Dottinger found the envelope in the mailbox on Wednesday morning. As was his usual practice, he glanced at it briefly, slipped it inside the pocket of his suit coat and went back into the house. While he was drinking his tea at the kitchen table he opened it with his penknife.
It contained a single sheet of paper and on the single sheet of paper was a single sentence in Times New Roman script. There was no salutation, no signature, and, on the envelope, no return address. “Please correct your behavior or consequences will follow.” It said.
Dottinger read this sentence three times, turned the paper over to look at its back and then set it down it on the table. He ruminated for a few moments before putting the paper into the envelope and tearing it into six or seven pieces. He leaned over from his chair and threw the pieces into the recycling box.
“Some fool!” he muttered to himself and then dismissed the whole thing from his mind. The world is full of jokesters, idiots and malicious pranksters. Dottinger had no time to waste on them.
Two weeks later he received another letter. The lack of return address on the envelope alerted him and he opened it standing in front of the box. Again a single sheet of paper; again a single sentence - “Correct or beware.” No salutation, no signature, no return address.
He became extremely irritated. In a fury he ripped envelope and letter into pieces, threw them on the sidewalk and leaped up and down on them. Then he felt foolish. Perhaps one of the nieghbours had witnessed his fit of pique. He examined the windows of the houses surrounding but could see only curtains or blank panes of glass. Relieved, he picked up the pieces and stuffed them into his pants pocket. When he returned to the kitchen he tossed them into the recycling. Then he once again dismissed the whole thing from his mind but this time it wouldn’t go.
The next day he was in the cafeteria eating rice pudding when the sentence came back to him - “Correct or beware.” The day after he was in court listening to a defense summation and it came back to him again. A week later, sitting on a park bench in front of his building eating a hot dog, “Correct or beware.” came to him as if it were a whisper sent out by a man from a nearby alley but, of course, when he swung his head around there was nobody there. Ridiculous. Perhaps he was overworking. What kind of Gothic, moralistic nonsense was this? Something out of MR James or Charles Dickens.
All of this annoyed Dottinger to no end. He was a modern man. The sentences meant nothing to him. Correct what? The underpinnings of such prophetic utterances escaped him entirely. They were obviously the work of a deranged neurotic, some envious person who wished to strike at him but could find no better weapon. But after three weeks the messages faded from his mind. He went about his business, working on files, presenting in court, interviewing witnesses and all thoughts of the letters disappeared from his mind. What a relief! His job was difficult enough as it was without his mind being preoccupied by such trivialities.
The next letter didn’t arrive until two months later. This time the sheet of paper contained a single word - “Beware!” The sender was, no doubt, a reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and like Poe a drug addict and a degenerate, or then again perhaps he was a biblical lunatic. He thought of turning this latest letter over to the police but then decided against it. What could the police do? No return address, no signature, probably printed on a machine in an internet café. And the lunatic, a watcher of forensic cop shows, most likely wore latex gloves while they were at their work. There would be nothing for the police to go on and they would think him overly cautious, a nervous Nelly.
There were a lot of people in jail because of Dottinger’s skills. He was a prosecutor and so good that for many years now he had been given all the high profile cases. Good, in this case, meant that he was effective. He convinced juries; he convinced judges; he was an expert at manipulating public opinion. He knew all the tricks necessary to belittle and even suppress contrary evidence. His trump suit before a jury was presenting the accused as the guilty one. Every move he made in the courtroom was made with this in mind. Every action of his body, every word that came out of his mouth had this one essential thing to say - I, a man of deep knowledge and authority, tell you that the defendant is guilty. If he were not then why is he here? Why have the police arrested him? The presumption of innocence is all very well but that is in theory, in books, something dreamed up as an abstract principle by eggheads and professors. In the real world the one brought into the courtroom is the guilty one. Otherwise why would he be in jail and be marched in wearing shackles? Innocent men don’t wear shackles; innocent men don’t spend their nights in steel cages.
