I wrote this longhand, because it seemed like that kind of story. Also, I didn’t have my computer with me when I started. But I will say that I felt different because of it. Everything took longer, went slower, and I got into the story a lot more. Not entirely sure that’s a good thing, though, when it was done I felt really cold.
A born hermit, Samuel Frances was only interested in one thing when it came to other human beings: their money. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a bad person – in fact he had a certain pride in the way he treated everyone with kindness and respect, no matter how much he loathed them. Not generosity, though, never that.
His desire for isolation came simply because he was so different from everyone else. They shied away from him and his eccentricities, and so he was unfriendly. They disliked him for that, and he hated them in return.
No matter where he was, or who he was with (on the rare occasions he was with anyone) he would have at least five pens with him and a notebook which he would scribble in constantly. This tended to put people off somewhat, because while you spoke to him he would continuously write while maintaining eye contact. You got the impression he was either writing down everything you said, or pretending to listen while he wrote about other things.
Then there was the bizarre contradiction he had, where he would compulsively hoard things, but at the same time throw out everything he deemed ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’. As a young man, his room had been packed full of objects of all kinds, as well as hundreds of notebooks. If you asked him what any of his possessions was for, he’d give you a quite reasonable explanation: either it was very valuable, very useful or very rare. Even stranger, ask him for an item and he’d find it in seconds regardless of how deep in his surprisingly neat stores it was.
These were his most notable characteristics, but Samuel had plenty more weirdness, and not all of it pleasant. That, and the fact that he did everything he could to avoid people meant that he never had any real friends. That was fine by him, but it also meant that the loads of cash he so desired were out of reach for him.
When he moved out of home, he lived in a crummy one room apartment and worked as a freelance writer, which made him enough to eat and pay rent, and little else.
As the years passed he grew bitter, and he resented the human race more and more. Attempt after attempt to make his fortune through honest means failed. His hatred deepened and his mind turned to darker plans.
One day, he began to write some of the plans down in his notebooks, and they grew. At first it was only a fantasy, distant dreams, like the bullied schoolboy who dreams of massacring his school.
But on he wrote, and the plans filled notebook after notebook. Some of them were impossible – some were merely ludicrous. Others, though…
One of these he toyed with, and the more details he wrote down, the more he realised how easy it would be. On his twenty ninth birthday, he did it, and it was just as easy as he thought. No – it was easier, frighteningly so.
Two months later, Samuel moved out of his dingy apartment and into his dream house. It was a sprawling, one story mansion made of heavy wood, and it was located as far away from anyone as he could get: Northern Russia, right on the coast above Archangel. It was ultimately a huge log cabin, battered most of the year by blizzards and snow, and entirely undesirable to most normal people.
Samuel didn’t waste those big empty spaces, though. He filled them up with his great hoardes, his collections of statues from Egypt and paintings from France; Shelves upon shelves of famous, rare and valuable books; even guns.
He spent his days chopping wood for his massive fireplace (kept burning all day and night), hunting red deer in the forest, reading and, of course, writing. For the six months or more before he had to replenish supplies, or go to buy some new desired object, he didn’t see a single human being. For the first time in his life, he was happy.
Until the letter came.
It is good to hear that you’ve made such a nice life for yourself lately. I know I was sometimes greedy, a little obsessed with those pretty rectangles of paper so full of possibility. But I made all my riches honestly. Just remember that.
P.S. Don’t bother trying to reply. I’m still in Australia where you left me, staying under a church.
Sincerely, Your Conscience.
Samuel read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. Actually, what he was really trying to make sense of was the manner of its arrival. While he slept, someone had pushed it through the tiny window in his study, where he did most of his writing. He liked to keep the window open a crack because he found the cold refreshing. What really got to him, though, what really chilled him to the marrow, was the first line: Dear Sammy. There was only one person in his life who’d called him Sammy, and that was his father. ‘Was’, being the operative word – Theodore Frances was nearly three years dead.
He watched the letter burn that night, and decided to forget about it. It was clearly an attempt at blackmail. The real guts of it would come with the next letter or two. It was also, he realised, probably one of his own family members – one of them surely suspected what he did, and now, in typical Frances style, they wanted to cash in.
There was nothing else for two weeks. His life went on, and he was soon lost in the many joys of living completely alone. Every day he woke he remembered the way he used to live, remembered how he’d come to live here instead, and found he had not a single regret. He did, however, get into the habit of locking the window in his study, but by the time the second letter came he had stopped doing this regularly, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d left it open or closed the night before.
I’m not trying to blackmail you, really. I have a sense of honour that demands that I treat family better than I would a mortal enemy, though that’s what you are. We’re not family in the strictest sense, but I think we should be much closer than we are. People who forget their consciences might do any number of evil things, and we can’t have that.
