house two days after the Dartz family was killed. We began to speculate about their deaths. For sure, we didn’t know a thing about what had really happened, but that didn’t stop us from letting our imaginations run unchecked.
“It’s got to be a major drug deal gone bad,” said Jake who lived two houses down. “That’s why the kids were killed. To send a message. You know what those cartels are like. Barbaric bastards.”
Our poker game paused as we voiced our opinions on the Dartz murders.
“Nah, it was a sex thing that got out of hand,” countered George, a dough-faced little man. “Molly was one hot babe and she let everybody know it. She was probably drilling some dude on the side then dumped him. He got even by knocking off the whole family. George grinned. “Hoo-boy, I’da done her in a Minnesota minute.”
“You wish she was doing you, George,” Vinny said, “but you’re butt ugly, man. You probably killed them when Molly told you to put your wanker back in your pants after she stopped laughing at it.”
George said, “The wife’s going crazy over those murders. She thinks there’s a killer in the neighborhood.”
“I bet they were killed by a cult they were trying to escape,” said Paul. “Bill Dartz was just too damn good to be real, you ask me. Wouldn’t surprise me if the dude was some kind of religious crank. He was probably into sacrifices, only he’s the one who got axed.” Paul chuckled at his bit of macabre wit.
“Maybe it really is somebody in the neighborhood who killed them,” Vinny said. He looked around the table. “What if we know who it is?”
“Jesus, Vinny, that’s cold. You think one of us did it?” said Paul.
“No, not one of us, but somebody in the neighborhood. We just don’t know who it is yet.”
“Enough about the Dartz murders. We’re here to play some serious poker,” I said and dealt a new hand. Bets and raises went around until we hit the limit and George called. Jake won the pot with a full house, queens over eights, beating Vinny’s three tens.
The game broke up two hours later without any more comments about the Dartz deaths.
The police released a brief account of the Dartz murders; apparently all five family members were killed execution style, side by side on their knees. There were no signs of forced entry, violence, or other trauma, leading the police to believe the Dartz family knew who killed them. The police released no further details, and no arrests were ever made.
Weeks later, after some interior clean-up, the Dartz house went on the market and was bought by a single, middle-age woman. The letters started arriving one week after the woman moved in.
I had no idea who was sending them. I thought it was some kind of prank at first, but when the letters continued to arrive regularly over the ensuing weeks I dismissed the prank notion and contacted the police. Somebody, I told them, was ragging me.
In response to my complaint, a detective sergeant came to my house. “What’s this about,” he asked after reading one of the letters.
“The Dartz murders. They were killed in the house across the street. At first, I thought the letters were a prank, but now I’m not so sure.”
“I think you’re right, Mr. Marvis. Looks like a prank,” he said after reading one of the letters again. “Somebody’s having a little fun at your expense.”
“These aren’t funny, prank or not. I don’t like them. They’re pissing me off. And the accusation is untrue.”
“There isn’t much we can do. The letters don’t threaten you in any way. They don’t accuse you by name. They’re pretty innocuous.” The sergeant thought for a moment then asked, “Do you have a friend who might be doing this?”
“No, I don’t.”
The sergeant shrugged. “I’m sorry I can’t offer more. If you had a name you could get a restraining order against them, maybe even take them to court for harassment.”
“If I knew who was responsible I’d kick their ass.”
“The letters don’t threaten you with bodily harm. We can act on threats but until that happens there isn’t much we can do, Mr. Marvis.” Before the sergeant left, he said, “You’re being pranked, Mr. Marvis. My hunch is it’s one of your friends.”
After the sergeant left I walked over to Jake’s house. We sat down and I showed him one of the letters. “I started getting one of these in the mail every week right after the Dartz house sold,” I said. “Are you getting anything like this?”
Jake read the letter then got up and left the room. He returned a few minutes later and handed me a piece of paper.
It was identical to the letters I had received. I handed it back to Jake. “Is anybody else in the neighborhood getting these?” I asked.
“Does he know who’s sending them?”
“It has to be somebody who knows us.”
“Probably. They’re scaring the shit out of George’s wife. She thinks he, or one of us, is a mass murderer.” Jake chuckled at the idea of fat little George being a mass murderer.
“What if he is?”
“What if he’s what?”
“A mass murderer.”
“For Christ’s sake, don’t be ridiculous, Karl. George didn’t kill anybody.”
“You don’t know that. You just said his wife thinks he did it.”
"Karl, she’s joking.”
“Well, hell, maybe you killed them and the letters are a coverup for what you did.”
“I didn’t kill them and you know it.”
“I don’t know it, Jake.”
“You live right across the street, Karl. How do we know you didn’t waltz over that night and knock them off? You knew them. The police believe the Dartz’s knew their killer. And you have a temper, Karl. It’s easy to push your hot button. Everybody knows that.”
“Jesus Christ, Jake, that doesn’t mean I killed them.” I got up. “How about Vinny and Paul? Are they getting these letters?”
“Yes, they are.”
On the walk home, I decided to ask for a get-together. Perhaps the five of us could figure out who was behind this.
George was the last of the group to arrive. “Sorry I’m late. These letters have spooked the hell out of my wife. Jesus, she’s a mess. I almost had to stay home tonight.” He plopped down on the sofa.
We sat in my living room. I poured drinks for everybody then sat down. “Who is doing this?” I said.
“Beats me,” said Vinny.
“Wish I knew,” Paul said.
“Does the asshole sending these letters really believe one of us killed the Dartz’s?” asked George.
“None of us killed them, but that doesn’t tell us who’s sending them.” said Vinny.
We talked around the issue, trying to eliminate neighbors based on what we knew about them. We didn’t reach any conclusions that answered the question of Who?
