Collaborative Writing Challenge

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
― Helen Keller

AMBITION
Short Story Winners

In every collaboration you will find a short story published at the end. The story will be in the same genre as the book it features in, and was the winning story in a competition we run alongside each collaboration. The winner and runner-up are featured below. Both stories are exceptional and it was a very tricky choice to award first place. Congratulations to both of these tremendous authors. More details about our short story competitions can be found HERE.

1st Place awarded to Jason Pere
Noir Extra Dark

His eyes were wide open, but his pupils had been reduced to this size of pinheads. He must have been terrified when he died, I thought. I had seen my fair share of dead men over the years, even helped to make a few on occasion. I had learned how to tell the ones who saw it coming from the ones who bought it in blissful ignorance. The eyes gave them away. Wide and glassy, like a deer unable to tell the bright light barreling towards it belonged to a speeding car. Being a detective, you learned to read the story told by the dead. Broken fingernails meant a struggle; body face-down meant they’d been taken by surprise; scuff marks on the ground meant someone had moved them afterwards.


I didn’t know why the locals had called me in on this one. A man wearing a shopkeeper’s apron laying behind an empty cash register and sporting a bullet wound in the chest, this crime solved itself. It was an open and shut robbery gone wrong. Some two-bit, first-time triggerman who knocked over the wrong grocery store.


“Poor fella. Not much to go on here,” said the patrolmen watching the body and waiting for the detectives to finish questioning potential witnesses, who all stood gawking outside the shop. He must have been new to the department. I remembered what it was like in the early days on the force. I thought I could make a difference. I thought I was one of the good guys.


“Well, it’s the usual mess. Nobody saw nothing,” said Detective Daniels as he flipped to a fresh page in his notepad and made his way over to the body. The short, stocky man had only been a beat cop at the time I left to be a privet investigator. His charcoal pinstripes did not fit him as well as standard-issue navy blue, but I could tell he was proud of himself for landing a detective badge. “What do you think, Miller?” Daniels said to me, trying his best not to sound utterly without a clue.


I thought about giving the two other men a hard time with a lengthy run around of questions to which they should have known the answers but didn’t. I decided against it; I had a bottle to get back to. “I think this is a waste of time. You don’t need to bother looking for the guy who did this. He’ll find you,” I said, not wanting to completely spell it out for these two numbskulls off the bat.


“Huh, what?” they blurted in unison.


I took a deep breath before painting them a portrait of the punchline to a joke whose set-up nobody had heard yet. “In about a week, maybe two or three, the precinct is going to get a call about a dead body found washed up on the back of the Hudson and stuffed in a shipping crate. Your dead man is going to be missing all of his teeth and fitted with a very tight necktie made out of elevator cable. He’s also going to be the poor sap who knocked over this store.”


“Wait, wait. How can you be so sure of that, Miller?” Daniels said to me while he folded his arms across his chest. The patrolmen smirked and imitated Daniels’ gesture, silently voicing his skepticism as well.


“This block is in the middle of Boss Antione Donnello’s territory. All the shops around here are paying him for protection. Nobody connected would hit this place. No worthwhile crook would rob a place on a Tuesday. They would wait until Friday when the cash drawers are full with a weeks’ worth of business.” I looked down at the cold, pale body of the shopkeeper once more. “This was a job by some first-timer with real bad judgment. Donnello’s guys are going to find him, if they haven’t already, and show him what happens to people who step out of line around here.” There were several quiet moments while my words precipitated through the layers of wax and stupid clogging the ears of Daniels and the greenhorn.


“I see you haven’t lost your touch there, Miller,” came an all-too-familiar voice. I knew it was Lieutenant O’Neill before I turned around. When I spun to look, I saw the Lieutenant making his way through the front door of the grocery, confirming with my eyes what my ears didn’t want to believe. He wore a freshly pressed brown suit and dark red necktie. 


His shoes still had the sheen of new polish on them. O’Neill had always kept his appearance antagonistically tip-top. It was one of the many things I disliked about the man. One of the only reasons it had been so nice to be cut loose from the precinct was that I didn’t have to suffer this lousy sack on the daily anymore.


