“Will this take long?” Beth Spencer fidgeted with her wedding ring while Arnold Snow, the attorney, checked her passport. His office on the top floor of a seven-story building in Downtown Brooklyn was basic at best and nothing like she’d imagined. The brown carpet smelled moldy, the white walls showed cracks and damp stains, and the furniture had seen better days. “It’s uncomfortable for me to be here since…” Her eyes darted around the room before she finally met his gaze. Arnold reminded her of a toad, the way his fat head seemed to be attached directly to his shoulders, rather than his neck, and his bulgy, almost yellowish eyes peered at her from behind round, black-rimmed reading glasses. “Well, since you were the last person to see her alive,” she finally said.
“I was, and I’m very sorry for your loss.” Arnold’s voice sounded croaky. “I can assure you that your wife did not seem suicidal when she was here. If I felt she appeared distressed, I would have alerted the police as it’s not uncommon for people to make a will when they’re planning on taking their own life.” He gave her back her passport along with a form to fill in. “As her sole beneficiary, you will receive the sum of $20,000.” Sliding another form across the desk, he added: “And you’ll need this when you go to the police station. The items found on Mrs. Spencer’s body are ready for you to pick up.”
“Twenty-thousand?” As she sat back, Beth needed a moment to process the information. “But as far as I was aware, Sammy didn’t have any savings.”
“This amount represents the latest royalties from her crime novels,” Arnold clarified. “We may need to arrange a follow-up meeting to make sure these go directly to you from now on.”
“Right.” Beth was feeling an array of emotions, torn between relief and a deep inconsolable sadness. Coming into an unexpected large sum of money was a welcome surprise as she’d been struggling to keep up with the rent since Sammy had jumped off the roof of Mr. Snow’s building, four months ago. How had she not known how unhappy she was? She’d been on mild anti-depressants and she’d suffered from writer’s block from time to time, but not once had she seen her low enough to worry about her mental health. In fact, Sammy had seemed inspired in the weeks leading up to her death, often writing until the early hours. She signed the form and sighed, knowing it was unlikely she’d ever find the answers she was looking for.
“I think that concludes our business. The money will be in your account shortly.” Arnold stood up to shake her hand. “Chablis and sushi tonight?” he called after her as she left.
“What did you just say?” Beth stalled and turned in the doorway, meeting his grin. It gave her chills; not just because the question felt inappropriate, but also because he had appeared to read her mind.
“Chablis and sushi. Isn’t that what all New York women have on Friday night?”
“Oh…” She managed a smile and shrugged. “Yes, I might. Thank you and I’ll give you a call to set up that meeting.” Even after she’d closed the door behind her, she could still feel his eyes on her.
Later that night, Beth slumped down on her couch with a bottle of Chablis and two California rolls. Arnold Snow was right; she was pretty predictable when it came to take-out. On the couch next to her was the envelope she’d picked up from the police station after work, containing Sammy’s wedding ring and her leather wallet. The one thing that was missing though, was her little black notebook. Being a writer, Sammy always carried one around in the back pocket of her jeans, and Beth had desperately hoped there might be something in there that could help her understand why she’d killed herself.
Her notebooks not only contained ideas for her novels, but also her most private thoughts, and Beth had gone through all of them with a fine-tooth comb. It had felt like a betrayal at first, but she was looking for clues as to what she’d been feeling and thinking so she could stop blaming herself. If Sammy hadn’t carried it with her on the day she died, then where was it?
Something drew her attention to the bookshelves. An indistinct flash of light moving so fast she’d barely registered it. She’d seen it a couple of times recently, but it was always when she was drinking wine by herself in the dark, so she’d put it down to the alcohol. Narrowing her eyes, Beth continued to stare but it had disappeared. Could it be the sign from Sammy she’d so desperately hoped for? Was she trying to reach out to her? She’d never believed in the afterlife but her desperation for answers had caused her to act out of character lately, so she turned on the reading lamp and walked over to the spot where she’d first observed the light.
Beth gasped when she saw Sammy’s missing notebook. Sitting on the second shelf, it had been there all along in plain sight, folded open with its black Moleskine cover facing her. The edge of the cover was tucked under the shelf above, as if she’d strategically placed it there for her to see. But she hadn’t seen it. Looking at Sammy’s precious books had been too hard, and she’d ignored the layer of dust that had settled over them in the past months.
“Sammy are you there?” she whispered, then waited while her heart thumped violently in her chest.