“Look,” said Jake, “the letters started arriving pretty soon after the Dartz’s were killed. What changed in the neighborhood?”
“The woman who bought the Dartz house,” said George. “She’s new to the neighborhood.”
“Why would she send us these letters?” said Vinny. “Does anybody know her? I don’t even know her name. I hardly ever see her. She never comes out of her house.”
“All of us started getting these letters right after she moved in,” said Paul. “She’s got to be the one sending them.”
We kicked that idea around and decided she must be the source of the letters. “What are we going to do about it?” asked Vinny.
“Confront her,” I said. “Call her ass out.”
“We got to do something,” said George. “These letters are making my wife crazy.”
“Who tells the woman to knock it off?” asked Jake.
“Wait,” said Vinny. “We don’t have any proof she’s the one. What if we’re wrong about her?” He looked at each of us. “What do we even know about her?”
“We don’t need to know anything about her,” said George. “We’ve lived in this neighborhood for years. We know each other. She’s the only newcomer and those letters didn’t start showing up until after she moved in. She’s got to be the one.”
“Okay, okay, she’s the one,” I said. “What do we do about it?”
“Go to the cops,” said Jake.
“I already did. They can’t do a damn thing,” I told them.
“Then we tell her to stop,” said Paul.
“Who’s going to tell her?” I asked.
“You are,” said George.
“Because, Karl, you’re the one who brought it up,” Jake said. “And you’re the only one who’s really agitated over them. You get to tell her to stop.”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said.
“When?” Vinny asked.
The game broke up and I sat in the dark drinking scotch, thinking about what I was going to say to the woman.
“Hello,” the woman said when she opened the door. “Aren’t you the man from across the street?”
“I’m Ellen Barnes. Nice to meet you. What can I do for you, Mr. ...?” She smiled at me.
“Marvis, Karl Marvis.” I held one of the letters in my hand. “Read this.” I handed the letter to her. She read it and handed it back.
“I don’t understand.”
“Stop sending these damn things. We know you’re the one and we want you to stop. They’re annoying as hell.”
The smile disappeared. “What do you mean, these things?”
“These letters, damn it. Stop sending them to us.”
“I am not sending letters to you or to anyone else. How dare you suggest such a thing. Now get away from me and don’t ever come back, you rude man.” She slammed the door and I went back to my house.
The next poker night I told everybody what I said to the woman and how she responded. “Well, I’m glad that’s over,” said Jake.
“Yeah, me too,” said George. “My wife’s going off the deep end over those letters.”
“It hasn’t been a week yet,” Vinny said. “Maybe we better wait and see what happens in the next few days.”
“So far, so good,” said Paul. “Maybe Karl put a stop to it.”
We didn’t say anything more about the letters or the woman and the night ended with Vinny topping out, winning forty-two dollars.
I got another letter in the mail the following week. I walked across the street and hammered on the woman’s door. When she opened it, I shook the letter at her. “God damn it, I told you to stop. I mean it.” Then I turned around and walked off before she could say anything.
“I didn’t get one of those letters this week,” said Vinny as he dealt the cards. Looks like Karl’s talk did the trick.”
“I didn’t get one either,” said George. “My wife’s happy about that. She hopes we don’t get any more.”
“What about you, Karl? You get a letter this week?” Jake asked.
Paul said, “Karl was the only one to get a letter. That proves she’s the one sending them out.” Paul peered at Karl. “She’s really hard-assing you, Karl.”
“She sure is,” agreed George. “What are you going to do if you keep getting them, Karl?”
“Jesus, I don’t know. I’m damn sick of it, I can tell you that.”
We let the topic drop but I stewed about it and lost a good chunk of change because I couldn’t concentrate on the game.
After the game broke up I went to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. The woman was obviously harassing me, but why? What was her reason?
I went to the police again but got the same story. Then I talked with an attorney, he said there was nothing I could do. I fumed and cursed the woman across the street.
Things got bad for me. I ended the poker games at my house. George’s wife was so happy about not getting any more letters she let him host the game. I didn’t participate. The guys said they missed me, but I was too pissed off to take part.
The letters kept coming week after week until one day, in a fit of rage, I crossed the street, kicked the woman’s door open and beat the hell out of her. Of course, the cops arrested me.
During the trial the guys were questioned about my state of mind and they admitted I got more and more agitated as the letters kept coming. Their testimony didn’t help my case.
The judge sentenced me to nine years for aggravated assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. Jesus! Nine years!
Three months after I was sent to prison a corrections officer escorted me to a visitor room. I sat on the steel stool and picked up the phone on my side of the glass. George’s wife picked up the phone on her side.
“Hello, Karl,” she said and smiled at me but her eyes were cold and unfriendly.
“What are you doing here? Where’s George?”
“Oh, he’s not coming, Karl. I don’t think he ever will.”
“Why are you here?”
“You look terrible, Karl, like you’ve aged twenty years. Prison life doesn’t agree with you, and you have almost nine more years to go. How awful that must be for you.”
“What do you want?”
“Do you remember Molly, Karl?”
“Of course, I remember Molly.”
“Molly and I talked about everything, Karl, even patio parties and kitchen tables.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Think of your time in prison as Molly’s revenge.”
“Yes, she’s dead, Karl, but she was my friend. She told me what you did to her in your kitchen the night of your patio party, Karl. I’m never going to let you forget, you bastard.”
“It’s unfortunate you attacked Ellen Barnes, but I couldn’t see any other way to get to you, to see you got punished for what you did to Molly.” George’s wife laughed, a loud and guttural sound from deep in her throat. “I set you up, Karl. It was so easy. You’re such a stupid and impulsive man.” She hung up the phone.
“You bitch, you were the one who sent those fucking letters,” I screamed as she walked away.