P.S. Don’t try to run, I’m much faster than you. I’ve already made it to Indonesia and I can cross oceans easier than jumping puddles.
Sincerely, Your Conscience
Sammy stared from the note to the open window. Had he closed it? He thought so, but for the life of him he couldn’t be sure. Well, he’d be sure next time – he wouldn’t open it for anything from now on.
Not that that made him feel much better. The temperature outside was below zero, and the nearest town was almost a hundred kilometres away. Not only that, but there was no mailman for his address. Anyone who wanted to communicate did it by email, these days, which meant that whoever was delivering these letters lived very close indeed.
Not blackmail? That didn’t convince him, but if they meant what they said then they were almost certainly after revenge instead. Well, he thought darkly, let them try. He burned the letter and locked every door and window and the house. Then, he paid a visit to his gun collection.
Rushing around the house in a fever of activity, he felt like one of those paranoid maniacs you heard about, preparing for judgement day. He looked it, too: now that he was truly free from civilisation he paid no attention to personal grooming or hygiene. His hair hung in long greasy tendrils from his head. His beard was long and ragged, and his teeth were broken and yellow. He smelled like a rat drowned in sewage, and had for so long he no could no longer smell it.
By the time he was done, he felt he could have held off a small army from his house. He had weapons and ammunition hidden in various rooms, pieces of furniture arranged strategically to provide the most cover, and he balanced an empty glass above his front door frame.
When it was all done he sat by the fire in the lounge and thought about it. It occurred to him that he’d gone a bit overboard, especially since he’d only received two letters, neither of which had actually threatened him. Then again, he did not like at all what they were implying. In fact just the strange use of his name meant they must know what he did, there was no other explanation. And there was nothing they could want from him except blackmail or revenge – he was sure of that, too. Either way, if they came here, he was determined they wouldn’t leave alive.
This time he didn’t relax his vigilance at all. He had to take down the glass whenever he went out to hunt or chop wood, but he replaced it as soon as he came in, and always checked the lock on the window in the study.
On the eighth day since the second letter, he stayed in to write. He was working on his autobiography, and after finding disturbingly little to put in it had begun to embellish. He was just recounting his time living in the Siberian wilderness when he noticed the pages of his thick black book were moving slightly. An icy wind blew against his cheek.
He turned to see the window, the same one he’d checked that day, open a tiny crack. A new letter sat in the top corner of the desk, as if it had blown in soundlessly while he wrote. He reached for it with shaking hands.
I hope this letter finds you, the post is increasingly unreliable these days. I just wanted to let you know that you are wrong on both counts: It isn’t blackmail OR revenge that I come for – it is justice. As your conscience, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided that a man like you should not be allowed to live in this world. A drastic decision, but I am certain it’s the right one. I hope you can see my side of it, but I doubt you will.
P.S. I’m navigating through Northern China now. It’s confusing, but as they say, where there’s a WILL, there’s a way. Isn’t that what your dear father always used to say?
Sincerely, Your Conscience
No, Samuel thought, that was not what he always used to say. In fact, he’d only said it once that he knew of. It was the image that stuck in his mind when his other nightmares faded, the one that came to him only on those nights when he couldn’t sleep until the early hours. His father, chuckling through his own blood, somehow managing to make that bitter joke his last words.
It’s him, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. He’s come crawling from his grave to take his revenge. In his opinion, the letter couldn’t make it to the fire fast enough.
When it was ashes, he poured himself a whiskey and drank it by the fire, staring through the big window into the blizzard.
It was out there, he thought. An undead thing – no not that, it had to be a ghost. Of course, that was how he travelled so fast, even over oceans, and it was how he stayed invisible. No one was going to miss some rotting thing stagger around Beijing, after all. He laughed, and the sound shocked him in the silence of the big room. He hadn’t heard the sound of his own voice for months.
A ghost. Ridiculous. But it was also true – he knew that as surely as he knew he’d locked that window earlier, and he didn’t want to think about either thing for long. He wouldn’t have to, though. If it was coming, it was coming, and he was ready for it. He’d done it before, and he’d do it again, even if he had to torch this place.
He didn’t think he’d have to, though, because he was sure that ghosts only lived on belief and fear. All he had to do was confront it, face it down. Then, diminished by his fearlessness, he only had to believe that a bullet would end it and it would. That was just how they worked.
Over the next three days, he almost relaxed in the knowledge that he knew how to defeat whatever was coming. Be it a ghost, zombie or avenging family member, he was ready. Then the next letter arrived. He found it neatly placed on the front page of his autobiography.
I’m somewhere North East of Siberia now, and it’s very cold. I think the wind’s picking up – is it this bad where you are? I don’t have guns or fire, and yours won’t work on me, either. I’m hoping you’ll make the right decision before I get there – it’ll be infinitely better that way, believe me. All this cold is making me hungry, and you’re the only meal for miles around.
