December 25 at 12:00 AM
Photo by Vera Kratochvil
Troubled, you may call me. But not like the man next door. He is a vampire they say, and a taxman to boot. The very worst of both worlds, and that dreaded tax season is fast approaching.
Sometimes I stay awake at night, lying in my bed. I stare at the ceiling, watching the fan above rock in its mounting, tick tick tick. I listen to the sounds of the night--the sirens yammering a block over, hoodlums blasting their profane music, cars blaring their horns.
And then I hear him, his labored breath.
Perhaps he is just doing taxes.
I can only hope.
His raspy breath burns holes in my ears, toiling into the night. I know this, because I am with him, every night of every day.
Sometimes it is not advantageous working from home. Surely, it is not all that it is cracked up to be, especially when it forces you to sleep in the day. Sounds of laughter quickly turn to screams. Horrific screams, screams that I cannot shake from my head. Perhaps they did not like the job he was doing.
No, probably not at all.
Calling the police is a futile effort. They check the room above, sometimes the entire floor, but keep mumbling the same thing. "Didn't see anyone. Did you?" They leave without the courtesy of a knock. "Perhaps someone just had their television up too loud." They say as they stroll out of the complex.
But I hear him every night; sometimes multiple times.
I have no idea where he hides the bodies. One day I will need to find out. If I could find just one, this problem would be over. They would finally understand, perhaps give me a medal.
And let me be.
Good gracious I keep falling behind. At this rate I will not be able to slap together anything until after the new year; which means after Christmas, and after the holiday buying season. I cannot afford another missed payday; the bills keep stacking up. If I do not hurry, the only thing I will be able to sell after the holidays will be...a tax program.
Lord, do not let that be.
Finally I go upstairs, knock on the door long and hard. No one answers. I look at my watch. Three o'clock. No wonder, vampires are still in their coffins sipping martinis at this time.
I start to walk away, and then I see his eyes staring at me through the ventilation shaft. "Excuse me, sir," I am your neighbor from below. I was wondering if we could strike an agreement of sorts. I know you have a secret; I do too. I am an inventor, and have a machine that can replicate blood. Right now I am trying to write a program. Perhaps we have something the other needs? I hate taxes, and I need a consultant. Ok, not just a consultant, an accountant too. Please, if you could help me file for the past three years, indeed I am desperate. In return I will ignore the cries in the night--just let me write my bloody program--and we can create all the blood you like without have to hurt a single soul. What do you say?"
Abruptly the vent gives way, and the corpse of a young lady falling onto me. Finally, I have my proof; just a matter of dialing the police. Now what is their number? 9-1-1, how could I forget?
I run for my phone, but as I do, the door cracks open. "You are Mr. Finnegan, are you not? I heard you mumbling outside my door. Something about blood and secrets?" The old man leers. "Are you out of your mind? For a moment I thought you were talking about vampires."
"Yes, that would be crazy," I grin. "Surely we do not have any here, do we Mr. Taxman?"
"It is Braxton, thank you."
"Braxton? What a perfect name for a tax collector. And do you have another for your nocturnal occupation? Let me guess...it's Bloodbank, right? Braxton Bloodbank?"
"Do not be absurd. I am a tax consultant, not collector. I help others save people's hides so that the government doesn't take too large a chunk out of it. And I am no vampire--get that silly notion out of your head. After all, none exist, as long as we exclude the federal government. So what is this proposal you are yapping about?"
"I am an inventor, and sometimes software engineer, and I make my creations right in my home office. It can get pretty cushy at times, walking around in my underwear-"
"That I do not need to know, just get to the point."
"Well, everything would be going swimmingly if your victims, I mean clients, didn't scream their heads off in the middle of the night. It takes me hours just to write a single line of code. And even then, it is a rehash of what I just wrote. So, how about we cut out the middleman? I need quiet, you victims. You need blood, I model blood.
"What I propose is this: why not bring your friends over, all at the same time. We will make up an excuse, a game of some sort, and take samples of their blood. I will analyze it while you have a taste, and you can decide on the very best brew. Then you can send all of your friends home--no one has to get hurt--and I will build a prototype, from which it can manufactured over and over again. You manage my books, while I manage your blood. And this one time only, I will help you dispose of the corpse."
"What corpse?" he says.
"The one on the floor." I point.
His frown deepens, and he slams the door. "Just so you know, I am armed. So if you have any sense, you better scram before I put a bullet in you."
"Why not just maim me with those fangs of yours?" I cross my arms.
"Not that again," he yelled through the door. "What makes you think I am a vampire anyways?"
"The screams, I cannot get them out of my head."
"Perhaps my clients didn't realize how much they owed money on their returns."
"Yeah, right," I said. "Then who is that on the floor? Another paying customer? Surely you know her."
"I have not the slightest idea. But I have seen her before, with you."
