A Matter of Time: Crime Short Fiction By Harvey Huddleston
Harvey Huddleston, author of A Matter of Time, is a playwright living in New York City. His play, “Natural Phenomena,” won three national awards. His short fiction has been published in Otoliths, Literary Yard and The Eunoia Review.
Herndon zipped up his zipper. Five so far. This could’ve been six. Bound, gagged, raped, tortured with a knife, none of them killed but each one progressively worse. Just a matter of time. He crumpled up his paper towel and rattled it in for the easy two. Bothne was waiting outside the interrogation room but then he came down the hall to meet him halfway.
Should we record this?
I just want to listen for now. So he really said it was him.
Like I said, I just want your take on it.
And then he turns right around and says it wasn’t. The only thing I know for sure is that this kid’s a screwball. You want coffee?
Yeah, but give me a few minutes alone with him first.
You got it. Hey, buddy, the big guy’s really pushing on this so we’ve been going round the clock. Like I said, I just want your take on it.
I owe you one.
At that Bothne disappeared down the hall while Herndon took a second to set his interviewer face. He opened the door and Ronald was at the table. Or Ron maybe. Herndon sat across from him.
Hi. I’m Lieutenant Herndon. Is it Ron or Ronald?
Okay, Ronnie. Pleasure. Thanks for coming in on a Saturday. I’m sure you have other things today. Like all of us.
The other guy said you haven’t caught him yet.
Not yet but we’re working on it. That’s why we asked you back in. Maybe you can help with some things. So right out of the gate, I should probably tell you, Detective Bothne says that you told him you were this guy coming through the window.
That’s not what I said. He misunderstood. Or wasn’t listening.
Okay, so that was him and this is me. I want you to tell me in your own words what happened.
Again, but I need detail. As much as you can give me.
Start with why you were there.
You mean… you want to know about me and Muffin?
Okay. Well, we’ve been together about two years. On and off. This fall was off, until about a month ago. We’d been living in midtown over the summer but then I moved down the street and she moved to Buntyn.
Where’d you meet?
The theatre. In the dressing room. I was hanging around after a show when I heard this piano coming from the dressing room. So I go in and she’s there playing. It sounded good so I sat on the couch and listened. She knew I was there but she didn’t stop. She just kept playing. You see, she was the music director of this show I was in. Small role, one of the beggars. Three Penny Opera? Anyway, I listened and then we talked and that kind of became what we did after the show. She’d play and I’d listen.
You were hanging around?
At the theater, you know. Some of us hung around at night after the show. You sure you want to hear all this?
Sure I do. Take your time.
Okay, so we split up again. I was still on Poplar and she’d moved over to that duplex on Buntyn. There’s a piano there. An upright grand with this massive sound. We hadn’t seen each other for awhile but then, you know, we’d kind of started up again. That night I’d taken her out for ice cream. She mentioned once that this guy had taken out his girlfriend for ice cream and the way she said it made it sound nice. So that night we went to get ice cream. And then after I drove her back to her apartment.
Had you been there before?
Oh yeah, four or five times… You know, before you came in I remembered something I left out the other day. It might be important.
Just then the door opened and Bothne came in with two coffees. He set one down in front of Ronnie and the other in front of Herndon.
Cream, no sugar. I’ll just sit over here and listen.
So go on.
You see, it was maybe ten days ago. We were walking down her street about a block from her apartment. It had been raining and wet leaves were piled up in the gutter. So we were walking along and talking about all these women being raped —
Wait. Why were you talking about that?
It was all over the news. And because… okay, I need to go back some more. You see, a few days before that Muffin had told me about coming back to her apartment and some things were different. She’d mentioned it to Bev who lives on the other side of the duplex. Bev’s the one who got Muffin the apartment because she knew the landlady and thought it would be perfect for Muffin because of that upright grand.
