The Letters

This is part of my collection of short stories titled ‘An Incidental Liberal’ https://pothi.com/pothi/book/dilip-phadke-incidental-liberal

He sat alone in the pub observing a few other people who preferred ‘Black Knight’ to a siesta on a Sunday afternoon or thought it more fruitful to drown themselves in a glass of beer than spend time with their family, if they had one. It was nearly four o'clock and the time between lunch and dinner usually had a low footfall at Black Knight. He could spot a few regulars like himself, though he did not know anybody by name. He noticed the unfamiliar face of a middle-aged and bald man. His attention was drawn by an unusually thick black frame, which held equally thick lenses over the man’s eyes. He suspected that something was terribly wrong with that man’s vision. His attention shifted from the stranger and he thought about what he had accomplished.

He had finished his latest book the previous night and wanted to unwind; it had been hard work for the last few weeks but he had to adhere to the deadline set by the publisher. He was reasonably satisfied with the final outcome, yet a nagging feeling had crept in over the last few days, a sense of futility that he was unable to grapple with. He was tiring of writing his brand of horror stories — ghosts and supernatural forces. It was becoming increasingly difficult to write without conviction in the subject; he himself did not believe in ghosts and dark powers. He did not remember why he started to write horror stories, but the first book achieved moderate success and he continued to write these stories. He thought that the time was ripe for him to move away from this genre — his financial woes were behind him and he could experiment a little more.
He finished his beer, gathered his hat and umbrella and started walking back to his house. He was still contemplating a subject for a new book when he was stopped by a beautiful middle-aged woman, who asked, “By any chance, are you Mr. Strauss?” She wore an elegant silk dress and carried a stylish, and obviously expensive, handbag in her left hand with a diamond bracelet wrapped around her wrist. He was convinced that she was a rich lady, but what she was doing in the small town of Ashbury was a mystery to him. He was tempted to say yes just to keep the conversation going; it was not often that he had a chance to engage in conversation with a very attractive woman.
Instead, he replied, “No, unfortunately, I am not Mr. Strauss.”
“Consider yourself lucky, I would have slapped you otherwise,” the lady said calmly and walked past him. He was stunned by her response and wondered who that woman might be. After he recovered from his initial shock, he admonished himself for the discourteousness of his reply; he could have said, “No I am not Mr. Strauss, but can I be of any help?” or “Mr Strauss, the antique broker?” For the small house with the freshly-painted green fence at the end of the street did lodge one Mr. Strauss, who dealt with antiques. He had never seen him, but had heard that his antiques business was not completely above board and on occasion, he mixed fakes with genuine pieces. The woman had walked away in the opposite direction. He debated whether he should run after her but turned around only to see the usual deserted, afternoon street.

He was still thinking about the incident while walking back to his house and couldn't get the beautiful woman out of his mind. As he walked past the small house with the freshly-painted green fence, Mr. Strauss’ house, a strong and inexplicable urge drove him to the door of the house. He was not a very social person and would normally have avoided contact with a stranger. After some hesitation, he knocked on the door. The same middle-aged man with the thick black frame whom he had spotted at the pub opened the door. He was surprised for the second time that afternoon but managed to say, “Are you Mr. Strauss? I think I saw you in the pub a few minutes ago.”
“Ah! Mr. Cooper, I have not been fortunate enough to meet you in person until now, but then who does not know you around here? I love your novels; they’re really gripping and very scary. Yes, I am Mr. Strauss, Oh! I'm sorry, please come in, it is a privilege…”
“No, it is okay,” Mr. Cooper cut him short, “I won’t come in today — a lady just asked me if I was Mr. Strauss. I did not realise at the time but wondered a little later whether she was looking for you. Are you expecting anyone, Mr. Strauss?” He asked the bald man, whose idiotic grin Mr. Cooper had developed an instant aversion to.
“No, I am not, but really, please come in. I loved the ending to your last novel, it was really unexpected, I had no clue how it would end until the last page,” the man with the thick frame and thick glasses and perpetual grin said.
“Thank you, but maybe some other time. Have a good day!”
Mr. Cooper turned back to leave. As he walked past the fence, he saw a reflection in the window of a parked car that shocked him. He was almost certain that the same woman, who had stopped him in the street, was watching him from a window on the first floor of Mr. Strauss’ house. He quickly turned around but did not see anyone there except the dumb face of Mr. Strauss, grinning and waving to him. Mr. Cooper waved back, turned and walked away baffled.

