A Noise Downstairs – Linwood Barclay

Driving along the Post Road late that early October night, Paul Davis was pretty sure the car driving erratically in front of him belonged to his colleague Kenneth Hoffman. The ancient, dark blue Volvo station wagon was a fixture around West Haven College, a cliché on wheels of what a stereotypical professor drove. It was just after eleven, and Paul wondered whether Kenneth—always Kenneth, never Ken— knew his left taillight was cracked, white light bleeding through the red plastic lens. Hadn’t he mentioned something the other day, about someone backing into him in the faculty parking lot and not leaving a note under the windshield wiper? A busted taillight was the kind of thing that undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth. The car’s lack of back-end symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor. The way the Volvo was straying toward the center line, then jerking suddenly back into its own lane, worried Paul that something might be wrong with Kenneth. Was he nodding off at the wheel, then waking up to find himself headed for the opposite shoulder? Was he coming home from someplace where he’d had too much to drink? If Paul were a cop, he’d hit the lights, whoop the siren, pull him over. But Paul was not a cop, and Kenneth was not some random motorist. He was a colleague. No, more than that. Kenneth was a friend. A mentor. Paul didn’t have a set of lights atop his car, or a siren. But maybe he could, somehow, pull Kenneth over. Get his attention.

Get him to stop long enough for Paul to make sure he was fit to drive. And if he wasn’t, give him a lift home. It was the least Paul could do. Even if Kenneth wasn’t the close friend he once was. When Paul first arrived at West Haven, Kenneth had taken an almost fatherly interest in him. They’d discovered, at a faculty meet and greet, that they had a shared, and not particularly cerebral, interest. They loved 1950s science fiction movies. Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, they agreed, was nothing short of a masterpiece.

Once they’d bonded over the geekiest of subjects, Kenneth offered Paul a West Haven crash course. The politics of academia would come over time, but what a new guy really needed to know was how to get a good parking spot. Who was the person to connect with in payroll if they screwed up your monthly deposit? What day did you avoid the dining hall? (Tuesday, as it turned out. Liver.) Paul came to realize, over the coming years, he was something of an exception for Kenneth. The man was more likely to offer his orientation services to new female hires, and from what Paul heard, it was more intensive. There were a lot of sides to Kenneth, and Paul still wasn’t sure he knew all of them. But whatever his misgivings about Kenneth, they weren’t enough to let the man drive his station wagon into the ditch and kill himself. And it would be just himself. As far as Paul could see, there was no one in the passenger seat next to Kenneth.

The car had traveled nearly a mile now without drifting into the other lane, so maybe, Paul thought, Kenneth had things under control. But there was an element of distraction to the man’s driving. He’d be doing the speed limit, then the brake lights would flash—including the busted one— and the car would slow. But then, it would pick up speed. A quarter mile later, it would slow again. Kenneth appeared to be making frequent glances to the right, as though hunting for a house number. It was an odd area to be looking for one. There were no houses. This stretch of the Post Road was almost entirely commercial. What was Kenneth up to, exactly? Not that driving around Milford an hour before midnight had to mean someone was up to something.

After all, Paul was out on the road, too, and if he’d gone straight home after attending a student theatrical production at West Haven he’d be there by now. But here he was, driving aimlessly, thinking. About Charlotte. He’d invited her to come along. Although Paul was not involved in the production, several of his students were, and he felt obliged to be supportive. Charlotte, a real estate agent, begged off. She had a house to show that evening. And frankly, waiting while a prospective buyer checked the number of bedrooms held the promise of more excitement than waiting for Godot. Even if his wife hadn’t had to work, Paul would have been surprised if she’d joined him. Lately, they’d been more like roommates who shared a space rather than partners who shared a life.

Charlotte was distant, preoccupied. It’s just work, she’d say, when he tried to figure out what might be troubling her. Could it be Josh, he wondered? Did she resent it when his son came for the weekend? No, that couldn’t be it. She liked Josh, had gone out of her way to make him feel welcome and— Hello. Kenneth had his blinker on. He steered the Volvo wagon into an industrial park that ran at right angles to the main road. A long row of businesses, every one of them no doubt closed for the last five hours or more. If Kenneth was impaired, or sleepy, he might still have enough sense to get off the road and sleep it off. Maybe he was going to use his phone. Call a taxi.