That’s why Muffin moved there. Anyway, she came back that day and saw something wasn’t right so she tells Bev and then Bev tells her that something strange had happened to her too the night before. Bev had heard some noises outside in the back. It was early in the morning, about three a.m. So she opens the back door but nothing. So she comes in and goes back to bed. But then the next morning, she remembers that when she came back in the screen door hadn’t closed behind her. What I’m saying is that it had a spring on it but she had to pull the screen door shut herself, like maybe someone had been out there in the dark holding it open. She told Muffin this.
You said something was different in Muffin’s apartment.
Bev’s the one who got Muffin the apartment because she knew the landlady and thought it would be perfect for Muffin because of that upright grand.
Yeah. So a few days before we took that walk Muffin had shown me this photograph. It was a sexy shot of her, nude, but with a sheet or something draped off one shoulder. And her hair was, you know, all fluffed out. So I’m wondering who took the photograph but then I didn’t ask because I thought it might be an old boyfriend, this photographer guy, Calabrese, and I didn’t want to hear that. Anyway, that photograph was missing from her apartment when she came back. But then she blew it off as having misplaced it somewhere even though it was already in a frame. Oh man, I can’t even believe this.
Racing. All this coffee. This is my third one today.
Are you okay?
I think so.
So go on.
The photograph was missing but we’d forgotten about it. So we’re walking down the street that day after it rained. It’s misty and cold with wet leaves in the gutter when we see it. The photograph was there in the gutter, mixed in with the soggy leaves. I didn’t even know it was the same one until she picked it up. It wasn’t in its frame but then we saw other things. It had these slits in it like it had been stabbed with a knife and it was also kind of bubbly like maybe acid had been put on it.
Do you have this photograph?
… She might.
Ronnie paused while Bothne jotted something down.
Anyway, that photograph spooked us both. Not so much by the way it looked but because we’d found it only a block from her apartment. I mean, what was the chance of that? Some freak comes in and steals her picture but then just happens to drop it there? I mean did he want us to find it? And if he did, how would he know we’d be walking that way at exactly that time and pass that particular spot and then SEE it? How? It didn’t make any sense because — You see, that’s the thing about us taking a walk that day. We NEVER do that! We drive or hang out! WE NEVER EVER WALK ANYWHERE!
Ronnie was now looking down and shaking his head. Herndon and Bothne exchanged looks.
Do you want more coffee? Maybe a restroom break?
Yeah, the restroom. Ronnie got up.
Down the hall. On your left.
Ronnie paused at the door. Look, I’m just trying to tell you what happened.
You’re doing good.
Should I leave this door open?
As Ronnie’s steps faded down the hall Bothne looked over at Herndon.
Let’s just hear him out.
What do you make of this photograph stuff?
Did she mention it?
No. But then he didn’t either the first time he came in. Do you think it could be him?
Herndon didn’t answer. None of the other five women saw his face, right?
He wore a mask.
So then Ronnie is the only one who’s actually seen him. He’s the only eyewitness we’ve got so maybe we can shake something loose.
Be sure to ask about what he said, about him being this creep.
I’m still thinking this kid might be our guy —
Bothne was cut short by Ronnie’s footsteps coming back. Ronnie re-entered and took his seat.
Splashed some water on my face. So what I was saying… I really am trying to tell you what happened. Everything. You should remember that. I may not remember it all right off or in exactly the right order but I’m trying to. I really am.
We believe you.
Ready to go on?
So we find the photograph and we’re also thinking that it was maybe him out there in the dark holding Bev’s screen door open. But then I guess we tried not to think about it. Or we didn’t pay attention. Or enough attention. It was like something creepy came in on us. Well, I can’t speak for Muffin but something creepy sure came in on me. It felt like a depression… like a kid frozen in bed waiting for the sun to come up…
But that whole week there was something gloomy and depressing going on and I knew deep down that it wasn’t just the weather. I asked Muffin if she wanted to stay at my place until they caught him or the rapes stopped but then that was a problem too. I mean, we’d split up because of our own problems but then for her to come to my place because of some rapist and not because we wanted back together didn’t seem right either. So she said no and we let it go. And that’s when it happened. A few nights later.
