Louise’s Love Letters by Mark SaFranko
Louise’s Love Letters by Mark SaFranko
My brother Vaughan was always the most sociable member of our family. He was the one who made good, solid friends, valued them, stayed in touch, put out an effort. When our mother passed away not long ago, it was Vaughan, and not me, who collected stacks of sympathy cards and scores of condolence messages.
That he’d remained in the city in New Jersey where we were born helped, no doubt. Me, I was different. I was restless. I moved around a lot. People –- friends, lovers, acquaintances — drifted in and out of my life. Throughout my many moves around the country, I didn’t try to stay in touch — with anyone. A character flaw? Probably. On the other hand, as a writer, I tend to be more of an observer than participant. It’s my natural tendency to hang back and — according to some accusations — treat human beings as “material.” Instead of partying and socializing, I spend most of my time alone, reading, thinking, brooding –- and sometimes writing.
Over the years I’ve tried to think of different ways to frame the events I’m going to relate, some sleight of hand that would make the story a bit slicker, more entertaining, even more surprising, but in the end what happened speaks for itself. And in this case, if truth isn’t stranger than fiction, it was certainly more powerful.
Anyway, Vaughan was young, in his mid-twenties, and enjoying himself on the town after the collapse of an intense, live-in romance with a half-Korean, half-Native American girl he’d met at a friend’s wedding. He was manning the keyboards in a couple of cover bands, which didn’t hurt when it came to meeting new females. When he wasn’t working, his most frequent traveling companion was our cousin Wesley, who was the same age as Vaughan and a guy who was always up for anything. Wes was single, and an accountant for a major tire manufacturer, as well as a tennis player, a golfer, and a guy who liked to enjoy a few beers, travel, have a good time. Best of all, he had a sense of humor: for instance, he and Vaughan could act out entire episodes of that ancient chestnut, The Honeymooners, from memory. They were close, as close as friends could be, and the blood connection -– Wes’s mother was our mother’s sister closest in age — made them even tighter. A couple of other guys rounded out their circle: Bill Johnson and Nils Oldham.
Vaughan was going through women like a nicotine addict plundering a fresh carton of cigarettes. Whenever I was in town or we’d talk on the phone I’d get an earful of names: Janine…Marci…Trina…Cheri. Etc. I was jealous, because at the time I was miserably married to my first wife and anything aside from being trapped under the same roof with her seemed incredibly appealing.
“So the other night at the Gardenview Lounge I picked up this babe named Riley. After a few drinks we went back to my place and had a blast. I’m telling you, women today are crazier than ever. You don’t know what it’s like out here, man. I’m having an absolute field day….”
Before long I lost track of the number of Vaughan’s conquests, not that I was keeping count. It flitted through my mind that what he was up to might be more than a little dangerous –- the AIDS epidemic had just kicked in, for one thing — but on the other hand women were freer than ever and not likely to hold a grudge if a relationship didn’t progress past a single encounter. In fact, they were just as likely –- if not more so — to bid good riddance to a guy if they didn’t like the way he chewed his gum.
That’s what made it such a surprise when Vaughan phoned one day and said he had something to tell me.
“I got this strange letter in the mail yesterday. I would almost call it threatening, but….” He sounded uncharacteristically subdued. “Got a minute? I’ll read it to you.”
My curiosity was piqued. Since as a writer my life is so often lived vicariously, something like this just might be right up my alley. I’d long since discovered that you never knew where a good story was going to come from. And besides, what else did I have to do? My career, as usual, wasn’t doing much of anything. If it weren’t for my regular gig as a technical editor, I wouldn’t even be able to make the rent.
The letter kicked off with some nonsense about a movie the author had recently seen — which, coincidentally, happened to be one that Vaughan had mentioned catching a week or so earlier –- then took an odd, pinwheel turn.
“‘So — you think you can use people with impunity? You think you can just take and discard according to your petty whims?’”
“And impunity is spelled wrong,” said Vaughan. “She’s got it with a ‘g’ before the ‘n.’
“She? Interesting. Typed or handwritten?”
“Handwritten. Half in a kind of a loopy scrawl. The other half in block letters.”
“Do you recognize it — the handwriting?”
“Nah. And I can’t make out whether she really knows me or not. There’s not enough detail. Anyway, it’s signed ‘Louise.’”
It didn’t ring a bell. “Very quaint. Know any Louises?”