It was an affluent and quiet neighbourhood. Most residents kept to themselves and though Mr. Cooper had lived there for the better part of two decades and knew most people by face with a few exceptions like Mr. Strauss, he was not on speaking terms with all of them. He blamed himself for that as most of his time went into writing books, and he did not have time to mingle with people. Though Mr. Cooper had no clear answer as to why he chose to be a ‘horror story’ writer, he often suspected that it was at least partly due to the gloomy weather of Ashbury and the deserted street on which he lived. He stayed up late most nights to complete his work as he considered his surroundings good inspiration. Staring out at the darkness of the night sky and dimly-lit deserted street, with the noise of raindrops on the roof and the occasional wheezing sound produced by a strong wind permeating through minor crevices, was not exactly comforting.

Mr. Cooper thought about the incident for the next few days. Many questions remained unanswered and perplexing. He could explain Mr. Strauss reaching his residence before him by using a bicycle or a car; it was conceivable that he had missed an occasional passing vehicle. He wondered why Mr. Strauss had not given any indication of knowing him in the pub and had stared blankly past him, yet was ebullient and talkative when he visited him. He concluded that Mr. Strauss had probably failed to see him in the poorly-lit pub because of his poor vision. However, he could not explain who that woman was and what she was doing in Mr. Strauss’ house.

He remained busy over the next few days, writing rough drafts and trying to decide on the subject of his next book, determined to move away from the horror genre. The only break he gave himself was to watch movies on television. He preferred war movies and strongly disliked romantic or melodramatic ones. Thoughts of Mr. Strauss and the woman went into the background as the new story took shape in his mind — a social drama. At the end of the week, as he was leaving the house to go to the pub, he found an envelope pushed under the door. It was unmarked and without any stamp. He opened it and found a small hand-written letter.
Dear Mr. Cooper,
Warning! You will encounter a supernatural experience in the next two days. A woman claiming to look for Mr. Strauss will try to talk to you. Please don’t ignore this letter. Consider it a warning. If you talk to her, your life will turn into a living hell.
It was unsigned and the handwriting was not anyone’s he recognized. It had been a week since he had met the woman. Thinking the letter to be an obvious prank, he was about to throw it in the trash when something at the back of the paper caught his eye. He had to strain his eyes to read it. Only one word was faintly written with a pencil — Dorothy.

Mr. Cooper felt dizzy. He barely managed to balance himself by clutching the edge of the table. His face turned ashen, he could not breathe, his throat felt constricted and a terrible sensation at the pit of his stomach felt like a crushing blow to his solar plexus. He managed to steady himself with great difficulty, went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. He tried to breathe normally. He found it inconceivable that anyone should know about Dorothy.

He considered his options. If he went to the police, they would surely want to know about Dorothy. More importantly, he had to ascertain the source and the motive of that letter and the connection it had with the woman on the street. He wondered about the mention of the supernatural in the letter. Was Dorothy alive? The plot was a cliché — a woman back either after a miraculous survival or as a ghost to take revenge on the person responsible for her death. Thinking it as preposterous, he discarded the thought. He tried to be calm and penned down the possibilities and the facts that he knew, which could, perhaps, explain the situation.
Dorothy was dead, there was no doubt about it. He crossed off miraculous survival from the list of possibilities.
A case of mistaken identity. To have received a letter with Dorothy written at the back was too far-fetched, so he struck it out.
Blackmail. He crossed that off too, as there was nothing in his past from which anybody, except him, could profit.
He considered his remaining options — the psychosis of a killer, an actual ghost and a prank. A chill went down his spine. Was he living in a make-believe world of a deranged man? He was certain that he was sane, and the question of a psychological disease was merely a hypothetical one. But then again, wouldn't a man with a mental illness be convinced of his sanity? Though he depicted ghosts in many of his books, he had never believed in them. Maybe it was a prank. However, how would the person know about Dorothy? A prank was just too convenient an answer. He agonised himself to successfully decipher the meaning of the letter.