O’Neill came up beside me and flashed that phony, fake smile of his that made me want to empty a bottle of Kentucky bourbon down my mouth and break the bottle over those oversized pearly whites of his.


“I should have figured you were the reason I got called down here to waste my time with this case,” I said as politely as I could. The stench of O’Neill’s heavy aftershave attacking my nostrils made diplomacy difficult.


“Just trying to do a favor for an old friend is all. I figured you could use some extra cabbage for that—what do you call it—consulting fee of yours,” O’Neill said with a grin as wide as the tie he wore. “What with all the business you aren’t doing out on your own and all.”


“That’s real swell of you to look out for my bankroll like that, but I’m doing just fine, O’Neill.” I turned and headed out. “If this turns into a real case, give my office a call and I’ll happily do some consulting for the department.”


O’Neill caught up to me as I turned the knob to the front door of the grocery. “Hey, I don’t mean to bust your chops about it. I just know it isn’t easy to make it as a private investigator.” He put his hand on my arm and it was all I could do to keep myself from slugging that little worm in his mug. “You’re still a fine detective. I spoke to the Captain, and there’s a badge waiting for you back with the department the second you dry out.”


“Gee, thanks for that. I really mean it, from the bottom of my heart. You just reminded me that it’s after five and I’m still sober. Goodbye, O’Neill.” I turned and walked out. I could understand my wife had to leave me; I was a drunken train wreck who was scarcely ever home, and my mind had never been with her even in those rare moments when my body had been. It was the fact that she left me for that piece of garbage O’Neill that plunged the knife in deep.


Underneath the overcast Manhattan sky, I felt the first drops of rain falling. My pockets being filled with nothing but lint and desperation meant I was going to get wet on my way back to the office. I fumbled around in my coat pocket for my cigarette case. I figured I could at least smoke one before the rain took away any hope of enjoying that little vice. My case was empty. Damn, I thought.


Around the eighth block I trudged past, I felt the threadbare heel of my left sock voice its objections to my pride as it gave way and opened a proper hole. I was not about to take O’Neill’s charity, or any charity for that matter, but I needed to do something fast. I ran the numbers in my head again, hoping somehow it would change things, but I knew the score. Unless I got something big and juicy passed my way, I would have to close my doors at the end of the month, and that was only ten days away. It looked more and more like I might just have to take up my brother-in-law’s offer to move into their spare room.


As my foot chafed itself raw against the stiff leather of my shoe, I took comfort in the mantra that had seen me through the days of my failure as a private investigator. Its tomorrow’s problem tomorrow. Now’s the time for a drink.


I stomped up the steps to the sorry-looking building which housed my office. Normally, I would have tread with a lighter step, but lucky for me it was Tuesday. That meant my landlady was out at BINGO. I don’t think I had it in me to withstand another one of her scoldings for the back-rent I owed her. I was glad to be out of the rain; it had toyed with me at first.


I was about halfway home when I could have sworn I saw sunlight break through the clouds and the sporadic drops of rain subside. In the end, I had been soaked. Less than three blocks from my front door and the sky opened up and dumped out like an egg crashing down onto a hot skillet.


The hallway smelled of mold, booze, and regret. Nobody chose to live in this building; we were here because our hands had been forced. None of the tenants had the money to live anyplace worth living. My office was on the top floor. No elevator meant I had five flights of stairs to greet me whenever I returned to this crumbing tower of plaster and dirt. The daily climb alone was reason enough to stay at the bar for another round. Five flights of stairs to walk up may have also been a contributing factor to my firm’s inability to attract any worthwhile clients.


My soggy feet sang a sad duet as they pressed down on the creaky, tired floorboards of my hallway. Even though it was pouring rain, the sun was still out. I didn’t care; today was over for me and a bottle and glass would soon send me on my way to tomorrow. I rooted in my back pocket for the key to my office. I was about to take down the sign I left hanging on my door that read “Out of Office”, but I stopped myself. I was kidding myself if any new business was about to come knocking at my door, so I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I was in. That would only invite nosy neighbors and an obnoxious landlady. I did not want to have to contend with either, not while I had a bad case of sobriety I was trying to remedy.