“Uh-uh. At least I don’t think so.”
“How about in the past?”
“Not that I recall.”
“What the hell do you make of it?”
“No idea. That’s why I called you.”
“Hm. Where was it postmarked?”
“Right here in Trenton. But it doesn’t say which neighborhood.”
I was as baffled as Vaughan.
“Don’t give it a second thought,” I suggested, though I knew I’d be incapable of following my own advice. “It’s probably some sort of joke or it landed at the wrong apartment, did you think of that?”
“I doubt it, since it’s addressed to me.”
Right. What was I thinking?
“But I’m going to take your advice and not sweat it. Life’s too short.”
A week later, Vaughan phoned again. There was a second letter.
“No kidding. Same stuff?”
“Pretty much. The difference is that this one was longer.”
“What’s she say this time?”
“Like the first one, I can’t quite figure it out. Same whacky handwriting. And again, there’s a vague threat near the end.”
“Jesus….You show them to Wes?”
“He’s been reading them right alongside me. And he can’t figure them out either.”
“Well, so long as they don’t grow any more threatening, I suppose they’re harmless — right?”
“Yeah,” sniffed Vaughan. “I guess.”
By now we already suspected there’d be another. It was just a matter of time.
“I doubt you’ll see any more,” I said anyway.
“I hope not. Not that they’re going to disturb my sleep or anything.”
The third letter arrived more quickly than the second. It was lengthier and contained scads of insane gibberish, but at the end the threat was no longer veiled.
“I’m going to slit your throat, you son of a whore.”
“Uh-oh. That’s…that’s — ”
“I know. Not a joke anymore. Not that it ever was.”
Directly after the appearance of the third letter, Vaughan and Wes took off on a two-week jaunt to Seattle, where one of my brother’s ex-drummer pals happened to have relocated and started life over as, of all things, an insurance agent. When they got back to the East Coast, another letter was waiting, this one postmarked from a small town in Florida. The language was more vile by far than the first three, in another category altogether. When Vaughan read it to me over the phone, I had the impression for the first time that he might be in real jeopardy.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m at a loss. What do you think I should do?”
“Well, if I was on the receiving end of those things, I’d go straight to the police. Because you don’t want to wait until — ”
Silence. Vaughan seemed to be thinking it over. He let out a long sigh.
“Not that anything will happen, but….”
“You’re probably right. I should go to the cops.”
With the ever-faithful Wes in tow, Vaughan reported to the local state police barracks in Ewing. After displaying the letters and explaining the bizarre situation, he was introduced to a Detective Urmeister, who sat with them in his office and pored over the evidence.
“Any idea who might have sent these to you?”
Vaughan was a little annoyed by the question.
“None whatsoever. That’s why I’m here.”
“Does any of what this -– this ‘Louise’ –- writes here make sense to you?”
“Well, yes, but — not really.”
“How do you mean?”
My brother explained that he’d been involved with a slew of women over the past few years, but that he didn’t have the feeling any of them would be furious enough to pull something like this. With the exception of Holly, his Korean-Native American ex, since their relationship had been so volatile and resulted in a restraining order, but he hadn’t had any contact whatsoever with her for at least two years now. In his opinion it was unlikely she was the one writing the letters, especially since he’d never once seen her pick up a pen to write anything.
The detective shook his head. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this line of work, it’s that you never really know anyone. You might think you’ve got a handle on a person –- you might think you know all there is to know about her — but you don’t.”
Wes and Vaughan shrugged at each other. Urmeister’s little lecture wasn’t much help.
Finally, the detective said, “Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do to help you. It’s not possible to trace these letters to a specific location and there doesn’t appear to be any visible fingerprints on them — not that it would necessarily help if there were.”
Vaughan was disappointed but not altogether surprised. No doubt Urmeister had determined that the situation was much too small potatoes to devote serious time to. Nevertheless, he went off and made Xeroxes of the letters.
When he dropped the originals in front of Vaughan, he said, “Here’s the problem with a situation like this, Mister Solak: no crime’s been committed. Until this ‘Louise’ character acts on what she’s saying, my hands are tied. I know it’s not much comfort, but basically, until something actually happens or you at least figure out who the writer is….” He turned out his hands.
“There’s nothing you can do.”
He nodded. “But thanks for coming in.”
