He pulled the window latch hard, closing the window against the biting cold. Trying to work the lock, Blake quickly discovered it had not closed all the way. ‘Bloody frame’, opening the half-closed lock, he pushed the window open, ‘I told that useless landlord Wilkinson to fix it’, and pulled it closed again, trying to find the sweet-spot between closing the ill-framed window and breaking the latch. Second time turned out to be the charm, and the lock worked. His shopping trip had taken longer than he had thought it would, so the open window had been letting the lovely snow-storm inside his bed-living room. A good amount of fat snowflakes had found their way on his bed and melted, drenching the sheets. ‘Brilliant, I can put that in the dryer while the cocoa warms’. The sheets in the dryer and the cocoa done, Blake sat down to check his emails, hoping to see replies on some job applications he had sent a few days prior, but first, the news. Presidential debate, celebrities doing silly things, the works. ‘A murder? Marathon-running bachelorette Clara Macharia was found dead in a tunnel earlier this afternoon. Police will release more information as they find it, but they could already tell Gazeville Gazette that they are pursuing a suspect. Next page. Cannot display page? ‘No bars, perfect.‘ Situated under the bed, the router told the same tale as the laptop. No internet connection. A restart of the router and laptop produced no results. Normally, when the internet failed in his apartment, as it often did, he would go for a run. A single glance out the window told him that was not going to happen today.
He had no television set in the apartment, as his laptop normally provided for his needs in that regard. Blake might change that in the future, but with the connection down and the snowstorm making the outside a thoroughly unpleasant place to be, that would not be today. ‘What to do then…‘. Time went by slowly as he desperately scoured every magazine and scrap of paper in the apartment, looking for anything interesting. Eventually giving up, he began cleaning up instead, a project that ate up all of half an hour. Then a thought occurred to him.
Locking his door behind him, he hurried the short walk around the house and into the yard. Despite the grass and various plants around the house, it was more of a yard than a garden as all the plants grew largely unchecked and it served as an open-topped no-walls garage for Wilkinsons large collection of utility vehicles. Forklifts, excavators and a selection of small trucks. They were all kept in decent condition, albeit with an aim towards ‘serviceable’ rather than ‘pristine’ or ‘presentable’. Wilkinson being a professional landlord who did very little to no yard work, Blake did not quite know what his landlord used them for. Everyone needs a hobby I guess. The basement door was a large slanted hatch with a great big stainless-steel padlock that was slowly being covered in the snow. Blake looked both ways before even approaching. Getting down on his knees, he lifted the padlock and produced the crude key from his coat pocket. Feeling like an intruder, he slid the key inside the padlock and turned it, hearing the lock open. I wonder if I can make it look like it hasn’t been opened once I’m inside. Blake hung the big padlock on the handles, then pulled on the handles of the large wooden hatch-doors. They opened smoothly with no sound. Obviously oiled well. Immediately inside the entrance was complete blackness. He turned on his flash-light, sweeping the beam back and forth as he descended the few steps into the basement proper. Another door, thankfully open, stood at the foot of the steps. Blake was not exactly into metallurgy, so he could not identify whatever metal the second door was made of. Inside and just to the left, he found a switch. It was an old one, a turn-dial of aged plastic. Holding his breath, he turned the dial and was relieved when some bulbs along the basement lit up, illuminating the surprisingly long corridor. He closed the wooden hatch behind him as quietly as he dared, and tried the metal door as well. It had a more modern lock that sat just beneath the door-handle, but the iron key for the padlock did not fit. So he just closed the door instead and hoped that if anyone figured out the wooden hatch was unlocked, they would think the metal door locked.
