The Dead Phone, by Bryan Alaspa
Warren Hollis is a seasoned true crime writer. He likes to submerge himself in the local culture when he writes, so he packs his essentials and heads to Knorr, Pennsylvania. It’s a tiny town in western PA, the kind of town most people on their way to Pittsburgh or New York would drive right past. It’s a town full of friendly, smiling people, but it hides a dark past.
Years ago a man began sneaking into the bedrooms of young girls and taking them under the cover of night. Days later, a grisly calling card would be left for the families to find. He became known as “The Boogeyman” and the rural town of Knorr, and the surrounding communities, have done all they can to forget those terrible days when no one was safe, not even when nestled into their own beds.
Warren arrives and starts asking questions. He stays in a small cabin just outside of town. It’s a nice place, exactly what he’s looking for. There’s just one strange thing: a big, heavy black phone at the top of the stairs. It’s not connected to anything. The phone is just a decorative hold-over from the party line days. Something about it disturbs Warren, the way something about Knorr disturbs him, as well. Someone is hiding something about “The Boogeyman.”
Then the killing starts again.
And, in the middle of the night, a phone that should never be able to ring – begins to do just that…
Warren Hollis stood in front of the mostly-wooden cabin and smiled. Around him was nothing but the soft hiss of nature itself. The sound was comprised of the leaves of the impossibly green trees rustling in the breeze and the soft drone of insects. The summer sun struggled to push its way through the canopy of leaves and etch its way across his arms and the back of his neck. The sun didn’t cause the sweat to break out across his face and run down his back. That came just from the humidity, which seemed to make the air as thick as a blanket but much less comfortable.
“I’m glad you think so,” said the thick, short-haired man standing less than ten yards away from him. Glen Dahane was a round man, but he wasn’t fat. The moment Warren saw him he realized the man was mostly muscle beneath the stretched fabric of his shirt. He reminded Warren of the strong men he sometimes watched compete on some obscure sports channel as they threw beer kegs over their shoulders and over a bar set high.
“If the inside is anything like the outside, this is exactly the kind of thing I am looking for,” Warren said.
The house was modest and it was old. It was also mostly made of wood with a large front window that overlooked the front lawn and the forest around it. The driveway was crushed gravel that wound down through the trees before depositing any vehicles that might be upon it on a two-lane road that could only be called a highway as part of a joke. The house was two stories, but it was not very big. It was just as Warren had hoped.
Warren was in rural western Pennsylvania because he had a project that brought him here. Warren was a writer and, more to the point, he was a true crime writer. If there was one thing that helped him write, it was getting away from the crazy and busy life he had back in Chicago. The house he was looking at right now was exactly the type of house he loved to live in when he was working on a project.
“Shall we check out the inside?” Glen asked.
Warren gestured toward the door. “Lead the way.”
The living room was large. The walls were wood paneled. The inside of the home smelled like pine. The furniture was a surprise. It was remarkably new, although it looked like it had been ordered online from some modern place like IKEA. The couch looked comfortable, however, and the television looked flat, large, and modern. Warren guessed that there was a satellite dish somewhere attached to the roof. The space immediately inside the front door ran around toward the back of the home. One area of that large space, behind the living room area, had a dining room table. Adjoining that was a counter that attached to the kitchen, making a breakfast nook. The kitchen had modern appliances that gleamed silver. Beyond that was a sliding glass door and huge wooden deck that faced the spacious and neatly-trimmed back lawn.
“Wow,” Warren whispered.
“I thought you’d like it,” Glen said.
Warren walked through the living room. Then he trailed his hand across the kitchen counter and over the stools that sat beside the counter. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Is there much upstairs?” He asked.
Glen shrugged. “There’s the bathroom with shower. Then a little loft space that I figure you can use for your writing. Oh, and there’s the bedroom.”
Warren smiled again and shot up the stairs. The stairs were made of wood and they creaked in a way that delighted him as he bounded up them two at a time. He immediately turned right and down the short hallway and into the bedroom. The large king-sized bed in the room took up much of the space. The heavy bedroom door appeared to be made of wood capable of stopping a cannon ball. There was a closet and a dresser in the bedroom and the bed’s blanket was a dark blue that Warren just loved.
Outside the bedroom, and to his left, was the bathroom. It was small with a toilet just behind the door, and a mirror on the wall. There was also a claw-foot bathtub. Surrounding the tub was a rail and from that was a shower curtain. It would only have been better, in Warren’s opinion, if he would have to get the water from a well and warm it up on a wood-burning stove.
He ran out of the bathroom and stopped to look at the loft space that emerged just out of the short hallway that led to the bedroom. It was perfect and he planned on using the desk that sat there, overlooking part of the living room and the front door. He smiled. This was just what he wanted. He looked down and saw that Glen was still standing there looking at him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I was getting just a little carried away.
