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       Retribution, p.3

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Preppie turned, his head down, and walked slowly back to his car, jingling the keys in his hand. Like a good little boyfriend, he waited until the light went on in the apartment and he saw her wave from the living room window before he drove off into the night.

  The Clown smiled. How quaint! The Preppie Prick walks her to her door and kisses her good night Don’t let those bedbugs bite! And he even stays around to make sure that she is safe and sound and that no bogeyman is lurking inside. What a laugh riot!

  Five minutes later, the lights in her bedroom went on, illuminating the bushes. He pulled himself deeper into the hedge. The air conditioner rattled to life above him and condensation dripped through the evergreen on to his head. He saw her shadow bouncing about in the bushes as she walked around the room, and then she closed the blinds and the light grew dim.

  He sat completely motionless for twenty minutes after all the lights went out. Thunder rumbled, louder this time. The rain had started. Soft at first, but he knew that would change. The wind gusts were strong now, and the bushes swayed back and forth, dancing a strange dance in the dim streetlight. The storm was almost upon them. She had made it just in the nick of time.

  He grabbed his bag of tricks and snaked his way around the corner of the building until he was directly beneath the window with the broken latch in her living room. Then at precisely 1:32 A.M., the Clown pulled his mask on snug over his face. He stood and brushed off his now very tight blue jeans, silently lifted the darkened window and slithered inside out of the rain.

  5

  Chloe watched from her window as Michael walked slowly back to the car, rejected, his head down. She waved half-heartedly, purposely closing the curtains on him as he waved back at her. Another message sent.

  She stood alone in her living room and looked around her. The apartment was silent, lonely, and unbearably hot. The small feeling of victory melted away as quickly as it had come. Now she almost wished that she had just let him stay the night.

  The gym had been a flimsy excuse at best. Who was she kidding? There was no way that she was going to get up at 6:00 A.M. to do aerobics. And if she wasn’t going to raise the ‘Where is this relationship really headed?’ conversation for another two weeks, then what would have been the harm in letting him stay the night?

  Because you were upset that you didn’t get what you wanted on this Happy Anniversary, and so you certainly weren’t going to give him what he wanted.

  Great, even her schizophrenic conscience now thought she was being a bitch. She knew, though, that if Michael had stayed the night she would have held a similar conversation with herself at 3:00 A.M., but this one would have been for being such a lily-livered weak pushover. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It was all too exhausting and depressing and she hoped a couple of Tylenol would fix the pounding in her head.

  The apartment was an oven. The windows had been closed all day, and everything in the place had just baked – even the furniture was still warm to the touch. She grabbed the mail that sat stuffed in the front-door slot and headed into the kitchen.

  She flicked on the lights, and the kitchen was instantly illuminated. Chloe sighed at the mess that was her table, littered with breakfast dishes from the morning, dinner dishes from the night before, parakeet seed, and feathers. Pete the Parakeet, temporarily blinded by the fluorescent light, fell from his perch on to the cage floor with a thud.

  She piled all the dishes from the table into the already overcrowded sink, squirted some green Palmolive in, and hosed down the mountain of porcelain with the sink nozzle. Pete, meanwhile, had mustered up some dignity and fluttered back to the perch, squawking angrily all the while at Chloe and sending tiny green and white feathers wafting through the air and back on to the table. Chloe gritted her teeth and quickly threw a towel over Pete. Then she took one last look at her kitchen, turned off the lights, and made a mental note to call the Merry Maids Emergency Cleaning Service in the morning. She downed her two Tylenol with a Mylanta chaser before finally heading for the air-conditioned relief of her bedroom.

  She tossed the mail on the bed, turned the AC on high, and searched her drawers for her favorite and most comfortable pink pajamas, pushing aside the collection of flimsy Victoria’s Secret lingerie that she had gotten as gifts from Michael over the past two years. She found them stuffed in the bottom drawer – cotton, oversized, and not at all sexy. Outside, the hedge branches scraped against her bedroom window, making a desperate, screeching sound, and a spatter of raindrops dotted the glass. The forecast had called for intense thunderstorms tonight. She stood at the window for a moment and watched as the trees bent like straws under the wind, then she closed the blinds and flipped on the television for some company. An old Brady Bunch episode came on the screen.