It was cousin Wes’s opinion that Urmeister wasn’t a dumb cop, but that whoever was sending the vicious missives was one slick operator. The detective, however, didn’t lose interest in the case altogether -– if it could even be called a case. He even phoned Vaughan to inquire how he was faring, and if anything new had happened, and to let him know that he was still studying the letters for clues whenever he had a chance, which wasn’t often because he always had so many other open investigations on his plate.
By now it had been several weeks since the initial flurry of letters. Vaughan had just begun to breathe a little easier when a fresh envelope arrived in the mail. He wasn’t even sure if he should open them anymore or whether he should take them straight to the authorities, but his curiosity won out. Heart pounding, he sliced the flap. This time there was no letter, but a single photograph instead: of himself, naked from the top of his head down to his pubic area.
“You know what Wes said when saw it? ‘This bitch is crazy.’”
A shudder ran through me. “Where was it taken?”
“Who knows? I don’t recognize the background, but it looks like the inside of a room. Obviously I’m not aware of being photographed. It’s like whoever took the picture somehow concealed the camera. And who knows if there are others….”
“What about the expression on your face?” I said, groping for some way to help.
“Blissfully ignorant. Like I’ve just rolled out of bed or something.”
“It has to be one of the ladies you were with.”
“Has to be…but which one?”
“You didn’t pick up a vibe from any of them? A psycho vibe?”
“Tell you the truth, I was so drunk or stoned most of the time that I wasn’t picking up any vibes at all. I mean, you know how it is when you’re in that state, right?”
Not anytime recently, but I did. “Naked, huh? That’s a little too creepy for comfort.”
“Tell me about it.”
Vaughan reported to Detective Urmeister with the photo, but it turned out not to be traceable. There were no telltale fingerprints or tool marks whatsoever on it. It was just one more dead end. By now my brother had no choice but to agree with Wesley: whoever was screwing with his head was pretty damned clever.
The next time I visited my native city, we all got together over drinks and pizza. Vaughan spread the evidence, the letters and that strange photograph, over the table. I took my time studying everything, trying to decipher some key to the madness. But it was as mystifying to me as it was to everyone else, Wes, Vaughan, Bill and Nils. Various theories and conjectures were tossed out. I certainly didn’t recognize the handwriting in the letters, which sometimes seemed to change from line to line, sometimes from word to word, and the photo might have been taken — literally — anywhere on earth. Plywood walls told me nothing about anything.
“You think the background could have been doctored?” I said to Vaughan.
“Sure. But how would I know? I don’t know what the original was.”
“Right. Stupid question.”
“What do you think, Wes?”
He shook his head and made a face. “We’ve been through it all a hundred times and I’m as lost now as I was at the beginning.”
“Well, it has to be someone, right? And it has to be someone you know.”
Vaughan shot me a look. “Really?” There was an almost angry challenge in his voice. “What makes you think that?”
He was right. Maybe it wasn’t someone he knew. His tormentor could have been anyone, and not necessarily anyone he knew well. It could be his cracked neighbor in the next apartment. It could be an unbalanced teenaged girl living two miles away. Or it could be someone he’d met in passing, at the bank or the supermarket, who’d decided to harass him because he didn’t care for his haircut. The world is crawling with maniacs.
“No good reason. No good reason.”
Vaughan was clearly rattled now. I had no words of advice or solace for him and I was sorry about that. Even going back to the police seemed futile at this point. If they couldn’t help him before, why would they be able to help him now?
“Just make sure you keep your back covered,” I suggested lamely.
“I’ll try. And if something happens to me, you’ll know why.”
For a couple of weeks all was quiet, until one evening when the phone rang as I was loading the dishwasher.
“It’s reached a scary depth of insanity.” Vaughan sounded positively tortured. I’d never heard him so weary, so defeated — so scared. “The envelope that arrived today was fat. The letter inside was longer than all of the others combined. It’s like she’s reached a new pitch of fury.”
“Jesus. I’m afraid to ask.”
“You should be….Listen to this: ‘When I’m through with you, your walls and floors and ceilings will run with blood. You will be nothing but shit, a broken turd floating in an endless river of slaughter….’”
“It doesn’t even make any sense.”
“Well, she never really did, when you think about it. But one thing is obvious: whoever she is wants me dead.”
I’d run out of things to say.
“I’m checking everywhere now. Out the windows, over my shoulder, under the bed –- everywhere.”
“Maybe you should think about getting yourself a gun.”