So successful was Dottinger at this that he had never lost a single important case. Now sixty and approaching the end of his career he had received every award that his profession could give him. He had more honourary degrees than could fit on the walls of his office. He had published a ghost written book about some of his most famous cases and it was a local best seller. He had been roasted by his fellow lawyers and honoured by so many civic institutions he would have to refer to his files for a complete list. He could phone any of several hundred friends in offices all over the city, request a favour and have it performed within the hour. The newspapers had taken to calling him distinguished and he was; he stood out from the crowd as a man of high achievement.
Yet these three letters bothered him tremendously. There was someone out there who believed he had behaved dishonourably. And not someone seething with rage and hatred behind a curtain of bars but a person familiar with the literary language, an educated person, a person who knew the value of brevity, of the succinct phrase. The negative judgment of such a person rankled him. Thousands looked up to him as a public benefactor, as a man who had contributed greatly to the community. Hundreds had come up to him on the public streets, in the foyers of buildings, to shake his hand and thank him for his contribution. Yet there was one who sat in the judgment seat, one who sent him letters accusing him of unspecified crimes. The injustice of the thing was maddening.
After the third letter he began to think he should tell someone of these accusations. Once he almost began speaking of them to his wife but then suddenly pulled back. He made a lunch appointment with an old friend but the lunch went by without his bringing up the subject. He made an appointment with a psychologist he had seen on occasion over the years but then cancelled it. In the end the thought of speaking of the letters to another person became so repugnant to him that he could not bring himself to do it. It would be like pointing a finger at himself, walking into a courtroom where he was the accused not another. Why would he do that? Why would he give credence to such anonymous, cowardly accusations? Surely this was exactly what the letter sender wanted. Finally he decided that the best thing to do was to remain silent and to forget. The memory of the letters would slip from his mind gradually, a little at a time until they were completely forgotten.
But they didn’t. Rather than forget them they began to form an ever larger and more threatening shape in his mind. They began to colour his way of seeing things. He became a little depressed. When he went to the psychologist, he told him that mild depression was not unusual for a man at his stage in life. Dottinger did not tell him about the letters. His ‘stage in life’ he assumed referred to male menopause or the ending of his career or some such thing. More than likely these things were having a greater effect on him than he had realized. The letters were simply the trigger which had tripped them into action. He was a driving A type personality and it was often his kind who forgot the obvious - they too were human. The psychologist prescribed a mild antidepressant.
He decided to take a vacation. The office didn’t mind; his work in the past few years had become increasingly administrative. The essential could be shifted to another; the non essential could wait for his return. Although she could not come herself because of her work, his wife encouraged him to go. She had noticed the signs of stress. He needed a break; he needed to relax.
Every year for the past twenty years Dottinger and his wife spent the two weeks over Christmas and New Years at a Villa on the west coast of Mexico. It was a fine brick and stucco affair complete with servants and owned by a Mexican friend who was high up in the Mexican Justice Department. The villa was on a hill overlooking the beach and at the end of a gravel road. It was summer in Dottinger’s city and therefore winter in south Mexico. “It will be cool.” Julio said on the phone but cool in Winter Mexico was in the low to mid twenties, plenty warm enough for a northern boy to walk on the beach and even to swim, in what was to him, the warmish sea water.
He arrived by taxi on a Sunday afternoon. The servants were at the gate to meet him, housekeeper, cook and gardener-caretaker. They lived in year round while Julio and his family only came for the summer months. The cook and caretaker could speak Spanish only but the housekeeper had spent ten years in San Diego and spoke a heavily accented English. Dottinger himself could get along in Spanish if the conversation were slow and there was not too much sophistication in tenses. The Housekeeper showed him to his room, a guest room he and his wife occupied on their yearly visits. It overlooked the beach and from its balcony one could look far off to sea in the direction of the Polynesian islands.
He had found the plane trip long and taxing. His legs ached, his ears ached and a headache was beginning to bloom from the base of his skull up into the sore and tender flower of his brain. This was normal he told himself. He had never been a good traveler. Confinement for long hours in a plane seat had always been torture for him. He had tried to read but he was too distracted. The films offered were moronic; the magazines gibberish. He lost himself for a while watching the California coast go by out the window but for the most part he fidgeted. He drank four ounces of whiskey. He seldom drank more than two. But rather than make things better the liquor made them worst. When the housekeeper left he closed the drapes and lay down on the bed. Down on the beach, below the bluff at the back of the house, the surf was pounding. His head was also pounding and he felt a touch nauseous. But he forced himself to lie still, on his back with his knees drawn up to relieve the lumbar muscles and, after a half an hour, he fell asleep.