I withdrew the key from my pocket and slipped it into the lock. I went to turn it but I was thrown off guard when I felt the door was already unlocked. I knew I had locked it when I left earlier that morning—at least, I was pretty sure. I had only a small hangover from the night before and I always made it a point to lock the door behind me. Something was amiss. My first thought was that my landlady had let herself in to do some snooping and perhaps subsidize the rent I owed her with anything of value on which she could get her little rat claws. Then I thought of her boney little knees and hunched back. There was no way she would take on five flights of stairs for the prospect of coming up empty-handed, and she had to know that if I had anything worth hawking, I would have already done so.


Someone I didn’t know had come to call, I was sure of it. It dawned on me that they might still be inside my office. I unsnapped the small piece of leather keeping my Smith and Wesson forty-four snugly secured in the holster on my left side. I had no idea who might want to waste their time on a drunk like me, but I wasn’t about to be caught with my pants down. I tucked my revolver into my jacket pocket and kept my right hand on the trigger while I opened the door to my office with my left.


“I was beginning to think that perhaps you are too drunk to find your way back, Monsieur Miller.”


I was blown away by the thick, silky French accent greeting me on the other side of the door. She was a brunet with dark, deadly eyes and vicious red lips. Both colors stood out like a priest in a brothel against the contrast of her milk-white skin. Delicate and sleek, she stood in a long black dress and a matching hat with a fishnet veil to cover her eyes. She took a nonchalant drag from the long cigarette holder in her left hand. It gave me time to see the smooth, supple legs peak out from the slit in her dress.


I was mesmerized. I had seen my fair share of pretty dames, but this one—she was something else. I couldn’t say we’d ever met before, but something about her was like a dream from my past. She was the kind of woman who would get you killed. I knew that just by looking. I didn’t care that she broke into my office, that I didn’t know her name, or that she seemed to know more about me than any reasonable person would care to know. One look at her, and the only thing I wanted to do was sit her on my desk, hike that dress of hers up over the lacy garter belts I envisioned clinging to her thighs, and feel her wrap those long legs around my wait as she proceeded to show me the face of God. I was in big trouble.


I swallowed hard and forced myself to say something just to break the silence and get the blood flowing someplace other than between my legs. “I’m like a bad penny, doll. I always turn up.” I barely recognized the voice coming out of my own mouth. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I just had no idea I would have company.”


“I do not wait too long. I try and find a drink to pass the time, but all your bottles are empty.”


“That’s because I hide the good stuff, sugar.” I slid in behind my desk and reached up under it to find the bottle I had designs on polishing off. It was cheap booze, truthfully. By good stuff I had meant a bottle that still had something left in it, but she didn’t need to know that. I placed two glasses on the desk and began to pour, but she stopped me.


“Wait. I have something special I was saving to, how you say, butter you up,” she said as she pulled a polished silver flask from her clutch.


“Sweetheart, you show up looking the way you do and bearing gifts, I have to imagine you have one hell of a favor to ask,” I said as I took the flask from her and poured two drinks. “First thing, though. You know who I am, but I never drink with a stranger. What’s your name, doll?”


“You may call me Josephine, Monsieur Miller,” she said with a flutter of her shadowed eyes.


“My pleasure, Josephine,” I said as I raised my glass to her. I knocked back the drink. It tasted like a long summer night’s stroll along the Atlantic City Boardwalk over ice. “Now, what brings you to my office?”


She smiled a lethal smile, her lips turned in a cruel and twisted sneer. “Oh, that is for me to know and you will find out very soon, I think,” Josephine said as she put her drink down on my desk untouched. The fact that she didn’t partake of the beverage might have set off alarms had everything else about this moment not reeked of unusual.


“I may be a private investigator, but that hardly means I like a mystery,” I said. The drink burned in my belly and I loosened my collar at the newfound heat boiling inside me. 


“Kitten, I’m not the sort to be ungrateful when a beautiful woman decides to knock on my door, but I have to believe you didn’t come here and wait for me just to share a drink.”