“Maybe I should.”
More thick letters threatening bloody mayhem followed in rapid succession. Vaughan inquired about purchasing a firearm for personal protection, but there was too much red tape involved, and he wasn’t really a gun guy. But the lack of some kind of shield left him feeling vulnerable. Very vulnerable.
Then — nothing.
It all seemed to have ended just as quickly as it began. There were no more letters. No more sleazy photos. There was nothing but silence.
Vaughan couldn’t know that it had really ended, of course, none of us could, because that would have required ‘Louise’ to inform him that it was in fact finished, and she hadn’t done any such thing. All she did was stop sending him stuff in the mail, leaving us to wonder whether she’d gotten bored with her sadistic shenanigans, or suddenly grew afraid of being caught, or even died — or who knows what else. Maybe she was even lulling my brother into an unvigilant state before launching a fresh attack. A deadly one this time.
There was simply no way to know.
The worst part for Vaughan was the lingering uncertainty. The weeks stretched into months, then years. No fresh letters appeared in his mailbox. There was no conclusion to draw except that it was indeed finally over. From time to time he and I resurrected the entire wretched subject, tried all over again to figure out who Louise was, what had motivated her and what had become of her, but whenever we did we ended up in the same place –- clueless and nowhere. Detective Urmeister even phoned one last time to check on whether there had been further developments, but after Vaughan told him no, he never heard from the cop again either.
Around midnight the phone buzzed.
I was living on the other side of the country, this time in southern California. Wife number one was history, and I was finally in a better place. I hadn’t talked to Vaughan for some time. He’d been married a few years now himself, and whenever we connected, the subject of Louise no longer came up. By this time I’d forgotten about her and her epistolary rampage. The entire chapter seemed like nothing more than one of the weird, inexplicable things that happens in youth, something to be laughed about later, in middle age, if it isn’t forgotten altogether, which most times it is….
I’d already been asleep, and when I shook it off, my first thought was that something terrible had happened, that there’d been an accident, that maybe someone I knew had suddenly died. Late night phone calls always have that effect.
“Hey, man. Sorry for calling so late. You still awake?”
It was Vaughan.
“I am now. What the hell time is it there?”
“The middle of the night. Sorry. I couldn’t sleep….”
“So — you’ll never guess what happened tonight.”
“I’m sure I won’t. Lay it on me.”
“Ready? Sitting down?”
“I’m in bed with the light out. Let me move into another room so I don’t wake up the wife and kid.”
I struggled out of the sheets, tiptoed downstairs, and flopped on the couch.
“I finally found out who Louise really was.”
“Louise — remember those insane letters way back when?”
It took a few seconds for the fog in my mind to blow away. “You mean those threatening, demented letters?”
“You got it.”
“No kidding, you figured out who she was…?”
“Let me tell you what happened. I’m sitting in the Cantina tonight with Bill Johnson and Nils Oldman, we’re having our semi-monthly get-together, and somehow the conversation gets around to old friends and the like, people we haven’t seen lately.”
“And Nils brings up Wesley.”
“Wesley — you mean cousin Wesley.”
“So we start gabbing about him, nothing out of the ordinary, and I mention that now that he’s married and a father I rarely see him anymore. And Bill sort of sniggers, ‘Yeah, I remember when he sent you all those deranged letters signed with some crazy bitch’s name….’”
“What?” Now I was fully awake.
“Yes. There’s dead silence at the table. I just about choked on my enchilada.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“And I say to him, you mean ‘Louise’.”
“You gotta be putting me on….”
“Bill looks at me. ‘Uh-oh,’ he says. ‘I have the feeling I just said something I wasn’t supposed to say. Dude, I thought you knew.’”
“Bro, I was fucking speechless. You could have knocked me over with a straw. Then Nils chuckles: ‘There are a lot of skeletons in that guy’s closet.’ What the hell’s that supposed to mean, I’m thinking. Well, we went on sitting there, but I couldn’t eat. I zoned out completely. The other guys kept shooting the breeze, but I didn’t hear a word after that.”
Everything, all the mysterious events of years ago, rushed back to me in a torrent. Certain things finally made sense. But still more failed to add up.
Of course — it had to have been Wesley. He was the one person closest to Vaughan…the one who knew most what was going on in my brother’s mind. He was the one who Vaughan confided in. He was the one, traveling with my brother, sharing rooms with him as he did, the only one –- aside from Vaughan’s women, of course –- who would have gotten close enough to have sneaked a compromising photo.