Did you tell anyone about this depression?
Why would I do that? Everyone gets depressed. I mean what would I say? There’s a rapist running around loose so I’m depressed? I just ignored it like everyone else and went on with what I was doing.
So we go for ice cream and then after we pull up in front of her apartment and just sit there, not saying a word. Which was weird in itself. I ask if I can come in and she says no. And here it gets even weirder. For some reason I really wanted to go inside her apartment. Not for sex even though that would’ve probably happened — and even though I didn’t really want it to. I just had this really strong feeling that I needed to go inside. Just for one cup of tea so I ask again and she finally says okay. So we’re in the kitchen. She puts on the water and I slice up some cheese… charcuterie charcuterie charcuterie —
Oh… All we had was cheese.
If you feel like another break —
No, let’s just get through this. So then we go to the living room and sit in our places, she on the piano bench and me in the armchair. There was a table next to it where I set down my tea, not more than two feet from my hand.
You see, that duplex is small. Living room up front, bedroom in the middle and kitchen in the back. The only furniture in the living room is the upright grand on the outside wall and that armchair in the corner next to the front door where I was sitting. A window in back of my armchair had its blinds shut but another window next to the piano was only a half window. It was open and had no blinds at all because it started pretty far up the wall, about five feet off the floor. There were no lights on except for one in the kitchen. The only light in the living room was from this big red candle in Muffin’s brass candlestick there on the piano. So she lit it. She would play and I would listen. Same as always.
Such a big sound came from that piano. Arpeggios going up and down, the sound crashing off the walls. She was getting wrapped up in this theme from a ballet she wrote, The Mississippi River Suite. Then there were the minor themes, bending and blending into the whole. She wasn’t singing because this was a ballet with just the piano even though she was making it sound like a whole orchestra. There was the upright grand and Muffin rocking back and forth, pounding at the keyboard with the chords and melodies crashing and clashing into each other, getting louder and louder.
I hadn’t touched my tea so about ten minutes into it I decided to take a sip. I say decided because I didn’t just reach for the cup and pick it up, even though it was right there. For some reason I thought about reaching for it before I did… but then I didn’t… This seems kind of crazy telling it. The light where I was sitting was very dim because like I said the blinds behind me were closed, blocking out the street light. The only other light was from the candle on the piano about ten feet away and it only lit the keyboard and Muffin’s face.
Anyway, there I was in the corner staring at my tea before picking it up. But that’s when it got really weird because I still didn’t pick it up. Why not? Why not just reach over and pick it up? The piano chords were crashing even louder. Just pick it up! So I started to reach for it but then I still didn’t. It was then that I realized that my arm wouldn’t move. I tried again but my arm still wouldn’t move. It was like I was paralyzed.
But I didn’t panic. I just kept sitting there, wondering what was wrong. Muffin by now was building up to one of my favorite parts and I wanted a sip of tea really bad but I just couldn’t do it. It was like I was under a spell that was gripping my whole body and holding me there. And all this time the piano is getting louder and louder.
Then, even though my arm couldn’t move or even my whole body, something else happened. Along with the piano and the paralysis, a buzz started in my head and I saw this dim light from far away but also deep inside me at the same time. And the piano started drifting off into the background so that it wasn’t so loud anymore. Then I felt this sudden, desperate need to get away, to break free! So I turned my eyes from Muffin to the high window next to the upright grand and there he was, this guy coming through the window. So many things at once.