“You are right, Monsieur Miller, but you see, I already have everything I need from you now.” Josephine turned her back to me and shot me a look over her shoulder. “I think I say au revoir to you,” she said. The woman glided towards my office door.


I was at a loss. Today had started with a case about as complicated as a box of rocks, and now I was scratching my head at a situation I could read about as well as I could read braille.


“Wait a second…” I started. I made to go after her, but I found myself on my knees. My heart raced like a Kentucky Derby champion and I had the Fourth of July blasting in my head.


Josephine stopped at my doorway and looked back at me. “My pardon, Monsieur Miller, but I think you do not drink what women you only just meet give you,” she said. “You also should be careful who you call a, oh, what is word you used? Nutcase.”


“Nutcase? I never called you a nutcase.”


“Oh no, monsieur, you do not call me this. But you did call my sister Matilda this terrible name.”


It hit me in the face right then—the memory I should not have forgotten. “Matilda,” I said hoarsely. I had been on the force less than a year when I had given testimony that had seen the city lock up a sixteen-year-old girl and throw away the key for stabbing her parents to death with a carving knife. I had called the girl a nutcase in open court, along with a number of choice names, all in front of her eleven-year-old sister—a girl named Josephine. “Your sister was crazy. She killed your parents.”


“No, we killed our parents. She just got caught.” Josephine let out a heavy breath and spoke again, but this time it seemed more directed at herself. “I think I will like killing in this city.” And then she was gone.


I fell to the floor, and as I lay there, the last thing that passed through my mind before the blackness came was that I had been right about Josephine the second I had seen her standing in my office. She was the kind of woman who would get you killed.

About Jason Pere


Jason self-published his first novel ‘Modern Knighthood: Diary of a Warrior Poet’ in 2012, and has continued to pursue self-publishing with his sophomore novel ‘Calling the Reaper: First Book of Purgatory’. Jason discovered CWC early on in 2015 and has been a passionate member since, diving into multiple collaborative fiction projects with other CWC authors. When not writing or enduring his “Real World Job” Jason enjoys Netflix time with his family, breaking out obscure board games and dorking out with friends, firing up the his game console and surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, or indulging in baked goods and sleep.

Runner Up awarded to Crystal M M Burton
Embellished With Roses

Lacy smiled as she read the letter. It was the tenth one in a row.


You are more beautiful than a thousand sunsets, and your smile glows more radiant than a hundred shining stars. You are my moon, and I would bow to your whim as the wave bows to the shore, if you would but call me your sun.


The letter came as the ones before; an unmarked envelope as blue as the sky, with a single page of cream colored stationery, embellished with roses and bordered with swirling gold vines. There were never more than a few lines on the page, handwritten in the most beautiful cursive she had ever seen. Each day, a new letter sat in her foyer, slid through the letterbox in the front door. And each day, right beside the letter, was a freshly-cut, dark red rose. The flowers, the letters, and their romantic deliverance were all a mystery. A mystery that Lacy Johnson very much wanted to solve.


The first letter had come ten days ago. Initially, she thought it was just the mail, but then she noticed the lack of postage. She had opened the pristine blue envelope to find the intricate stationery tucked neatly inside, precisely folded into thirds. She recalled the contents of that first stunning letter.


Lacy, my dearest, my sweetest, my darling. I have admired you from afar, and can contain myself no longer. I must confess to you. Yet I do not wish to startle you with overbearing emotion. My pace will course the month, through August alone. I shall reveal to you my heart, and in doing so, capture yours. Until tomorrow, my love.


Twenty-one letters remained. She was already looking forward to the next; so far, they had each been more passionate than the last. It began with a simple confession of love, and this week seemed to focus on convincing her to run away with her anonymous lover.


Lacy went about her morning as usual. She cooked breakfast, ate most of it, then went upstairs to get ready for work. She hummed her favorite song as she ran the comb through her long chocolate curls. As she watched herself in the mirror, disregarding her frizzy hair, she smiled. I guess I am sort of glowing today, she thought.