Yes, it had to have been Wesley.
More disturbingly, he had to know how terrified Vaughan had been.
On the other hand, what made no sense was why our cousin would have exposed himself to real danger in the form of the police. He’d sat there next to Vaughan in Detective Urmiester’s office while my brother announced that he was being harassed and stalked and that his life might be in danger. Had Wesley been found out, he could have ended up in jail, doing real time. And that recklessness went some way towards explaining — what? -– the depths of his jealousy? His resentment? But of what? That Vaughan played in a band and had scored a few babes? Or the intensity of his hatred? His desire to inflict psychological torture? But why? He and Vaughan weren’t just cousins, but best friends — weren’t they?
My brother and I went through a new round of debate over what must have been behind the cruel and elaborate hoax and came up with nothing solid. To my satisfaction, the closest explanation was that Wesley was one of the four percent of the population who fit firmly into the definition of natural born psychopath.
In years to come the once-tight cousins would run into each other at the odd family function, but things between them were never the same. Vaughan never did let on –- for the purposes of family peace, I suspect — that he knew who the perpetrator of the entire sick joke was, but what had happened was enough to drive a permanent wedge between him and Wesley.
Remarkably, while the revelation did mark the end of their friendship, it didn’t change my brother’s view of his friends. If you were his friend, you stayed his friend until the end. Or until you did something like Wesley had, something unforgiveable.
I’d been living back in New Jersey, in another part of the state, when an article in one of the local papers caught my eye.
Slaying Preceded By Series Of Threatening Letters, went the headline.
The victim was a male in his early forties. He’d been found dead along the commuter railroad tracks, his throat slit, not far from his suburban home in central Jersey. Murder is a common enough occurrence in the Urban Northeast, but the flow of ominous letters that arrived at the man’s home before the crime set the case apart. The detectives working it had excerpted some of the ominous notes, which had been turned over by the victim’s family. Reading them made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“When I’m through with you, you will be nothing but the slaughtered carcass of a pig floating in an endless river of blood….” Etc.
Could it be…?
No — impossible. It had been so long ago. Surely Wesley had evolved beyond juvenile tomfoolery? And yet the language was pretty much a dead ringer.
I kept reading. The victim resided in a town a mere few miles from where Wesley lived — and still lives. He was an employee of the same corporation where my cousin had once worked. They were about the same age, which of course meant nothing in itself, but —
The police requested that anyone with useful information get in touch.
I laid the paper down. Wesley was still out there. But wasn’t it a leap, a wild leap, from regarding him as a loony, mean-spirited prankster to branding him a killer? No, it was nothing short of ludicrous to even think something like that —
When my wife came in I tried to tell her about it, but she was preoccupied with something that happened on her job that day.
For the rest of the evening, I argued with myself over whether or not to get in touch with Vaughan and let him know what I’d read. But whenever I’d go near the phone or computer, something would stop me. The noxious can of worms would have to be pried open all over again, the painful memories revived. What was left of the family would be destroyed if I sicced the police on Wesley. I saw all too clearly why now so many people don’t want to “get involved,” especially if they’re operating on nothing but vague suspicions.
In the end, I decided against calling my brother. There’d been, I figured, enough trouble already.
Instead I went upstairs to bed and tried to sleep, but it wasn’t easy.
Copyright Mark SaFranko 2019
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark SaFranko’s novels include Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial and 13E Note Editions, named one of Virgin France’s Favorite Summer Reads of 2009), No Strings (Thomas & Mercer and Black Coffee Press, named one of Blackheart Magazine’s best books of 2012), The Suicide(Honest Publishing, named one of Foyles Best Ten Novels of 2014), Lounge Lizard (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press), God Bless America(13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press) and Dirty Work (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press).
They, as well as several story collections, have garnered rave reviews and a cult following in Europe, especially in France. His stories have appeared in more than 70 magazines and journals internationally, including the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In 2005 he won the Frank O’Connor Award from descantmagazine for his short fiction. He was cited in Best American Mystery Stories 2000and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.
Mister SaFranko is also a playwright. His plays have been seen on stages in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as many in the United States. As an actor he has appeared in several independent films, including Inner Rage, A Better Place,Shoot George, and The Road From Erebus,which are seen on cable television. His music is available on iTunes.