The room remained silent, and Beth internally scolded herself for her irrational behavior that was bordering on insanity. After long moments, she hesitantly picked up the notebook, terrified of what she might discover. Sitting back down, she randomly opened pages to read Sammy’s notes and look at her sketches. Sammy had always been a talented artist. A couple of years ago, she’d asked Beth to take art classes with her, but Beth had laughed it off, knowing she’d hate it. What she wouldn’t give to take one of those stupid classes with her now.
Just like the other notebooks, this one not only contained ideas for storylines, but also short diary entries, and once again, she felt like an intruder.
‘Had a fight with Beth. She wants a baby but I’m not ready. How can I support a child if I barely make enough money to pay the rent? Feel like a failure sometimes.’
Tears rolled over Beth’s cheeks as she held onto her stomach. It had never been her intention to make her feel like a failure; she’d simply suggested she think about getting a part-time job to substitute her meagre income from writing as they’d talked about starting a family. Caressing the pages one by one, she traced Sammy’s messy handwriting while she cried. Title suggestions, plot ideas and chapter numbers with key words followed, but she didn’t take much in until a character drawing made her pause. The man looked familiar, and as she studied the sketch, a sense of foreboding coursed through her. ‘Reptile neighbor’, it said. Beth frowned, taking in the bald, neckless figure with intense bulgy eyes that Sammy had colored in yellow, then read her notes next to it.
‘Our neighbor, The Reptile, as I like to call him, is a strange man. I saw him for the first time outside the apartment block today when the fire alarm went off. He told me he was an attorney, then asked me if I had a will. After a short chat he offered me his services for free, which seemed crazy. Who works for free these days? He also asked me how Beth was, but Beth has never mentioned meeting him. I’ll keep an eye on him as he made me feel uncomfortable and I got the impression he’d been watching us. Won’t tell Beth about it as it will only worry her. He’s great material for a character though, and I’m suddenly feeling very inspired.’
Reading the paragraph once more, Beth told herself she was being paranoid, but the coincidence was too haunting to ignore. On the next page was something about a murder weapon and a couple of scribbles about a crime scene, the text boxed and connected with arrows. Although they were clearly just a figment of Sammy’s vivid imagination, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong, and her hand trembled as she flipped to the next page.
‘I visited The Reptile today while Beth was at work, using the excuse that I wanted to take up his offer regarding a will. It was slightly awkward, and he didn’t invite me in, but we talked in the doorway for quite some time. He asked me about my writing, and even though I don’t recall telling him my profession, I found myself opening up to him. I’m not sure why I felt the need to see him again. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those strange eyes. He’s inspired me to write, and that feeling is addictive. There’s something evil about him that fills me with dread, yet words and ideas flow when I picture him in my mind. I told him I’d drop by his office on Thursday afternoon, so I’ll have another chance to observe him up close. The Reptile is going to make an excellent killer in my new novel.’
Beth slammed a hand in front of her mouth, her mind spinning with contradictory thoughts. Their neighbor had never been mentioned in the suicide investigation and as far as the police was aware, Sammy did not personally know the attorney who last saw her alive. But then again, neither her, nor the police knew they were the same person. Her first thought was that Arnold Snow should have mentioned living next door, her second was the fact that he hadn’t, and that made her fearful. Why keep quiet about something so significant?
Shaking on her legs, Beth got up, closed the curtains facing the street, then glanced into the hallway and around the living room. Lingering in a corner of the room, as far from the window as possible, she fought to stay calm. There was only one more entry in the little black book before the pages turned blank.
‘I found a hole in the wall behind one of the books when I was looking for something to read, and when I looked through it, I could see right into The Reptile’s living room. It was definitely not there before we moved in. Time to go to the police. Or perhaps I should confront him about it tomorrow?’
Even before Sammy’s death, Beth had never looked closely at the bookshelves that were mounted on the wall. She didn’t have many books herself and just saw them as clutter. But now, she held her breath as she studied the shelves closely, noticing every detail, every screw, every mark on the timber. There was a significant gap between the books on the second and the third shelf where smaller paperbacks were stored; a gaping mouth warning her off. Kneeling in front of the shelves, Beth spotted the hole even before she’d swept the books to the floor. It was big enough to see through from a short distance, and despite fear twisting in her gut, she leaned in. What she saw made her freeze in horror. Staring back at her, was a bloodshot, yellow eye. She recognized his croaky voice too.