She hummed throughout most of her day, and was greeted by her two best friends as she neared her car after work.


"Hey Lacy!" a tall, blonde woman called out. "Connor, wake up." She lightly shoved the man beside her, who had dozed off while leaning against Lacy's silver Dodge Stratus.


"Oh, hey Lace," he said, yawning. She couldn't help but admire his handsome Italian features as she walked up. He ran a hand through his tousled black hair, then flashed a crooked grin as he quickly grabbed her around the waist and pulled her in for a tight hug. He lifted her feet off the ground and twirled her around before letting her down again.


"Hope I didn't keep you guys long," Lacy said with a laugh as she pulled away. She unlocked her doors with her remote key and slid into the driver's seat. "Do we have time to eat before your flight, Felicia?" she asked the blonde, who had climbed in the passenger side.


"Definitely," she answered enthusiastically, "I wouldn't miss dinner with my two favorite people on my last night in town!"


Within an hour, the three friends were seated comfortably in their usual booth at the steakhouse. Felicia told them about her upcoming business meeting, Connor talked about his job opportunity at his dad's law firm--and all the reasons he wouldn't take it--and Lacy recited the latest letters she had received from anonymous.


"It's just so romantic, don't you think?" Lacy finished dreamily.


"It's definitely sweet. And totally romantic. I'm kinda jealous," Felicia said playfully.


"He's trying to steal you out from under me," Connor replied, "that's what I think."


"He can't steal what isn't yours, Connor," the girls teased simultaneously, triggering an overflow of giggles--and accidental snorts from Felicia--which of course caused more. Connor feigned heartache, but soon his laughter joined in with theirs.


After dinner they took Felicia to the airport, where she made them promise to call every day. Connor petitioned Lacy to stay the night with him, as he did every evening after work, and as usual she politely declined.


"Connor... You know how much I like you. I'm just not ready to take this any further."


"I know, Lace. And it's okay. But I'm going to keep asking until you are ready. You're worth the wait. Even your stalker knows it." He winked and flashed one of his gorgeous smiles that always made her melt. She smiled back, but it was superficial. She hadn't missed the disappointment in his voice, and it was all she could do not to cry. Don't give in, 


Lacy, she told herself, you're doing the right thing. What if it went wrong? You'd lose your best friend.


"Good night, Connor. I'll see you at work tomorrow."


"Good night, Lace."


***


Lacy was in a good mood all weekend. The vase on her kitchen counter was adorned with beautiful, fragrant roses. Each delicate blossom came with a letter pointing out a part of her that was exquisite, mesmerizing, enticing--one even went so far as to call her delectable. She was amused, but not as much as Connor was. He told her that although he was jealous the writer had won her attention, he could see a definite change in her personal attitude since the letters had begun. The confidence she was beginning to show made her all the more attractive. 'If that's even possible,' he had said.


***


Wednesday morning, Lacy sat at her kitchen table, sipping her coffee, mulling over the most recent message. Had she received this letter first, without the previous fifteen, it would have appeared daunting. With the intensity of the writer's confessions growing steadily each day, the contents didn't alarm her as much as they could have. But they did alarm her.


Your thieving eyes have stolen the remnants of my broken heart, and the venomous barbs of unrequital poison my shredded soul. But fear not; my love is the key to your eternal redemption, my forgiveness the cure to your lethal innocence. Come away with me, my temptress, and I shall heal as you fall.


These words were much darker than any that had come before. As I fall? she wondered. When she thought about it, she could kind of understand how it was meant to be sweet, but the overall tone was too sinister for her liking.


For the first time all month, she decided to skip breakfast. She slowly climbed the stairs, went to her bathroom, and looked into the bright green eyes of her reflection. As she brushed her teeth, her mind kept wandering to the strange words her mystery suitor had written. I have to admit, they are a pretty shade of green. But they're not thieving, she thought. She glanced just above her eyes, grimacing at the small black hairs encircling the streamline brow that she had so carefully tweezed around just days before. How can anyone focus on my eyes when my eyebrows are so bushy? She sighed, almost forgetting to brush her hair as she turned to head for work.


