During the 1990s I worked for a fairly popular magazine. We asked our readers to send in stories of their strangest or scariest experiences. This letter was handwritten on several sheets of paper with a photocopy of a mans face on the reverse of each of the pages.
It was a bad time of my life. My fiancé had left me and I had lost my job, both over completely separate issues, but both had been caused in part at least by my poor judgement. It took a long time to find another job and I'd had to sell my car. When I did find a new job it was a very early shift so I had to take the first bus of the morning to get there on time. I had always been a late riser so it was difficult to adjust to the early start. I was slowly paying off my debts and hoped to get a new car in a few months.
There weren't usually many people on the bus and I soon got to know the regular passengers a little, not really friends but we'd say hi and sometimes have a short chat.
One day I was getting ready for work and about to make a quick breakfast when the phone rang. I was pushed for time so I decided to let the answering machine get it. When I heard my ex's voice saying my name though, I quickly grabbed the phone. I'd left her several messages over the last few months to apologise and ask to talk. In my last message I told her that I wouldn't bother her again but hoped she’d want to talk eventually. I probably hadn't worded it very well, I've never been good with words and I often beat myself up about how clingy and desperate I must have sounded in those messages. Hearing her voice though, I felt a little hope, the first real hope I'd felt in a long time.
"Don't go to work today," she told me as soon as I picked up the phone. Sometimes, on her days off work, she'd beg me to call in sick and spend the day home with her. Sometimes I even had. Hearing her say that, my heart leapt. I playfully asked her why, expecting her to respond as she had when things had been good between us but instead she started crying. I tried to console her, to ask what was wrong, but she just sobbed for several minutes. Eventually she repeated her plea,
"Don't go to work today" and, very serious and worried this time I asked her again
"Why not?" All she said was
"There's a dozen reasons. Just don't go."
Confused and worried I tried to get more out of her but she went quiet. I could hear her breathing and sniffling but she didn't say another word. Frustrated I began to get more impatient with her, asking her what was wrong, why she was calling me like this but she didn't say anything else. Feeling hurt, I hung up the phone and made a run for my bus. I arrived to an empty bus shelter, knowing I was late, but with a half hour until the next bus was due. My home was only a few minutes walk away so I went back to get some toast and coffee instead of waiting in the cold. When I got home I noticed the small kitchen window was a little open and on closer inspection was slightly at an angle, the hinge had bent causing it not to shut properly the last time I'd used it. It was easily far too small for anyone to fit through so I didn't worry about it much and just made a mental note to have it repaired.
I finished my toast and had more than enough time to reach my bus so, feeling like a fool, I decided to phone my ex and try to talk about her earlier call. Her housemate answered and told me that she'd gone to visit her sister for a week but that she had been meaning to give me a call so she must have done so from there. She wasn't sure about giving me her sisters number though, so she said she'd phone and ask if it was ok to do so or to ask for her to phone me back. I checked the time and realised I had to get going for my bus so I asked her to pass along a message to phone me at work in a few hours, giving me enough time to get there and make up for being late.
I caught the bus without incident and arrived at work twenty minutes late. my usual bus got me to work between twenty to thirty minutes early, traffic was heavier on the later bus, and I usually got some work done before my shift was supposed to start so my boss wasn't too badly bothered by my being late. He'd been more worried that something might have happened to me since I hadn't thought to call in either. Feeling like an idiot I apologised and told him that I'd had a very distracting call from my ex and hadn't been thinking clearly. I got stuck into my work and the morning passed quickly and uneventfully. During my lunch break I received a confused call from my ex who told me she hadn't phoned me at all, she didn't even have my number with her and she'd had to ask her housemate to find it for her so she could call me. I really wanted to make things right with her but I didn't like her playing games like this and messing me about so I asked her to stop it and to just talk to me properly instead. She swore blind she hadn't called and suggested that maybe it had been somebody else who had just sounded similar over the phone. I had to admit that the caller had never actually said who it was but I was so certain it was her voice. When I mentioned that the answer phone had initially picked up she reminded me that would mean the conversation would have been taped anyway as my answer phone wouldn't have stopped recording when I picked up. We talked a little more, part of me was still sure it had been her on the phone and that she was playing some kind of trick but she seemed so genuine and we'd had such a good talk about old times that I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. I finished the afternoons work and took the bus home, determined to have a careful listen to the tape and see if maybe in my tired and hurried state I'd made a mistake with the voice
I got home and saw that the small kitchen window was now wide open. I tried to close it but it wouldn't budge. Both hinges were now badly bent and wouldn't move at all. I was more angry than worried, it was too small a window for even a child to fit through and there was nothing within an arms reach. I checked the other windows and the doors to be sure, all were locked and undamaged. I figured it was probably some kid skipping school had noticed the damaged window and engaged in a little vandalism for fun. I phoned the local police to report the damage and they of course asked if anything had been taken. Even though I assured them nobody could have gotten in they told me to check any valuables anyway just to be sure. I didn't have much of value so it didn't take me long to check, I returned to the phone and told the officer that indeed nothing had been taken. He told me that someone would be over to look at the damage and check for prints but to keep my expectations on the vandal being caught "reasonable" and to see if my insurance would cover the repairs. It wasn't until I put the phone down that I noticed that the tape deck on the answer phone was empty.