  She flopped on the bed with the day’s mail and hit the Play button on the answering machine. Bills, bills, advertisements, People, and more bills. It never ended.

  The female computer-generated voice spoke: You have no new voice messages in your mailbox.

  She looked over at the answering machine. That was funny. The number 3 flashed red in the machine’s message box, indicating three messages. And she had emptied her mailbox messages before leaving for the city. She hit the Replay button on the machine.

  You have three stored messages in your mailbox.

  First message: Today, seven-nineteen P.M. Her mom’s frazzled voice. ‘Chloe, it’s Mom. You must be out studying tonight.’ Chloe’s stomach flip-flopped with guilt again.

  ‘Call me when you get in. I need to talk to you about our visit next month. Your dad and I think maybe we should stay in a hotel, you’re just so cramped in that apartment. I need to know some hotels in Manhattan that are nice, but not too expensive and are in a good neighborhood. Call me.’

  Yeah. Good luck finding that short list in New York City.

  She went back to the mail. Another bill. When had she found the time to buy all this stuff she was being billed for?

  A credit card solicitation. Great, so she could get even more bills.

  Finally on the bottom of the never-ending bill pile, an ivory envelope with the familiar chicken scratch of her father’s handwriting on it. Chloe smiled. Since she had moved to New York from California for law school her dad wrote her faithfully at least once a week, and his warm, funny letters were a welcome break. Sometimes there were pages and pages, and others only a few short lines, but they all began with the same salutation: ‘Hey, Beany! How is my big girl in the big city?’ Beany had been his nickname for her since she was five, a reference to her sweet tooth for jelly beans. Even at twenty-four, she was still his little girl. She set his letter aside for later and leafed through People.

  Second message: Today, eight-ten P.M. It was Marie. ‘Thanks for blowing us all off tonight, Chloe. It was a blast. It really was. You missed our round-robin discussion about the Rule Against Perpetuities. Now that’s a lot more fun than Phantom of the Opera. Hey, don’t forget the practice multistate is tomorrow, so I’ll be at your door at eight-thirty instead of eight forty-five. Don’t be late! Hmmm… Maybe I should have told you eight o’clock, then. See ya.’

  Damn. She had forgotten all about the practice test. Another reason to be mad at Michael.

  Third message: Today, eleven thirty-two P.M. A long silence. In the background Chloe could hear a rustle, like the muffled sound of paper tearing. Then, a male voice in a taunting singsong whispered low, ‘Chloe. Chloe. Where are you, Chloe?’ More crackling silence. She could hear breathing for just a moment and then the line hung up.

  That was bizarre. She stared for a few seconds at the machine.

  End of messages.

  It must have been one of the guys from her study group. Their study sessions were known to go on until the wee hours anyway. It was probably Rob or Jim just joking around with her. They probably figured that she was home by then and having a good ole time while they studied, and they were just spoofing her for blowing off the study group,
hoping to bug her with a message while she was in a compromising position. That was probably it. She hit the button on the machine.

  Messages erased.

  She got under the covers and propped up the pillows behind her to read her dad’s letter. She was an only child and it had hit both of her parents really hard when she left for St John’s. It had hit them even harder when she told them recently that she wasn’t moving back. Neither of her parents liked New York, and they certainly didn’t trust it. She had been raised in a small town in northern California. Walking a dog on cement and living in a high-rise, fifty stories off the ground, not more than thirty feet across from your neighbor in the next building over, was about as foreign to them as living in an igloo. In fact, given the choice, her parents would probably pick the igloo. Her mother called two to three times a week just to make sure Chloe had not yet been robbed, raped, burgled, or pillaged in the big city, the den of three million thieves, rapists, burglars, and pillagers. And, of course, her father wrote his letters.