***


The next few days followed a similar pattern, and she began to see more faults in her appearance and more flaws in her personality. The letters were no longer sweet, but instead accused her of imagined crimes against the writer's vain passion. Her content mornings of anticipation for the mysterious letters had turned into apprehension and dread. Roses were quickly becoming her least favorite flower. Connor had never been happy about the letters, but now he was livid.


"You can't let this creep scare you, Lace," he advised after work one evening, while skimming over the past few notes she had brought to him. "He's just some spineless coward. I mean, seriously, what is this even supposed to be implying? 'I would rather you be motionless beneath my sheets than active in another's.' Another's what? It doesn't even make sense." He tossed the deceptively elegant page with the others on the table.


"I know, Connor. But they're starting to get kind of scary." She stood up from her couch and stretched her arms above her head, chuckling as she noticed Connor's gaze following her shirt as it rose to reveal her midriff. "Hey now," she teased, "eyes up here."


"It'd be easier to keep my eyes up there if you didn't have so much going on down here."


He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her on top of him, falling across the sofa cushions. They laughed for a few seconds, then grew quiet as their thoughts interrupted their actions. Her hair had fallen down around her, framing her face above his. Their noses brushed together lightly, and her eyes were drawn to his mouth. With their bodies entwined and his arms holding her tight, she had no choice but to feel the warmth of his skin heating her own. She looked back at his eyes and fell into the deep blue oceans of emotion that swirled before her. She finally gave in. She leaned forward, and their lips locked in a long-overdue embrace. The tension between them melted away as their bodies undulated in waves of passion.


The anonymous letters lay forgotten on the coffee table.


***


"This isn't just some joke, Officer." Lacy struggled to emphasize the importance of her plea, but the man behind the desk didn't seem to notice or care. "I'm running out of time, and I'm honestly afraid for my life; what do I have to say to make you believe me?"


The overweight policeman began a yawn, dragging his eyes away from his computer screen to meet hers. He scratched the side of his hooked nose, his eyelids drooping lazily, and exhaled slowly before answering her.


"Ma'am, you have been receiving these envelopes for--how many days now? Twenty-two? And you're just now coming to us about them?"


"Well yeah, but--"


He held up a plump, ink-stained finger to silence her while he sipped his coffee. His chipped white mug read '#1 DAD' in faded primary colors, with a child's small blue handprint curving beside the handle. Lacy thought it must have been a long time since this officer had been number one at anything.


"What is it you want us to do here, ma'am? File a restraining order? Arrest someone? There haven't been any threats made against you, and no crime has been committed."


"There have been threats made! Right here in these letters. That's what I'm trying to tell you. There have been threats." She thrust a stack of letters toward the officer, but he just stared at her. "Read them. They're short."


He sighed, exasperated. Reaching out, he took the letters from her and flipped through them. He skimmed them too quickly for Lacy to believe he was actually reading.


"I don't see any threats here, lady." Giving up on the pretenses of courtesy, he tossed the letters across his desk, and they landed just on the edge, almost falling into her lap. She gathered them up and rummaged through them, losing what little patience she had left, reading off the ones that put up mental red flags.


"Here are ones with words like 'venomous' and 'poison.' Or this one here, 'I would rather you be motionless beneath my sheets,' or how about 'Whether in life or death,' or the obvious one, 'The dead know no love such as mine, though you shall know it for eternity.' Are none of these ringing any warning bells for you?"


The officer stood abruptly. The scraping of his chair against the tile floor drew the attention of a few other officers in the room, but only briefly. He rubbed a hand on his bulging stomach, and used his other hand to gesture toward the exit.


"I just don't hear any threats in there. I'm sorry. Unless you can bring me a real threat or a name, my hands are tied."

Lacy went home scared. She called Connor, and he came and picked her up. She spent the night at his house, warm and safe in his bed with his arms around her.


***


I have put forth so much effort on vain attempts to earn your love, while all this time you have thrown yourself into the arms of another. Your love shall be mine, and mine alone. If I cannot have you, no one can.