I leapt up out of my chair yelling and this guy fell backwards out of the window. Muffin jumped up from her bench and backed away from me with such fear in her eyes. And then she screamed as loud as she could right in my face. And then she screamed again and again! I’d never heard anyone scream like that in my life. But then the image of that knife on the kitchen counter that I’d cut the cheese with flashed in my mind and I had to get to it before he could come in the back door and get to it first. So I ran back to the kitchen and grabbed the knife but then I knew that was wrong. He wasn’t coming for the knife. Now I knew that he’d run into the backyard to get away —
How did you know he ran to the backyard?
Well, at first, like I said, I thought he was coming in the back door.
But what made you think that?
… Okay, you want to know why? Because when I jumped up and he fell back out of the window and Muffin started screaming — In the middle of all that, I heard his footsteps outside running back in that direction. I didn’t remember that until just now…
Then we called you. It was only about two minutes later. We were out front when the squad cars pulled up. Six of them at once from both directions with their lights flashing and cops piling out while the cars were still moving. They were hitting the ground running between the houses and into the back yards. They were ready I guess because he’d gotten away so many times. Kind of incredible to watch actually. I’m still surprised they didn’t catch him. And… that’s about it.
You saw this guy?
Describe his face.
I can’t because he was just a shape.
But you said he was no more than ten feet away.
Did he have a mask on?
Then you had to see his face.
No, I only saw his silhouette against the moonlight or streetlight behind him. But it was his profile so I know he wasn’t wearing a mask. It was only a second. You see, he didn’t know I was there until I jumped up from that armchair. I’d been sitting there in the dark completely motionless so when I jumped up it must’ve scared him even more than he scared me. The first thing he thought was that a trap had been set for him.
At that Bothne spoke up for the first time. How do you know that?
How do you know what his first thought was?
Well… that’s what I think now. I mean, wouldn’t you think that?
Bothne didn’t answer. Herndon picked it back up. But you didn’t see his face.
Not enough to say what he looked like. Just his shape… and his nose in profile. Okay, yeah, his nose, he was a white guy.
That narrows it down.
Herndon didn’t like Bothne’s sarcasm. It does narrow it down. Go on.
So he’s coming in focused on Muffin, going towards her. But then that’s weird too because I mean, what if I hadn’t jumped up just then? That window is five feet off the floor. The only thing he could’ve done was fall into the room head first because that window wasn’t big enough for him to get his legs through to support himself and drop to the floor. Unless he just wanted to scare the hell out of her.
Can you imagine if she’d looked up to her left and seen his face only two feet away… But that doesn’t make any sense…. unless… holy shit, I just realized. He was going to grab her and take her down to the floor with him. Oh shit! I just figured out what he was trying to do! He was getting ready to use her to support his weight and come down on top of her!
Ronnie was now looking up at the ceiling and slapping his head. Bothne nodded at Herndon, urging him on.
So, Ronnie? There’s still this thing you said about this guy coming through the window being you. Did you say that?
I did. But that’s not what I meant. Ronnie looked at Bothne. The way you took it.
Herndon brought him back. Then why did you say it?
You see… it wasn’t me but I’d become him. Can’t you understand that?
No, I can’t. Herndon motioned at Bothne. He can’t either. We don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t. You have to explain.
… While sitting in that armchair, I’d somehow become hooked into this guy’s mind. But it didn’t start just then. It had been going on all week, ever since we’d found that photograph with the acid and knife cuts. That’s why the depression came in on me. That’s why I was paralyzed and couldn’t move. My mind had connected with his mind during that whole week so by the time he crept up to that window and stepped up onto that milk crate and watched Muffin at the piano, I’d become him. Why is that so hard to understand? It’s weird, sure, but that doesn’t make it less true. That’s what happened! It’s the only thing that could have happened!
Bothne interjected again. Are you saying you were possessed? Like that movie, what is it?
Yeah, The Exorcist. You were possessed by a demon.
Not a demon! This guy was real. But he’d taken over my mind. Okay, I heard about this mother once who woke up one night thinking something had happened to her daughter and that daughter lived thousands of miles away. So the mother goes back to sleep but then the next day she finds out that her daughter was killed the night before at the exact same time she woke up. People sometimes… just know things. They do.