"Yes you!" He rips open the door. "I sit up here, trying to catch up on my client's tax returns every night, and then all of the sudden I hear their cries. At first giggles, and then screams. I have tried calling the police several times, but they keep telling me that no one lives beneath me. Those fools! They can find a box of donuts halfway across town, but they cannot locate the serial killer even living right under their nose."
"I am sorry, this is your corpse." I point.
"No, yours," Braxton shakes his head.
I cross my arms, as does he, but neither of us budge.
"Well, I didn't kill anyone--I do not have it in me."
"So you just hide the occasional body, right?" The old man adjusts his pants. "And would it make a lick of sense for me to kill my clients if my name goes on their return? It is a government document, and admissible as evidence. Definitely not me."
"If it is not you or me, then who is it?"
The question hangs in the air.
"A third party is involved," says the old man.
"And what about the police? They haven't been able to..." I gulp. "Wait a minute...When was the last return that you filed?"
"Let me check." He grabs his reading glasses. "Please, come in."
Files are stacked from floor to ceiling. Even the drawers, which are meant to devour a respectable chunk of paperwork, regurgitate documents in droves.
"Here it is." The old man picks a file. "December 17th."
"And the year?"
"Are you mad? 2007, of course."
Then I hear a noise. "Shh...do not make a sound."
I peek through the crack in the door as a shadow rounds the corner. He hovers over the woman, adjusting his gloves. Scanning over the hallway, he drags her body to the janitor's closet, and pulls it shut.
I take a deep breath. "The year is 2010, my friend. That was three years ago. And on that day, you filed your last return, I am afraid.
"As for me, I guess I never did finish that computer program. The synthesizing algorithm for blood? I just kept rewriting the same lines of code. Blaming you and any other distraction that came my way. I believe you when you say that you are not a vampire, because you are a ghost instead."
"Ghost?" the old man gasps. "That ruins everything." Braxton throws the file on the floor.
"And the man in the hall?" The taxman points.
"He is most likely the one who did it; and even worse, you probably did his taxes," I reply. "But just because we are ghosts, I think there is still fun that can be had. What do you think?"
"Clearly," he says. "And I think a little justice is in order. I will bleed him dry with a paper cut." The old man grabs a handful of papers.
"But we do need to play this smart. We do not want him to haunt this building, or we will never get any rest."
"Yes, and I do not need another client."
"Or another soul screaming for their life, sending me into an endless loop. There is something we can do to take care of the killer, and keep him away for good. Follow me."
So the Braxton and I search the building, but we cannot find the charlatan. We go from door to door, knocking on each one, and when no one answers, we knock again.
"Perhaps he doesn't live here," says Braxton.
"He definitely lives here; no doubt about it," I say.
Just as the words left my mouth, the dark soul enters the hall. He takes off his hat and reaches into his pocket.
"I know this man," says Braxton. "I think you were right. He was one of my clients."
"Then you must find his file, but first-"
The man puts the key in the lock and turns. As he closes the door, we slip inside, and just as I surmised, he does not see us. I could have dropped my trousers then and there, and he still would not notice.
"My he has a lot of junk." I look about the room. "This reminds me of an old college prank."
"Really? And what was that?" The taxman considers the sour smell emanating from the kitchen.
"Years ago, we disassembled a car, and rebuilt it, piece by piece, on top of the tallest spire. When our poor professor went to fetch his car the following day, he saw it waving with the flags. Oh, what was a marvelous day that was! And now we are here, I think something similar is in store. Would you care to help me move a few things?"
After the killer washes the blood from his hands and goes to sleep, we move his items, one by one, out of the apartment. When we realize it will take too long to move everything in just one night, Braxton calls in all of his former clients. Shortly afterwards, the entire apartment is headed out the door.
In the middle of all this, the killer wakes. He rubs his eyes, thinking it must be the sleeping pills. He scampers behind us, trying to snag the flying underwear and airborne cans of beers. He chases us out of the apartment and down the hall, where he slips down a flight of stairs, and goes back to sleep once more.
When he awakens, he jumps up and shakes the bars in front of him. He staggers, barely able to lift his legs, pondering how his entire apartment has been squeezed into the tiny cell. And how could it be? He did not turn himself in. How could he be held anyways without being formally charged?
And when the morning shift arrives, they give the crazed man a healthy stare, for they too are at a loss at how the vagrant locked himself inside.
Before the policeman asks, something catches his eye on the desk beside him. Two files sit atop the stack. One is of an old man, a tax collector of all things, with a thick folder about his client, the man now in the cage. The second is of a programmer; I even went back and got a better picture, who was unfortunate enough to come running when he heard the poor man's cries for help. A thumb drive with surveillance footage from my home security system tops it all off.
But the deal is truly sealed when Delilah, that poor corpse from the ceiling, brings in a box of donuts. The officer throws one in his mouth, without caring how the box got to him. "You are going away for a long time," he says, and has another.
Gifts just don't come any better wrapped than this; and on Christmas day, no less.
"Merry Christmas!" I pat the officer on the shoulder. Although he jumps out of the chair and spills coffee all over him, I knew he could feel the Christmas spirit.