When he woke he found he had slept much longer than he had wanted; night had fallen and the room was completely dark. Then a queer light began to grow in one corner of the room, a strange bluish light which, rather than repel or replace the darkness, appeared to be a species of darkness itself, an unnatural glow which fed on the darkness. A man was hanging in this darkness, suspended in the air on a twisted bed sheet secured around his neck by a knot. The man was dead. His arms hung limp at his side with a clear finality. His tongue protruded from his mouth, black, swollen and grotesque. His head hung off to one side at a weird angle, the spine surely snapped, and, although it seemed that he was beyond all doubt dead, his eyes were open and these open eyes were looking across the room at Dottinger.
Dottinger didn’t move. The eyes were devoid of emotion except, perhaps, a slight tinge of inquiry as if somebody were looking at the world of the living from beyond the world of the living, somebody possessed of a cool reptilian curiosity as to what might be found there. When the minute expired the figure suddenly disappeared as if an illusionist had snapped his fingers and it was gone, a matter of lighting and desperate, fevered attention.
Dottinger couldn’t bring himself to move for another ten minutes. Then he slipped off the bed and crawled across the floor on his hands and knees. He slid his hand up the wall until he came to the switch. Turning it on the room filled with fluorescent light. He whipped his head around and examined the corner where the figure had been hanging. Nothing. He climbed to his feet and made a circuit of the room. A perfectly normal room with a carpet, a bed, a bureau, nothing unusual, nothing otherworldly. He decided it was a nightmare. One of those terrible nightmares during which one is certain one is awake but still a nightmare; it wasn’t real.
In the kitchen he heated the plate of tamales the cook left out for him and ate them at the counter. The servants had their own quarters and never came into the main area of the house after eight at night. The clock above the stove said eight thirty. He put the empty plate into the sink and walked into the living room. There, against the far wall, was a large screen TV. Beside it was a long, low shelf filled with DVDs. In one corner of the shelf was a small English language section. Julio, like many educated Mexicans, was multilingual - English, French and Spanish.
He picked out a Clint Eastwood movie and put it in the machine. “A Fist Full of Dollars.” When the movie was over he fell asleep on the sofa and didn’t wake until morning after the room had filled with daylight.
He spent the day on the beach. The cook packed him a lunch and, after setting up a spot below the house with chair, umbrella, etc, he went for a long walk along the strand. He raised his hand in greeting to three old women digging clams. Low tide, the white roll of the breakers, driftwood, the pregnant swampy smell of the sea, all this filled him with a sense of reality which helped to dispel the horror of the night before. When he came back to his spot the sun had climbed high into the sky. He ate his lunch and fell asleep in his chair.
When he awoke there was a man sitting on the sand nearby, a tall, elegant man with a close cropped beard wearing a broad brimmed hat. Dottinger recognized him from dinner parties he had attended with Julio over the years - a Doctor Estanza, a surgeon from the city who owned a villa a little further down the shore. When he realized Dottinger was awake he turned, smiled and said. “A beautiful day, Mr. Dottinger, if somewhat cool.”
“Warm for a cold blooded northerner, Doctor.” “Well I suppose that’s true. In your city it would be now what we have here but in the minus range.”
“I was there twice for conferences, just after Christmas each time. I went for walks bundled up in borrowed northern gear out in the country where friends had a cottage. We walked along a gravel road. I must say I was glad to get back to the house where there was a roaring fire but while we were walking it was fascinatingly beautiful. The clean crisp snow, the deep black sky with stars burning clear and bright. Most of us southerners don’t realize how beautiful and enchanting the north can be. We just think of the cold and shudder.”
“Would you like coffee, Doctor?” Maria, the cook, had packed a gigantic thermos of coffee. The Doctor gave his assent and Dottinger poured them both a mug full. The coffee was dark, rich and strong and the Doctor drank it appreciatively. He held his cup in both hands, elbows propped on his knees.
“Maria tells me you had a nightmare.”
