by Josh Pachter
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
The block lettering on the pebbled glass door read “Daniel Lord, Psy.D.” The white-haired janitor fitted his master key into the lock and turned it until he heard the heavy metal bolt slide free. He pulled the key loose and slipped it into the hip pocket of his baggy coveralls, then twisted the doorknob, swung the door open and trundled his wheeled trash barrel ahead of him into the doctor’s waiting room.
A faint antiseptic odor hung in the air and he wrinkled his nose in distaste. Except for the smell and the matched pair of framed phrenology diagrams eyeing each other on the wall above the expensive leather sofa, the room was the fraternal twin of all the other waiting rooms in all the other office suites in the building.
There was a wastepaper basket beneath the receptionist’s desk, and the janitor picked it up and upended it. A stream of lipstick-smeared tissues and other debris cascaded down into his barrel. There was another basket between the two plush armchairs in the corner of the waiting room, another on the far side of the sofa. He emptied those, too, into his barrel, and swabbed each one with a ragged cloth before returning it to its proper place.
The janitor glanced tiredly around the room and, satisfied, wheeled his barrel on into the inner office. The antiseptic smell was stronger in here. There was a half-empty coffee mug on the doctor’s desk, but that wasn’t his responsibility. He ignored it and went straight for the wastebasket. He picked it up, made room for it on the surface of the desk, set it upright and began fishing out its contents, piece by piece. He unfolded and smoothed out each scrap of paper and examined it closely.
The basket was full of trash, mostly: advertising circulars, discarded psychological journals, scribbled-on sheets from a memo pad, empty envelopes. He scowled at each scrap, wadded it up, and dropped it into his barrel. Finally, near the bottom of the basket, he discovered four torn bits of pale pink stationery. When he held them to his nose and sniffed, he could smell flowers beneath the clinical stink of the room.
The janitor settled himself in the doctor’s chair and fitted the four scraps of paper together on the blotter. They went together perfectly, like a child’s jigsaw puzzle and he read the note eagerly.
“Dearest Danny,” it began, the handwriting small and precise. “Your wife can’t possibly have found out about us, can she? We’ve been so careful!” There was more, a full page of it, and the note was signed, “All my love, M.”
The old janitor smiled a nearly toothless smile and folded the four bits of pink paper away in his wallet.
“Anything interesting?” Dr. Daniel Lord asked idly, as his receptionist set the day’s mail on his desk.
“Just junk,” the girl told him. She wore her long auburn hair coiled up in a bun, her prim coral cardigan and chinos and square-heeled shoes making her look a decade older than her actual age. “Oh, there was one thing.” She picked up the stack of envelopes and leafed through them, separating one from the rest of the pile. She handed it across to him, saying, “Here, look at this one.”
It was a plain white rectangle, with his name and the office address typed all in capital letters in the center and the words STRICTLY PERSONAL, in capitals and underlined, typed in at the lower right. There was no return address; the envelope wore a local postmark, dated the day before.
“That’s strange,” he murmured, though only for the girl’s benefit. In fact, he had been expecting the letter, in fact had expected it to arrive today. The last one had come almost half a year ago. The girl had only been with him for three months, otherwise she would perhaps have remembered the earlier occasions when similar envelopes had turned up in the post.
“Is something wrong, Doctor?”
“Hmm?” He glanced up at her with a frown. “Oh. No, nothing serious, Linda. Thanks. Go on back to your desk. I’ll buzz if I need you.”
He waited until she had left the room, and then he slit the envelope open and slid out the single sheet of paper torn from an ordinary notepad. The pad on his desk was exactly the same size and color – but surely there were thousands of identical notepads on thousands of desks in offices throughout the building, the city, the country? The lines of printout which filled it were a standard font and size – the note could have been printed in his outer office or in Uzbekistan, or on the International Space Station for that matter.
“Doctor,” it read.“You don’t want your wife to find out about M, do you? Well, she won’t – if you do exactly what I tell you. Get $5000 in used $20s, $50s and $100s, non-sequential serial numbers. Seal them in an envelope and leave it at the bottom of your wastepaper basket when you go home tonight. Tonight, Doctor. Follow instructions, and your little secret remains a secret. Got it?”There was, of course, no signature.
He read through the note several times, disgusted and saddened, then set it down and picked up the envelope it had come in and examined both sides of it closely. Finally, he tucked both note and envelope away in the bottom drawer of his desk, leaned back in his chair and sighed deeply.
The old janitor fumbled nervously with his key. At last the bolt gave way and he pushed the door open and rolled his barrel into the antiseptic waiting room. He eased the door shut behind him and threw the bolt. He paid no attention to the wastepaper baskets beneath the receptionist’s desk, between the armchairs, beside the sofa. Instead, he shuffled quickly across the dark-brown carpeting and almost burst into the inner office.
The metal basket under the doctor’s desk was filled to the brim. He tipped it over, dumped its contents onto the floor, rummaged through the trash eagerly, finding the envelope almost at once. It was an office envelope, with the doctor’s name and address embossed in the upper left corner. It was thick, and the flap had been glued down neatly. His arthritic fingers trembled with excitement as he snatched it up and ripped it open.
The envelope slipped from his anxious hands, and a sheaf of banknotes spilled free when it hit the floor. Beautiful notes, with engravings of Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin gazing up at him disapprovingly from the front of every one of them. There were dozens and dozens of them, and the old janitor sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by money, rocking back and forth and hugging his knees in childlike delight.
“Danny? It’s me, Michelle.”
“Hey, hi. Hang on a second.” The doctor waved a hand, and his receptionist nodded, flipped her pad shut and stood. When the office door had closed behind her, he returned his attention to the phone. “I’m here, Mish. How are you?”
“How do you think, Danny? Did he take it?”
“Yeah. The basket was empty when I got in this morning.”
“That’s fine, I guess.” Her voice was troubled. “Danny, how much longer are we going to have to keep this up?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. As long as he says, and until he dies, I guess.”
“I keep asking myself how he came up with this craziness in the first place.”
He almost smiled. “I’m not sure ‘craziness’ is the technical term for it,” he said.
“Well, what would you call it?”
“If anybody ought to be able to answer that question, I suppose it’s me. And if I could get him on the couch for a year or two, maybe I could come up with an answer. But I don’t expect there’s much chance of that…”
“You and me having an affair, though, Danny? That’s not just crazy, it’s – God, it’s sick.”
“The human mind works in mysterious ways, honey, its wonders to perform.”
“I know, I know. I just pray that some day he’ll snap out of it and come to his senses.”
He nodded, then, realizing she couldn’t see him, said, “I pray for that, too, every single night. But until he does, I’m afraid we’re stuck. This five thousand ought to last him for another six months or so and then…”
“And then what? I have to write another one of those horrible letters? Danny, I hate this!”
“I know. I know. But what choice do we have? He won’t go into therapy, and we can’t turn him over to the police, can we? I mean, after all, Mishie, he is our father.”
Editor’s Note: Wildside Press is offering 4 of Josh’s stories for free right now in the Freebies section of their website. You can learn more on Josh’s website: www.joshpachter.com/bib/bib.discover.html
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (including another Valentine’s one during the week) in our mystery section.