"There isn't even any poetry left in this. Now it's just a threat. Is this enough for you? Will you please help me?" Lacy was practically begging the officer this time, with tears streaming down her face. Luckily, he was much more responsive today than he had been four days prior.


"You're right, this one can definitely be construed as a threat." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a pudgy hand, then picked up the phone on his desk and punched in a few numbers. It only took a second before he straightened up and spoke to the officer on the other end of the line.


"Hey, Donny, I'm gonna need an overnighter. Got a lady here with threats against her and stuff; we're on the lookout for someone showing up at her door each morning. You lookin' for some overtime tonight?" He paused, nodding as he listened to the response. When he hung up, he looked back at Lacy.


"Alright, Officer Leone's gonna meet with you in a few minutes, and he'll get your address and any information you have on the suspect. He'll fill you in on the details, but basically, the way it works is that he'll show up sometime after dark and keep an eye on your place. If anyone shows up with letters or flowers, the officer will make an arrest and you can attempt to identify him as soon as he's safely in custody."


"Thank you. Thank you!"


That night, Lacy felt a little safer about being home alone. It had been a rough Saturday morning after finding that letter, but having spent all day up at the police station, she was able to relax a bit knowing that there was a plainclothes officer parked across the street with constant surveillance on her door. Although she was feeling decently calm, she still went through the motions of her new nightly routine. After checking every door and window in the house to ensure they were still locked, she climbed into bed and dialed Felicia. They hadn't spoken in a few days, and they had a lot to catch up on.


"Hey girl! How's Boston?"


"It's fine. I have some news about the meeting yesterday, but it can wait. More importantly, how's your mystery writer? Last time we talked he was getting creepy."


"About that..." Lacy told Felicia all that had happened the past few days, and her experiences down at the station. "They're putting someone outside tonight to catch this guy."


"Thank goodness! I would die if anything happened to you."


"I'll stay safe. So what happened at your meeting? What's the news?" Lacy changed the subject, ready to forget about her stalker for the night.


"Well, are you ready for this?" She paused, letting the suspense build up before continuing. "I got offered a corporate position here in Boston!"


"Oh my God, Felicia, that's amazing! Did you take it?"


"I haven't decided. They told me to take next week to think about it and let them know by Friday, before my flight home. But I really want this. It's not just a raise, it's a huge promotion, new perks... it's a marketing designer's dream job, Lacy! I think I'm moving to Boston."


The girls gossiped excitedly about Felicia's new promotion, how they would stay in touch once she moved, and the thrill of apartment hunting in a new city. When she finally hung up, Lacy fell asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.


***


She screamed.


Exactly thirty seconds later, there was a loud knock. It was followed immediately by a voice calling out, demanding that she open the door. She slid the bolt out of its locked position and swung the door open, staring at the officer with glassy eyes. He stood with his badge out, and immediately stepped forward into the house before the door had fully opened, checking her up and down.


"Are you okay--what happened? Ma'am?"


Lacy thrust her arm at the officer. Crumpled in her fist was a blue envelope. The officer's face dropped and he began apologizing profusely, his only excuse being that he must have dozed off. Though he offered at least a dozen times to watch her house again the following night, Lacy no longer had faith in the officer to do his job. I'm going to die, she thought dejectedly.


***


It was Thursday morning; the last day of August. The final letter was set to arrive today, and Lacy was huddled on the floor of her closet, her knees pulled up to her chest, sobbing silently into her pillow. Connor had promised to wait downstairs at the door, knife in hand, should the anonymous writer attempt to enter. The letter from the day before was simple and terrifying.


See you tomorrow, beautiful.


The minutes ticked by, and Lacy was falling apart by the second. As she sat there, she realized that if her stalker was armed, there would be a good chance that Connor would end up hurt. Her imagination was getting the best of her and she knew it, but she couldn't stop herself from affixing guilt and worthlessness onto the growing list of emotions causing the stream of tears.


Sudden shouts from below startled her, and all she could do was picture Connor lying dead on the floor. When she heard glass breaking, she found strength through her fear and emerged from the closet, grabbing the lamp on her bedside table and rushing downstairs.