“I had a dream, Doctor. I suppose it was a nightmare. What is a nightmare but a terrible dream?”
“So they told me in the morning but I was unaware I was screaming in the night when the nightmare happened.”
“Julio phoned me from the city and asked me to come see you. He says you have been under stress and he became worried when Maria phoned and told him you had a nightmare.”
“Very kind of you Doctor.”
“Perhaps you could tell me about your nightmare. It is almost always better to speak of these things to another rather than keep them to ourselves.”
Dottinger thought about this for a moment and then said, “I saw a ghost, an apparition.”
“Perhaps you could describe it to me as best you can.”
Dottinger described the apparition as accurately as he could. When he was finished the Doctor said, “My God!”
“Exactly,” said Dottinger. They sat drinking coffee in silence for a few minutes then the Doctor said.
“Who was it Mr. Dottinger?”
“A young man I sent to jail thirty years ago. One of my first cases as a prosecutor. He was convicted of first degree murder. He hung himself in his cell 3 months after his sentence began.”
“Was he guilty?”
“Did you know that at the time of his conviction?”
“Not for sure but I suspected it. Another man confessed to the murder some years after. There was physical evidence which proved this beyond a doubt. At the time of the conviction I had serious doubts but I suppressed them. Even worst I suppressed evidence which, if it had been brought out at the trial, would had led to his acquittal. When the young man hung himself there was an inquiry. It would have gone bad for me but his people were poor. They couldn’t afford lawyers to batter away until some of the truth came out. Instead a court appointed lawyer went through the motions. Nothing of real danger to me came out. Everything was hushed up and swept under the carpet. I was exonerated. Strangely, the fact that I had played dirty and got away with it helped my career. Five years after the trial I was appointed Chief Prosecutor. I was seen as a tough guy, as a man who sailed close to the wind and got results.”
“And this young man who killed himself was the apparition?”
“But the face of a hung man is considerably distorted, is it not?”
“Yes indeed. Even his own mother might not recognize him. But as I told you all during his appearance the apparition was looking straight into my eyes. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the young man I told you about.”
“What kind of look? Accusing?”
“No. He looked like he was trying to figure something out. It was a look of mild yet knowing inquiry.”
“What was his name.” “Joey. Joey Higgins.”
“And what will you do if he comes back?”
“Go mad, surely.”
“Well, that’s one alternative. Can you think of any others?”
“Yes. I could kill myself.”
The Doctor smiled. “We could all do that, Mr. Dottinger. That’s what Joey did. Do you think that’s why he appeared? He wants you to join him?”
“No. His look was a look of inquiry not one of demand or accusation. He’s leaving it up to me.”
“And so will I Mr. Dottinger but I do have a few suggestions.”
Doctor Estavan suggested away. Dottinger listened carefully for two reasons. The Doctor was a serious man and the Doctor accepted the reality of the apparition. He didn’t need his back patted by some well meaning moron.
When Dottinger entered the bedroom that night he entered in much the same mood as a prisoner would enter the cell from which they would take him the next morning to be executed. Yet he entered; he felt he had no choice. Before climbing into bed he took one of the pills the Doctor prescribed, a mild muscle relaxant. After an hour of miserable self awareness he dropped off into a restless sleep.
When he awoke it was pitch black. He pushed the light button on his watch; it was 5:03 PM. In the distance the sound of waves hitting the beach. How many billions of human beings had lain awake listening to that sound? How many had died with those waves swinging out the last rolling rhythms of consciousness?
When he gathered himself somewhat he turned his eyes slowly to the corner. It was as black as the rest of the room. He began a brief few minutes of hope that the fact he had dreamed the apparition was itself a dream. Then suddenly, without the slightest warning it was there, as if, again, the illusionist had snapped his fingers and out of nothing appeared a terrible something. The slumped head, the twisted sheet, the black tongue, the slight, rhythmic sway of the body. This time, however, the head came up and the bloodshot eyes looked directly into Dottingers. They fixed him to the bed as surely as if they were spikes driven through his flesh into the ornate wooden bedstead. Bloodshot were those eyes, with overly large black pupils, glittering and inflamed, surrounded by dull grey whites spread with a spider’s web of tiny red rivers.