Glen nodded. Warren turned and was about to head back down the stair when he stopped. It was something he had not noticed before when he had done his mad dash up the stairs. It was an alcove, cut into the wall. It was not very big, perhaps just big enough to hold a small vase of flowers. However, instead of flowers and a vase, what sat there was a thick black phone. There was nothing remarkable about the phone. It was just black and squat. It was a very old phone, he decided, and when he reached out to pick up the receiver he felt the huge heft and weight of it. The blackness of his phone had faded, a bit, to a strange gray, as if time and air had conspired to suck it of some of its life.
“What’s this?” Warren asked, as he walked back over to the stairs.
“What’s what?” Glen replied.
There was something strange about the phone. Warren couldn’t really put his finger on it. It was like it was pulling him towards it. He shook his head and walked towards the tiny alcove again. He lifted the receiver of this phone from a different era. Behind it was a thick cable that vanished into the wall.
“Oh, that,” Glen said.
Warren jumped when the other man spoke. He hadn’t even heard the man walking up the stairs and there he was, suddenly, right next to him. Warren could smell his breath and there was a faint sourness to it. Warren wondered if he had eaten something like onions for lunch.
“This is quite a phone,” Warren said. “Is it connected to anything?”
Glen shook his head. “No, that’s a hold-over from another era. Back in the day this whole area was on a party line. You had to listen to your own specific ring when a call came through and just about anyone throughout the community could pick up the phone and listen in. It was quite a mess, but it was pretty common out in the middle of nowhere like this place is. Anyway, the party line is long gone. I just keep the phone because, well, I kind of like it. Plus, it just fits so nicely in the little alcove there.”
He shrugged. Warren smiled.
“I love it,” he said. “It just adds to the charm of this place. Plus, hey, given the weight and heft of this thing, if a bear attacks me I can use it to beat the thing to death.”
Warren’s smile got bigger and Glen smiled back. The two of them laughed.
“OK,” said Warren, “this is a done deal. Let’s get all of the paperwork signed.”
Three weeks later Warren awoke to a bright sun streaming in through the window of the cabin. He yawned and stretched and then scratched himself for a bit. He bounded out of the room and down into the kitchen. He had spent several days stocking the kitchen and the house with what he knew he would need. Then he had made sure he could get an Internet connection and then promptly put his laptop aside and dragged his heavy manual typewriter up to the desk he had placed near the edge of the loft space.
Warren mostly wrote fiction and he published them himself. They sold moderately well, and he made a decent living with them. However, he really made his money by writing his true crime books. That was why he was really in western Pennsylvania. He was here because of the murders.
The murders happened about twenty years ago. A series of children were abducted from their bedrooms and murdered. They had been horribly violated and butchered. There were five known victims and the killer had sent letters to the local press, taunting them with his brazenness and his ability to commit the crimes. Then, after two years of keeping the small towns in western Pennsylvania in fear, they had suddenly stopped. He had been known simply as the Boogeyman. A name based on the childhood monster that lurked in closets and snuck up on sleeping children.
To Warren that was not a particularly good name. He, however, did appreciate that the killer was not well known outside of the state of Pennsylvania. So, when he was looking for another topic to write about, he found very little written about this string of murders. It was just the kind of thing that his publisher loved.
Like a lot of writers, Warren was a bit eccentric when it came to his writing. He was not a Luddite. He had a laptop with an Internet connection and he had a scanner and a printer and everything else. He just enjoyed writing his first drafts using the large black Underwood typewriter he found at an estate sale when he first started his writing career. Was it tough to get ribbons? Yes, but he found a guy in New York who supplied him and he had dozens of them stock piled. Was it tough to keep it maintained and working? Yes, but the same guy in New York was willing to do repairs at a reasonable price.
There was something about using the ancient machine that he loved. The keys were difficult to work and you had to punch them to get them to type. There was also a certain kind of magic to rolling a piece of paper into the typewriter, hearing the clacking of the keys, and the dinging sound of the return. It was real work using the thing and he liked it.
He rarely used outlines when he was working on his fiction. He preferred to let the words just flow from him. He sometimes had character bibles and he kept a Moleskine notebook with him at all times filled with ideas and characters, but he rarely had outlines. When it came to his non-fiction, though, he outlined everything. He took pages and pages of notes in another Moleskine that he always designated for each project. His desk would become completely buried in papers. At the moment, his desk was only starting to develop a serious case of piles.
He picked up his notebook and thumbed through it. He had lots and lots of papers filled with clips from the newspaper from years ago. Too many of them were filled with photos of parents in tears and their entire worlds shattered.