Bothne kept at him. Then you’re saying you knew this guy was outside the window before you saw him.
Yes! That’s what I’m saying! But I didn’t know it consciously. I just knew something was wrong. It was only later I figured out that the depression and paralysis and hallucinations were my own mind trying to warn me.
Are you still in this guy’s mind?
I said are you still in this guy’s mind?
What do you mean still in his mind?
I mean, do you know where he is now?
Are you serious?
Hey, I’m sitting here listening to this horseshit and I’m thinking that’s exactly what it is. Horseshit! So here’s the deal. I’ll listen to anything you say — whatever you come up, but only if it can help us catch this guy. You understand that?
Okay, I understand… so no. I’m not in his mind. He’s gone now. I’m still kind of shaky but not depressed anymore. He’s gone.
Herndon cut back in. Has this happened before to you? Being in someone else’s mind?
Ronnie shook his head no, staring off past them. Bothne held up one finger and Herndon nodded for him to go ahead.
One more question. Were you on drugs?
Ronnie answered without looking at him. Me and Muffin don’t do drugs.
There was a silence and Herndon shifted in his chair. So then, I guess that’s it. We’re done.
… I can go?
That’s all we need. Thanks for coming in. And thanks for telling your story.
Ronnie got up and crossed to the door.
And good luck with Muffin.
Oh yeah, sure… bye.
Ronnie closed the door behind him. Bothne stretched back in his chair as Herndon took the last sip of his coffee. Bothne waited and then turned both palms up.
So it’s not him.
You’re sure of that.
You asked what I thought. I don’t think it’s him.
Okay, but think about this. So this creep’s in his mind and then he’s in the creep’s mind. All this mumbo jumbo. But remember, this kid’s the only one who saw the guy in that window. He could’ve put that milk crate outside the window himself. The photograph too, maybe he stole it himself and planted it earlier that day before he took her walking. Maybe he’s the one who saw it in the gutter and pointed it out to her. He could’ve staged this whole thing! Made it up!
But why, Phil? Why would he do that?
To throw us off his trail maybe.
Were you on his trail?
No, but maybe he thought we were.
But we weren’t. It doesn’t make any sense that he’d make all this up and bring attention to himself. What about Muffin? Does her story match up with his?
Then he’s telling the truth.
But she never saw anything!
It’s not him, Phil.
… Okay… so it’s not him.
Okay, okay, I got it… It’s not.
If he wants to believe this possession stuff, then that’s just what he wants to believe. That night he was worried so he went in for tea. The photograph just happened to be there but so what? It doesn’t mean he put it there to find it later. They just found it. That’s all there is to it.
There was a short silence with neither looking at each other. Bothne finally glanced over. Hey, you didn’t mind me jumping in like that, did you? It just felt like we needed to bump up the pressure some. I’m a little more old school about this stuff.
Herndon paused before answering. It’s okay.
So it’s not him… I don’t know, guess I’m just getting a little desperate here… waiting around for it to happen again. But I still think that kid’s a screwball.
You know, Mark’s got a game this afternoon. He’s starting at point guard. You feel like going?
Mark’s the youngest, right? Thanks but… I got some things here… Maybe I’ll go home and kiss the wife. If she’ll let me. That’s a joke.
You know, Phil, sometimes, you just have to let it go. Give it a break.
When we get this creep. I just keep thinking about those five women. And then number six on its way… It’s only a matter of time, you know. You know that’s true.
Herndon got up to leave but Bothne stayed in his chair.
You know, he never did answer you. When you asked if he’d ever been in anyone else’s mind before. He shook his head but he didn’t answer.
That was his answer.
Maybe it’s none of our business. I’ll call you later.
Herndon’s footsteps disappeared down the hall.
Yeah… sure… later…
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