P.S. I wonder what YOUR will is going to say? Who will you leave it all to? Better get writing!
Sincerely, Your Father.
That last bit was new, he thought dumbly. It was almost like it was making fun of him. Or perhaps it was meant to hint that it really was his father, in case he hadn’t worked it out yet.
His sense of calm completely shattered, he went back to the lounge and poured himself another tall drink. His hands were shaking so much that the ice blocks rattled in the glass as he lifted it to his mouth. He emptied it and poured another, and then forced himself to stop. Something or someone was coming, and he had to be ready for it. He needed to make more preparations.
First, he moved the telephone into his study. That way, if things got serious he could call the police. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to save him but at least they could catch who did it, and give him a proper burial instead of rotting in this place. For that reason he put the letter in the top drawer of his desk, in case it helped them catch whoever it was. He retrieved every last one of the guns he’d hidden and put them up in the study, so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Finally, he raided the pantry and dragged up enough canned soup and dry meat to last him another three days, although he doubted he’d need that much. At the current rate, his father would arrive before the end of the second day. Where there’s WILL, there’s a way, he thought madly, and he believed it.
This kind of waiting was torturous. He wasn’t used to being holed up at all, and he grew madder by the second. He whiled away the hours by writing in his rapidly growing autobiography, about his brave deeds during the second world war, and the time he fought off a family of bears single handed with a broken whiskey bottle.
He was so lost in the story that he didn’t notice the next letter fly in through the window and land beside him, until he heard a glass shatter downstairs. It was surely the one he’d balanced on his front door.
He reached for the phone and dialled the police immediately. ‘I’d like to report a murder,’ he said, making himself as clear through his broken Russian as he could. He’d never taken the time to learn the language properly, since he almost never used it. Before the person on the other end could reply, he said his address twice and then hung up. It would take them a while, but maybe Theodore wouldn’t be so keen to come storming in after a few bullets went his way.
Chuckling, Samuel snatched up one of his handguns and flicked off the safety. He took up a position behind his desk and within easy view of the door. Only then did he reach for the letter on the desk. He dropped it and picked it up again, every breath seeming to force its way out of him like it was trying to escape.
I’m here. Your house is quite something – I never knew you were one for extravagances. I don’t know how you can stand to walk around this place without being reminded of what you did. I don’t know how you can fall asleep at night, either. It’s a good thing I came to sort you out, isn’t it?. Well I’ll see you very soon, although it’ll be hard to find the study in this mess.
P.S. It isn’t too late to do the right thing. Just remember, if you haven’t done it by the time I walk through that door, I’ll have to do it for you.
SINCERELY, Your Father
He let the letter fall to the floor and put both hands on his gun. He stared down the barrel and tried to keep it steady, aiming for a spot just to the left of the doorknob. Every beat of his heart seemed to set the barrel too high or too low, and it was impossible to aim straight.
For a long time, the only sounds were the howling wind and the hiss of his own breath. Then he heard footsteps moving down the hallway. They were slow, careful steps, but every now and then they made the floorboards creak.
So, he thought, it was a corpse. Or a person, maybe, but he thought it was a corpse. A ghost couldn’t make steps like that, and it would have come straight through the walls, never mind the front door. He imaged his father’s ragged body staggering unevenly towards the study. Mostly bone, with shreds of green skin hanging from him like moth eaten curtains. Empty eye sockets staring at the locked door.
The creaking steps drew closer and closer until they stopped right outside the door. He saw a shadow move in the crack of light beneath the threshold.
‘GO AWAY!’ Samuel shouted. Somehow, his voice didn’t rise above a whisper, and he felt like he was suffocating. Tears ran down his face, but he didn’t notice.
The doorhandle rattled, and began to turn, slowly. His father was taking his time, he knew, to give him his last chance. To let him do what was right, and redeem himself.
Screaming in that terrible whisper, he fired five rounds into the door and watched chunks of it splinter out into the hallway. He couldn’t make out anything through the holes, and everything was dead still.
The doorknob began to turn again, and then stopped. The door began to open.
His ears ringing loud in his head, he put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, his eyes wide with terror. He was still screaming when he pulled the trigger.
The door swung open to reveal a cramped study ankle deep in scattered papers and pens. The open window above Samuel’s bleeding corpse rattled loudly, and the house creaked with the constant gale winds.
On the desk, amidst hundreds of ink covered sheets, sat a half written autobiography. Rather, it wasn’t written at all, though the four hundred page exercise book was certainly half full. Over and over, Samuel had written an account of his father’s murder, followed by a copy of Theodore Frances’s original will and testament.
Only upon close inspection would the police later detect the connection between the author of this strange confession, and the one who wrote the blood spattered letter now lying on the floor: Their handwriting was exactly the same.