  Chloe tossed the rest of the mail on the nightstand on top of her Barbri bar review books and grabbed her glasses. She flipped over the envelope and frowned.

  The top of the envelope had been neatly sliced open. Her letter was gone.

  6

  She sat straight up in bed, her skin cold. Prickly goose bumps raced up her arm and across the back of her neck, and her thoughts immediately went to Marvin. She stared uneasy at the ceiling above, as if the walls had eyes, and pulled the covers up and around her.

  Marvin was her strange neighbor who lived in the apartment directly above hers. An unemployed social recluse, he had lived in the building long before Chloe had moved in a few years ago, and she knew he was definitely odd. Everyone knew he was odd. Each morning he stood watch on the courtyard below from his living room window; his plaid robe open wide, the belt useless and dangling at his side, and his hairy, middle-aged belly exposed, as well as God-knows-what-else under the cover of the windowsill. Thank the Lord for that windowsill. His pudgy, crowded face was always covered with a carpet of gray and brown stubble, and he wore black plastic glasses over eyes that were set too close together. In one hand he always held a black coffee cup. In the other, well, Chloe just didn’t want to think about that.

  The rumor around the laundry room was that Marvin was unstable emotionally and lived off a government disability check and help from his elderly mother. Behind his back, the residents called him Norman and speculated about what had really happened to his mother, who had not been seen for some time. For years Chloe had thought Marvin weird, but harmless. She would occasionally see him in the hallway or in the lobby, and he never smiled, but sort of grunted as he passed her.

  Two months back, though, she had made the unfortunate mistake of waving hello at Marvin in his morning perch as she headed through the courtyard to her car. That night he was waiting for her in the lobby, with her mail in hand. He had smiled a lopsided smile that revealed tiny yellow teeth, and then had mumbled something about how ‘the mailman must have mixed theirs up’ before he shuffled upstairs to spy on his fiefdom again from his living room.

  After that, the inept mailman had mixed up their mail at least three times, and Marvin had taken up a new hobby of watering plants in the lobby, conveniently, it seemed, whenever Chloe came home from class. She could feel his stare locked on her from his living room perch when she walked to her car in the morning, and then when she saw him in the lobby at night. His egghead would bob up and down like a cheap car ornament and she would feel his eyes roll over her. Lately, she had been using the laundry room at the back of the building to come and go.

  Two weeks ago she had started to get strange phone calls, where the caller hung up as soon as she picked up. When she replaced the receiver, the ceiling would creak above her as Marvin shuffled back and forth. Maybe that had been Marvin tonight on her machine – finally getting up the balls to actually speak.

  And just yesterday, she had left some laundry in the dryer while she went back to her apartment for more quarters and had passed Marvin in the lobby on her way back to the laundry room, again pretending to water plants. When she brought her laundry back to the apartment later, two pairs of her underwear had been missing.

  Now her mail had actually been opened and taken. The thought of Marvin touching her panties and reading her letters while his fat body got off in his bed over her head made her queasy. After the bar she was going to have to start looking for a new apartment, no easy task in New York. She could not live beneath this weirdo anymore. Up until tonight she might have even considered moving in with Michael, but now…

  Too many thoughts filled her aching head. When was she allowed to take more Tylenol anyway? She got up from bed and plodded across the living room to check the front door once again. She peered through the peephole, half expecting to see fat Marvin squatting naked outside her door, a coffee cup in one hand and a plant in the other. No one was there, and the lobby was dark.

  She made sure she had double-locked the doors, and then she placed a large piece of duct tape over the mail slot on the inside of the door, so Marvin’s chubby fingers wouldn’t be able to force an opening wide enough for his peeping eyes to enter her apartment. The next morning she would nail a board over the slot and arrange to pick up her mail at the post office from now on.