He spent the morning working on the outline in his notebook. He sat back, rubbed his eyes, and stretched. Outside, he could hear birds chirping and the wind was blowing gently through the trees. He decided it was time to go for a walk. That, and he wanted to venture down to the local newspaper and see if he could talk to the editor. While it seemed unlikely that the editor who had been running the paper during the days of the Boogeyman was still around, Warren hoped the current editor might have some knowledge of the case or at least know where the paper’s coverage of the events surrounding the killings might be. He had an afternoon of gazing at microfilm ahead of him.
He stood up and heard both of his knees pop. He smiled as he gazed down at the living room and the dining room that he could see from his perch. The sun was streaming in through a window in the kitchen. He watched dust motes drift lazily through the beam of sunlight.
Warren had spent a lot of years working in offices. He could still remember, with a shudder, the days he spent driving to work and working long hours in a cubicle farm. Warren was quite sure that human beings were not meant to work in mazes and in tiny spaces that were smaller than your average prison cell.
He had wanted to write since he sat down at his mother’s electric typewriter way back in the third grade. He pounded out a story that was all of three pages, just one long paragraph, and horribly plotted. However, it had given him a kind of rush that he still felt every time he sat down to write. Even when he was writing non-fiction he still felt the rush of telling a story. Sometimes it was the only time he truly felt in control of things.
College came and he took his father’s advice and studied something he thought would lead to a job. Or, at least, that was what he told his father he was doing. He studied radio and worked on the campus radio station and graduated expecting to take the radio world by storm. Somehow, instead, he stumbled into the world of human resources.
Warren spent eight years in HR hell before his two creative worlds came calling to him again. He got a part-time gig in radio and he wrote his first novel. He eventually gave up the radio work, but he soon had enough clients as a freelancer to write full time. Eventually, he squirreled enough money away to start writing books again.
The air outside was warm and the sky was bright. He took a deep breath. The air smelled differently than it did when he stepped outside of his apartment in Chicago. Most he smelled plants. In Chicago, he smelled engine exhaust. He decided to wander down to Glen’s house, which was not far away, to see if the guy wanted to have lunch with him. So far, Glen was the only local he had really met and befriended.
Glen’s house was about three football fields away from where Warren was currently holed up. He had made the walk several times. The most intense time was when he would walk back after dark. Warren was, inherently, a city person. Walking in the woods in the pitch blackness was something he was not used to. The sounds of wildlife around him was enough to make him nearly wet himself. He was used to the sounds of traffic which could keep other people awake all night. He actually could sleep through a series of fire engines screaming down the street, but the sound of thousands of crickets chirping outside his cabin was enough to keep him awake until the wee hours.
Right now, however, the sun was out and the sky was blue. When Warren looked up he could see wispy clouds moving lazily across the sky. He could also see the contrails of what appeared to be dozens of airplanes. Warren was also used to living near O’Hare International airport where you could almost see the windows and wave to the pilots in the planes. Out here, he was far enough away from the airport that the planes were tiny dots in the sky and the only sign of their passage was the thick white cloud that they left behind.
The gravel of the driveway and gravel road crunched beneath his feet. He could hear insects buzzing in the high grass on either side of the road. He could also hear something that he assumed was farming equipment out in a field in some indeterminate distance. Sounds were funny out here in the country, he discovered. When the wind shifted he could hear the highway which was about ten miles distance, and when it blew the other way he could hear the farm equipment from a large farm about five miles in the other direction.
He could see the roof of Glen’s house as he began to round a bend and down a slight incline. He loved Glen’s house. He could easily fit about three or four of the cabins that Warren was currently renting inside of Glen’s house. The house was three stories tall and had a basement. It also had three bedrooms, two of the upstairs, and two and a half baths. It had a huge front porch that extended across the front of the house and there was a bench on chains that allowed the person sitting to swing pleasantly. There were also chairs and it was the perfect place to sit and drink a beer or an iced tea or some other beverage. It was the kind of place that made Warren think he could get used to living in the country.
He could smell something delicious wafting from Glen’s house. The man was always cooking something. He could also hear something mechanical going inside the home. Warren paused, his brow wrinkled, and realized it was some kind of circular saw or something like that. He had never thought of Glen as being particularly handy or crafty, but he wondered if maybe the guy did carpentry work in his spare time. Someone had to do the repairs on the cabin that Warren was in and the whole thing was made of wood.
Warren kicked at a stone, sending it tumbling into the high grass. He was smiling. Then, he paused. There was something dangling from the blades of the high grass right in font of him. He furrowed his brow again. It was white, fluttering in the breeze like a kind of flag. It wasn’t a flag, however, that much he could tell. It was some piece of clothing.
The Dead Phone, by Bryan Alaspa