He decided to visit Mr. Strauss one more time. He had a sick feeling that he wouldn't see the same person there. Yet he walked to Mr. Strauss’ house and inspected it from the outside. He found nothing untoward and after a few minutes of hesitation, he walked up to the door and knocked. An elderly person opened the door.
“I am looking for Mr. Strauss, I met him a few days ago,” Mr. Cooper said.
“I am Mr. Strauss and I may be mistaken but I don’t think that we have met before,” the elderly man replied.
Mr. Cooper retreated without saying anything more. The story was unfolding exactly like one of his own books, except, unlike his books, he didn’t know how the story would end. He went back home and shut himself in his room and thought about the whole thing. Troubled, perplexed and scared he finally accepted defeat.

He needed help and decided to go to the police. He told them about everything, except Dorothy. The police were very sceptical after listening to his story and considered it an obvious prank. Since he was somewhat of a local celebrity, they extended every possible courtesy to him. They went to the house of Mr. Strauss but found nothing suspicious. They assured him that no bald person with thick black glasses lived there. One of the police officers finally asked Mr. Cooper whether he was absolutely certain that he had seen the woman and the man with the thick black glasses. Mr. Cooper answered in the affirmative and trotted back to his house feeling utterly humiliated.
Mr. Cooper became desperate. There was no further communication of any kind. He wondered whether he was losing his sanity! He considered whether he should consult a shrink but decided against it. A single letter had changed his life. Dorothy!
What had he done? Why had he done it? These thoughts made him desperate. He realised that he was actually repenting for what he had done, for the first time in nearly two decades. He started feeling morose and desolate. He began doubting himself, as he started to wonder whether he had actually seen the woman and Mr. Strauss with the thick black glasses. However, how was he to explain the letter? He had to solve the mystery.

A week later, he got a second envelope. He had almost waited for it and eagerly opened it.
Mr. Cooper, You must be certain by now that I know about ‘Dorothy.’ This is your last warning. I will expose you. Be prepared for terrible consequences if you don’t rectify this situation.
He was trembling and his heart was pounding. His face was flushed. He was not left with any choice. He slowly walked to his attic, as he mumbled to himself, “No, don’t do this! You will be ruined forever. No, I beg of you!” But as if by some unseen force he unlocked the door where he kept the wooden chest. He opened it for the first time in two decades. “I should have destroyed it, why did I keep it?” he whispered. The chest was stacked with several manuscripts and newspaper clippings. He picked up one of the clippings. It contained letters from readers.
Dear Dorothy,
No one writes love stories like you. Thanks! You fill the heart of every woman with passion and tenderness.
Dear Dorothy,
Sweetheart, I love your work! You’re the best! Every young girl loves your stories.
Dorothy fondly held the clipping in her hand. She was angry with Mr. Cooper. “You almost killed me, locked me in for twenty years. Why did you do that? I suffered for your insecurity, your timidity. You could have just freed me. You were only writing as Dorothy! But you allowed your friends to bully you, to shame you, when there was no reason to be ashamed. So much so, that you renounced romance from your life. You ran away from your fears and moved to Ashbury and betrayed your readers. I suffocated for all these years, but I will forgive you if you give me my freedom back.” Mr. Cooper smiled for the first time in many days as he carefully folded the newspaper clipping, put it back in the chest and carried the chest to his study. Dorothy was back.

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