  She headed back to the coolness of her room and closed the bedroom door. She did a quick check of her ceiling to make sure Marvin hadn’t taken up carpentry as a new hobby. Finding no holes in the ceilings and nothing odd, she watched the television for a few more minutes, until the throbbing in her head subsided a bit. A boom of thunder sounded outside, and the lights flickered. The storm sounded like a bad one – she might even lose the electricity tonight. She turned off the television and the lights and settled into bed, listening to the sound of rain as it hit the windows and the back of her air conditioner. It was a soft, soothing patter now, but Chloe knew the heavens would open up soon. Good. Maybe it would cool things off – the recent heat wave had been scorching.

  Both physically and mentally exhausted, she finally fell into a deep sleep. She was in the middle of a strange and complicated dream about the bar exam when she heard the raspy, muffled voice directly over her.

  ‘Hi, Beany. How is my big girl in the big city? Wanna have some fun?’

  7

  He had slipped easily into the apartment through the unlocked window with the broken latch in the living room. It had just begun to pour outside, and he was completely soaked. With the curtains drawn, it was black in the room and he could see nothing. That was of no concern to him, though, as he was quite familiar with the layout of her apartment. The kitchen clock ticked loudly two rooms away. Carefully, he negotiated his way around the wood-and-metal end table with its sharp corners in the living room and the low-lying glass-topped coffee table strewn with newspapers from three days past.

  He had been here many times before. He had stood in her living room, read her newspapers, her magazines, touched her law books. He had listened to her phone messages, seen her mail, and looked at her bills and knew, in fact, that the end table was from Pier I Imports and had not yet been paid for. He knew her slender size four, had touched her dresses, fingered her silk blouses, and smelled her laundry, softly scented with Tide and Snuggle fabric softener. He had secretly nibbled on leftover pizza from her refrigerator – her favorite: sausage and meatball with extra cheese. He knew she used Pan-tene shampoo and Dial soap and favored Chanel No. 5 perfume. He had stood before the mirror in her pale green-and-yellow bathroom, exposed, and rubbed gobs of her luscious freesia body lotion from Bath & Body Works all over his own body, imagining what it would feel like when it would finally be her hands on his cock. He had allowed the scent to linger on him for days after that: an intoxicating, constant reminder of her. He knew her mother’s maiden name was Marlene Townsend and where her daddy worked at his small hometown paper. He knew everything there was to know about Chloe Joanna Larson.

/>   Now he stood silently in the living room, just breathing in the very scent of her. His fingers traced her couch and touched her throw pillows. He picked up the jacket she had worn that night, which had been thrown on the couch, and touched it, smelled it, through the tiny airholes in his mask. Slowly, he made his way toward her bedroom, just down the short hall.

  Suddenly, in the kitchen, Pete fluttered his wings about in his cage, sending a hollow, echoing sound resonating from the metal cage bars through the silent apartment. He stopped dead in his tracks and listened for signs of her, beads of sweat forming on his face beneath the mask. His breathing came fast and hard, but controlled. Surprise was essential, and it would not work if she came out now. It would not be according to the plan. The second hand on the cheap gray clock suspended in her kitchen ticked off each second loudly, and he remained glued in his position. What seemed like ten minutes passed by, but the apartment remained silent.

  At the end of the hallway was the bedroom door. He could hardly contain himself now – the moment had finally arrived. He could hear the air conditioner running inside, the hum dropping low as it changed gears. He clutched the old round glass doorknob in his fingers for several long seconds, feeling the pure electricity of the moment course through his veins.

  I think I’ll take what’s behind door number three, Bob!

  Underneath his mask he smiled a slow, sweet smile, and then the Clown simply opened the door with a creak and walked softly into the room.

  8

  A feeling of pure panic pulsed through Chloe’s body. She had been dreaming an anxious dream that she had arrived five minutes too late to sit for the bar exam and was arguing with the proctors to let her in. And now, for just a split second, her eyes refused to open while her brain frantically tried to reconcile the words she had just heard with the action that had just played in her dream.

 
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