“What do you want?” Dottinger asked. But the spectre said nothing. With its enlarged black tongue jamming the full opening of its mouth like a gigantic swollen leech, how could it give speech? But it looked. It looked at Dottingger where he lay on the bed with intelligent, insistent eyes which did not move, even for the flickering of an instant from his face.
Then something dawned on Dottinger, something truly horrendous. At first he pushed it away. It was terrible. It was perverse. It was inhuman. But all his pushing was of no avail. Finally, after looking into those eyes for what seemed half a lifetime, he said. “You want me to watch.”
The light in the spectre’s eyes suddenly changed. It grew less focused, less obsidian, less insistent. It softened. Then Dottinger witnessed the most terrible thing.
Off to one side of the spectre appeared a stool. The body ceased its swaying and, placing its feet on the stool, it brought itself up to a standing position. The hands come up from its sides and untied the now slackened sheet from its neck. The tongue deflated like a child’s balloon slipping back into the mouth behind a set of thick, smacking lips. The face lost its look of swollen distortion and Dottinger was looking into the face of Joey Higgins as he last saw him in the courtroom, a stunned, somewhat dull witted boy with the slack, benevolent face of a natural innocent. The sheet, its upper end still hanging from something above the light in the obscuring darkness, dropped its lower end across the front of his body, draping over his chest and waist down to his knees. With both hands he lifted up this lower end and held it out to Dottinger. It was obvious that the spectre meant this as an invitation.
When Dottinger did not respond to the knocking at his door the next morning the servants refused to enter the room. It was Doctor Estanza who found the body. The Doctor had to call on the full authority of his profession and class to force the gardener to come with him and hold up the body while he cut the sheet with a knife from the kitchen. Of course Dottinger was dead. The Doctor already knew that. The engorged black tongue, the lifeless, bloodshot staring eyes left no doubt. However, he applied his stethoscope to the corpse’s chest to make sure for he was both a thorough and a hopeful man. He may as well have applied it to a fence post for Dottinger was very inert and very dead.
Dottinger was sent home in a steel coffin packed with dry ice in the cargo hold of a plane where returning vacationers were ignorant of its presence. Two of the crew members were made nervous by a corpse on board probably because they were Catholic and superstitious. The captain crossed himself twice before he turned on the engines and one of the stewardesses said a prayer for the dead while she was smiling at the entering passengers and hanging up their jackets in the closet behind her. The other four crew members were irreligious. Dead bodies didn’t bother them.
Dottinger was buried with honours. Politicians, judges, police officials were all present. Most of the one thousand people who attended the funeral were lawyers. The courts were closed for the morning and one crass young lawyer cracked that the crooks were finally getting a break from Dottinger.
There was an old woman in the last row who had taken five minutes to ascend the Cathedral stairs. She was a thin, dried out woman whose body seemed composed of twisted rope dried too long in the hot sun. When she sat in the pew she held the two canes she used to walk with on her right side, one parchment hand upon both crooks as if these two sticks were the symbols of an authority of much longer duration and much greater power than the authority of the strutting men who filled the pews around her. One of the lawyers, a kind and decent young man, had got her a cushion so she sat comfortably. During the service she didn’t stand or kneel with the rest of the congregation; that would have been too much for her.
She remembered Joey much better than she remembered Dottinger for Joey was her son and Dottinger she had seen only in court on a dozen occasions. During the service she remained severe, stern, dry eyed. She hadn’t come for Dottinger; she came for her son. But when the service ended and she climbed to her feet and the people poured past her and out the doors and all these affairs were at an end and there would be no more and her son’s suffering and death would now become a merely private affair held in the hearts of a half dozen who had already mostly forgotten, she was suddenly overcome. The image of a child’s face appeared in her mind, a beautiful, innocent face filled with stunning, disarming delight and then despite her efforts to hold it, it faded, faded and faded until it was gone and she could bring it back no more. She did not sob, for things were too far gone now for such a demonstration. Instead, looking into an anguish only slightly diminished by long years as its familiar companion, bringing a handkerchief up to her lips, her eyes filled with hot tears which streamed along the furrows of her old face to drop with the slow regularity of candle wax from her gaunt cheekbones to the floor below.