The scene before her brought both relief and nausea. Connor was kneeling over the motionless body of a disheveled man on the floor. The two sidelight windows framing her front door were shattered, and shards of glass were strewn about the entire foyer, casting beautiful, out-of-place spectrums of color on the walls. Blood was splattered everywhere, mingling with the tiny rainbows of reflected light. A pool of crimson slowly expanded from beneath the middle-aged man. In his pale, outstretched hand lay a single rose. Lacy closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then rushed to the bathroom just in time to shove her head in the toilet to catch the stream of vomit that poured forth.


Twenty minutes later, the ambulance arrived, shortly followed by the plainclothes officer that had been stepping out for coffee rather than guarding the house. Lacy had recognized the man who had broken into her home as her neighbor from two doors down. She knew he was going through a rough patch, and that he was recently divorced, but she never would have imagined him to be a stalker, and certainly not a murderer. The entire day consisted of cleaning up the mess, filing paperwork, and stitching up the cuts Connor had sustained during the struggle.


***


Two weeks later, Lacy and Connor were packing the rest of her boxes. As the tape sealed the last box shut, she sighed happily. It was all over.


"Well, I guess that's the last of it. Felicia should be here in about an hour, so I'm gonna hop in the shower first." Lacy gestured toward the cold fireplace. "You wanna fire it up while you wait? I want to get rid of these letters before we leave."


Connor nodded, then leaned forward and kissed her gently on the forehead. As Lacy walked up the stairs, she began humming her favorite song. She and Connor had decided to move up to Boston with Felicia, and she was ready to leave the past behind.


***


Once he heard the water running, Connor reached into the inner pocket of his leather jacket. He pulled out an unmarked envelope as blue as the sky, which he knew would contain a single page of cream colored stationery, embellished with roses and bordered with swirling gold vines. He opened the wrinkled blue envelope to find the intricate stationery tucked neatly inside, precisely folded into thirds. He skimmed through the letter with instant recognition. It was the first one he had written.


Good morning, Mr. Avery.


Lovely weather, wouldn't you say? Perfect for a custody hearing. I must ask though, which custody are you most looking forward to receiving--that of your daughter, or of the contents to Safe Deposit Box 629?


Yes, I am aware of how you occupy your twilight hours. And I understand. Lawyers are expensive. Unfortunately, alternatives can be quite expensive well, with prison coming at the high cost of seeing your daughter again. I hate that Rachel might grow up without a father.


I would be more than happy to discard the evidence I have against you if you would agree to deliver a few letters for me. By the end of our contract, there may even be additional funding in it for you. As I said, lawyers are expensive.


I'll be in touch, Steve. Looking forward to working with you.


The last letter should have read simply, 'I love you.' Although Connor had planned on disposing of him, he had not expected Mr. Avery's attempt to reveal the truth to Lacy. Luckily, he had seen the crumpled envelope jutting out of Steve's back pocket during the fight and, realizing it was not the intended letter, seized it before Lacy came downstairs. Nice try, Mr. Avery, Connor had thought.


He refolded the stationery and slipped it back into the envelope, then slid that into the stack of letters that were sitting on the counter. He went over to the gas fireplace and turned it on, and was sitting in front of it waiting by the time Lacy came out of the bathroom drying her hair with a towel.


"Any word from Felicia?" she asked.


"Not yet. You ready for this?"


"Ready as I'll ever be." Laying the towel across the counter, Lacy picked up the stack of blue envelopes. Without hesitation, she tossed them into the fire. Connor smiled.


"Here's to our new life."


Lacy threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.


"To our new life."

About Crystal M M Burton

Crystal M M Burton is the beloved wife of a brilliant Texan electrician, and super-mom to three beautiful, energetic children. She runs a local cake decorating business out of her kitchen, and in her free time enjoys crocheting, reading, gaming, and movie marathons. Writing is a passion she has carried with her since childhood, developing into a full-time hobby. She has been featured in a few anthologies and a collaborative novel, all published by CW Publishing House. She has a blog on Wordpress for short stories and tall tales, and a multiplicity of works in progress, some of which can be seen on Wattpad.


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