Turning away from the doors, he turned the flash-light off and began examining the basement. Long-dried plaster covered the walls and floor. It was not exactly pretty, but he could see no signs of any kind of damage or leakage into the basement. Along the length of the corridor, several open doorways were visible. If any of them even had a door, they were not visible from the entrance. The first room was immediately to his right, so he decided to at least take at look in there, then return to his apartment, see if the net connection was back. The circuit for the corridor lights apparently did not extend into the rooms, as it was pitch black. Blake had to duck under the low doorway to enter. Quickly turning the flash-light on to find the light-switch in this room, he found a switch similar to the one by the entrance. Again, he could not help but feel a twinge of apprehension as he turned the aging dial, but again the bulb in the ceiling turned on with no noise to speak of. The light revealed a small room. The walls and floor were in the same condition as the corridor, and there were no windows or other holes in the walls besides the low doorway. No furniture besides a table along the far wall. A bulletin-board had been mounted on the wall to the left, and it was covered in photos and pieces of paper. The bulb easily provided sufficient lighting to see the room without his flash-light, so he turned it off.
There were only a few objects on the table. An old faded pair of sneakers, indistinct apart from the rust-red stain on the tip of the left shoe. The only other item was a half-finished painting on a cheap canvas. The photos were from various sources, some of them taken with some old camera and developed, others had been cut from other sources, with obvious effort to remove anyone else if at all possible. Almost without exception, they depicted a single person, a man with dark hair. The photos must have been taken over a period of time, as in the photos on the right of the collage he was clearly balding. What Blake knew of photography suggested that the photos were old. Colours were either faded or had been almost absent to begin with.
The newspaper clippings were far fewer in number, and told of a then-local artist who had gained a measure of fame in his home town before moving out of town. A few of the photos showed the person, called Trevor Johnson, entering, leaving or inside the same house that Blake was living in. He had participated in an art gallery opening. Overall, the collage had a ton of information on this Trevor. The pieces were arranged in a half-circle around a few central pieces that Blake had not yet examined. One was an obituary, talking about a local artist who ‘had yet to reach his prime’. Another was a newspaper clipping about a young man found murdered in an alley downtown, named Trevor Johnson in the short blurb describing the picture.
The final was a photograph, clearly taken with a camera, of a young man with a knife sticking out of his jugular, a pair of sneakers on the floor beside him.
Blake flinched when he realised what the picture depicted. Why does he have these in his basement? His mind reeled as he went over the collage again. The pictures, both cut from newspapers or taken with a camera depicted every segment of Trevors day-to-day life. He did his painting at a small studio not far from the office, and his first local gallery participation had been well received. Camera photos placed him as courting 3 different women, date-tagged on the photos as over the span of 4 months. He presumably celebrated a birthday alone in the apartment, as a photo showed him alone in some bedroom with a small birthday candle in a cupcake. Essentially a stalkers collection on a specific person, it would have been scary enough without the murder-photo in the place of honour.
Blake wanted to leave. The rent was cheap, but not cheap enough to live above this, or anywhere near whoever had made this crazy project, but morbid curiosity compelled him to check the next room over. The doorway to also annoyingly low, and Blake had to duck inside. The light-switch was in the same position relative to the door, and a similarly-effective bulb easily lit the whole room. It was better furnished, for one. The table had drawers and a bookshelf with a few ring-binders covered the wall to the right. This table only had 2 items; a wooden practice sword of some kind, and a simple gold ring. Not wanting to leave fingerprints, Blake used his phone to take a bunch of pictures of the inside. There was a clear inscription, but it was not in english. The drawers had no locks, so Blake carefully opened them by keeping his hand inside his sleeve. Inside were a series of reports, all about some variation of architecture. Each of the reports had complicated blueprints enclosed, but Blake had little to no architectural knowledge, so they were all greek to him. Carefully placing the reports back in the drawers, he turned his attention to the bookshelf. Like the drawers, these were reports and blueprints of architectural nature. All had a signature from the local town-hall or some university. He did recognise some of the names, local governmental buildings or community buildings. The reports in the drawer had all carried one author name in common; Juba Teika. The same name appeared on the few of the bookshelf documents that had names of involved personnel on the front. This collage was mostly pictures taken with a similar camera to the one from the previous room, with a few newspaper articles in between. A ‘rising star in architectural design’, Juba Teika, had helped design a small governmental office building near the centre of town. He had taken sword-fighting lessons at some small asian-looking club. The collage had at least 10 separate images over the course of 3 months placing him there, where he was usually picked up by a woman of similar age and ethnicity.