Did my ex still have a key? She couldn't possibly have come in and took the tape just to cover up her call could she? If she really was visiting her sister she was far too far away to have had time to make the trip and take it anyway, could she have convinced her housemate to lie about the trip? Besides, I clearly remembered her returning my key when we broke up. She wouldn't have had a copy cut and kept it would she? Why would she do all this just to avoid admitting to the phone call? none of it made any sense but it seemed clear that she must have taken the tape after our conversation at lunch when she'd remembered it was recorded. Maybe she'd then broken the window to cover the fact that she'd used a key to get in? No, that didn't make any sense either. Why not make one of the larger windows look forced so it would be more convincing? Why even do any of this at all? It was completely out of character for her, even without taking into account all the other things that didn't add up.
The police officer arrived a little later to take a look at the window and agreed that nobody could have possibly gotten inside through there. I told him about the answer phone tape and about having had a strange call that my ex denied making on the tape but that I was mostly sure that she wouldn't have broken in to take it. He said it seemed unlikely but he'd heard of seemingly rational people doing stranger things before and that they'd look into it, just in case. He checked around the window for prints but didn't find anything, not even any smudges. He checked around the inside and outside of the house and concluded that nothing else appeared to have been tampered with. He also checked the answer phone for prints and found only one useable print, which later turned out to be my own. He was friendly the entire time and we talked a bit, he made a point of reassuring me that my home was safe but told me not to hesitate to call if I had any reason to worry. A couple of hours after he'd left I received a call from him. His mood clearly very different, the friendliness was gone and he was straight to business. He told me that he'd confirmed that my ex was indeed visiting her sister and couldn't have taken the tape. He said it was most likely kids who'd broken the window and asked if I was certain that there had been a tape in the answer phone that morning, perhaps I'd taken it out at some point and forgotten to put it in? I was indeed sure, I never left a tape out, once I'd listened to the messages and made a note of anything from them I always rewound the tape and let it record over them, I couldn't remember ever having taken the tape out. I wanted to talk more about it, ask if the housemate had an alibi or if he was sure my ex hadn't somehow managed the trip in time, but I could tell he wasn't interested anymore and so I didn't bother.
Later, on the evening news there was a story of a mans body having been found nearby. I realised that the body had been found in the time between the policeman's visit and his later phone call and that probably explained his change in attitude. They didn't give many details on the news that night but they clearly believed it to be a murder and warned people to be careful and report anything suspicious.
The next day, on the bus to work, I was surprised to see the same policeman board a couple of stops past my own. He talked to the driver quietly for a while, who then pointed to all the regular passengers. Recognising me, he came to talk to me first. He showed me a picture of one of the other regulars and asked me if I'd seen him yesterday. I explained about how I'd missed the bus and so hadn't seen him and he made a note in his book and moved on to the other passengers. After he'd had a short and quiet talk to each of the other regulars, all three of them left the bus with him and I saw them walking down the street together as we drove away.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, the short interruption of the bus journey hadn't been enough to make me late and I'd been too distracted to talk to anyone on our breaks at work. When I got home I put the news on to see if there were any updates and immediately saw a picture of the man the policeman had shown me a photograph of. The news reporter said that more details of the vicious crime had been revealed. A witness had seen the man get off the bus with another man behind him and they'd both headed off in the same direction. This was the last time anyone had seen him alive and happened shortly before the estimated time of death. Witnesses from the bus had described the same man as having been on the bus, sitting at the back, and that while they had both left the bus at the same time they hadn't been together but that the victim had rang the bell to signal for the next bus stop and that the other man had gotten up to disembark when he did. Police believe that the man got on the bus to pick a random victim and followed him from the bus stop and once they were out of sight of witnesses he stabbed the man twelve times.
Unfortunately the writer hadn't included the requested permission for our magazine to print his letter, nor did it include a phone number. The address wasn't far away though and both myself and my editor were keen to print the letter so my editor decided that he'd make a quick visit to get a signed permission. The 'quick visit' took a couple of hours and when my editor returned he was disappointed and said the letter was a bust. The man at the address denied having sent any such letter and, after reading it, said that although it did look like his handwriting he'd never had any experience like what was described and certainly hadn't written the letter so he couldn't possibly give permission to publish it. My editor was upset over having his time wasted by what looked like an odd joke but decided to check if any similar crime had even occurred.
Surprisingly the murder described in the letter turned out to be very similar, but far more detailed, than accounts of a recent murder in a nearby town. We took the letter to the police and told them our story. At first they didn't seem really interested but asked us to wait. Shortly afterwards a much more serious looking officer asked to talk to us separately and we were led to different interview rooms
I was asked about the letter, how and why I'd received it, what I knew about the writer and about the murder described. I was asked the same questions several times, in different words, in different orders and amongst other questions and every time I answered as fully and as best as I could. Eventually the officer confirmed that the murder description was accurate but that some of the details in the letter had been kept out of the press. He then showed me a sketch that their artist had drawn only that morning from witness descriptions. It was identical to the sketch on the back of the letters pages.
I'm certain I'd never seen the man in the drawing before but I have seen him since. Several weeks ago I saw him in the street and I struggled to remember where I had seen him before. Later, when I remembered, I dug out the old letter and it was indeed the very same face. I contacted the police but they told me that he had been identified and interviewed many years ago and dismissed as a suspect. I asked about the case and they told me that it was still unsolved but they couldn't say more about it.
This morning I saw him again. He got on my bus and chose the seat behind mine. Only a few stops later he followed a man off the bus. I probably should have done something, said something. Instead I froze and watched him continue to follow the passenger as the bus pulled away.