The center of this collage, much like the one for Trevor Johnson, contained a single newspaper article and a camera photo. The article was from the local newspaper, Gazeville Gazette, and was some 10 years old. An asian man had been found dead in a garbage bin just outside a “fencing club” that Blake recognised from the various photos. Suspecting what the photo would be, he turned his attention to the last piece of the collage. A photo taken with an older camera, of a man of asian ethnicity, bound at hands and feet, lying in a pool of blood. Blake fought back an urge to vomit as he stepped back, taking a picture with his phone-camera of the collage. Not checking the legibility of the photo, he left the room and turned off the light. To his right, the basement had two more rooms. Last he had seen of Wilkinson, the large man had been driving his car away from the house. Blake should have time to leave the basement and cover his tracks. Should I check the last rooms? If Wilkinson finds me here… I should call the police right away. Unfortunately, his phone had no bars down here. If he left now to call the police, he would probably never learn the contents of the last two rooms. Steeling himself, he went to the room at the end of the corridor. The light-switch and lamp seemed much newer than the previous ones, but disappointingly the room was barren. A table and bookshelf covered half each of the far wall, and a standing lamp next to a especially flat piece of wall, but no documents, photos or newspaper articles. It seemed almost like a room prepared to become like the others. Flicking the switch off again, Blake went into the last unexplored room, taking in the contents of the room one at a time.
The contents were much like the others, though less comprehensive. A pair of running shoes were sat on the table by the far wall, and there was only a single newspaper article about the opening of a soup kitchen for the homeless somewhere Downtown. Comparing with the images throughout the collage showed a blond long-haired young woman who went for frequent runs. She had participated in a marathon, but must not have placed especially well, as there were no articles mentioning her specifically. She had also been photographed several times doing work at various homeless aid facilities, such as the soup kitchen mentioned in the sole article. Wait, marathon-running blonde woman? Could it be-. Blake checked the collage for anything regarding a name, but no luck. The bookshelf had a few essays on various humanitarian and physiological topics, attributed to a ‘Claria Macharia’. The previous tenant of Blake’s apartment. She had moved a few months before he had moved in, or so Wilkinson had told him. Blake had never met her personally, but now he felt he had a decent idea of how she spent her time. Had spent her time, he corrected himself. He did not need to see the center of the collage to know what he would find there. He snapped some more photos with his camera, then shut the lights and made to leave, when Blake heard the sound of a wooden hatch being pulled open from the entrance. It must be Wilkinson returning, and Blake was caught like a rat in a trap. He needed to hide, but where? He could hide here, or one of the other rooms, but he had no idea if Wilkinson liked looking through his macabre collections in his spare time. The empty spare room seemed his only option. He fished his flash-light from his pocket and hurried through the corridor to the last room that he had found empty. With no windows it was nearly pitch-black inside, with only the light from the corridor illuminating a small portion of the room. Using his flash-light Blake quickly found a small gap between the side of the bookshelf and the wall where he could squeeze in. Squeaky footfalls began crossing the corridor outside the room, quickly getting closer. A switch was flicked and the light in the spare room turned on. Blake barely dared to breath. The room was not exactly big. The footfalls crossed the room, stopping somewhere to his right. Blake tried to move as quietly as he could, leaning right so he could see. Wilkinson was standing there, pinning a photo to a whiteboard mounted on the wall. Despite the distance, Blake found he could recognise the location and person in the photo.
It was him, writing alone in his apartment the night before.