Either way, Paul was thinking it was less urgent for him to intervene. Still, Paul slowed and pulled over to the side of the road just beyond where Kenneth had turned in. The Volvo drove around to the back of the building, brake lights flashing. It stopped a few feet from a Dumpster. Why go around the back? Paul wondered. What was Kenneth up to? He killed his headlights, turned off the engine, and watched. In Paul’s overactive imagination, the words drug deal came up in lights. But there was nothing in Kenneth’s character to suggest such a thing. And, in fact, Kenneth didn’t appear to be meeting anyone. There was no other car, no suspicious person materializing out of the darkness.

Kenneth got out, the dome light coming on inside. He slammed the door shut, circled around the back until he was at the front passenger door, and opened it. Kenneth bent over to pick up something. Paul could not make out what it was. Dark—although everything looked pretty dark—and about the size of a computer printer, but irregularly shaped. Heavy, judging by the way Kenneth leaned back slightly for balance as he carried it the few steps over to the Dumpster. He raised the item over the lip and dropped it in. “What the hell?” Paul said under his breath. Kenneth closed the passenger-side door, went back around to the driver’s side, and got in behind the wheel. Paul slunk down in his seat as the Volvo turned around and came back out onto the road.

Kenneth drove right past him and continued in the same direction. Paul watched the Volvo’s taillights recede into the distance. He turned and looked to the Dumpster, torn between checking to see what Kenneth had tossed into it, and continuing to follow his friend. When he’d first spotted Kenneth, Paul had been worried about him. Now, add curious. Whatever was in that Dumpster would, in all likelihood, still be there in a few hours. Paul keyed the ignition, turned on his lights, and threw the car back into drive. The Volvo was heading north out of Milford. Beyond the houses and grocery stores and countless other industrial parks and down winding country roads canopied by towering trees. At one point, they passed a police car parked on the shoulder, but they were both cruising along under the limit.

Paul began to wonder whether Kenneth had any real destination in mind. The Volvo’s brake lights would flash as he neared a turnoff, but then the car would speed up until the next one. Kenneth, again, appeared to be looking for something. Suddenly, it appeared Kenneth had found it. The car pulled well off the pavement. The lights died. Paul, about a tenth of a mile back, could see no reason why Kenneth had stopped there. There was no driveway, no nearby home that Paul could make out. Paul briefly considered driving right on by, but then thought, Fuck this cloak-and-dagger shit. I need to see if he’s okay.

So Paul hit the blinker and edged his car onto the shoulder, coming to a stop behind the Volvo wagon just as Kenneth was getting out. His door was open, the car’s interior bathed in weak light. Kenneth froze. He had the look of an inmate heading for the wall, caught in the guard tower spotlight. Paul quickly powered down his window and stuck his head out. “Kenneth! It’s me!” Kenneth squinted. “It’s Paul! Paul Davis!” It took a second for Kenneth to process that. Once he had, he walked briskly toward Paul’s car, using his hand as a visor to shield his eyes from Paul’s headlights. As Paul started to get out of the car, leaving the engine and headlights on, Kenneth shouted, “Jesus, Paul, what are you doing here?” Paul didn’t like the sound of his voice. Agitated, on edge.

He met Kenneth halfway between the two cars. “I was pretty sure that was your car. Thought you might be having some trouble.” No need to mention he’d been following him for miles. “I’m fine, no problem,” Kenneth said, clipping his words. He twitched oddly, as though he wanted to look back at his car but was forcing himself not to. “Were you following me?” he asked. “Not—no, not really,” Paul said. Kenneth saw something in the hesitation. “How long?” “What?” “How long were you following me?” “I really wasn’t—” Paul stopped.

Something in the back of the Volvo had caught his eye. Between the headlights of his car, and the Volvo’s dome light, it was possible to see what looked like mounds of clear plastic sheeting bunched up above the bottom of the tailgate window. “It’s nothing,” Kenneth said quickly. “I didn’t ask,” Paul said, taking a step closer to the Volvo. “Paul, get in your car and go home. I’m fine. Really.” Paul only then noticed the dark smudges on Kenneth’s hands, splotches of something on his shirt and jeans. “Jesus, are you hurt?” “I’m okay.” “That looks like blood.

” When Paul moved toward the Volvo, Kenneth grabbed for his arm, but Paul shook him off. Paul was a good fifteen years younger than Kenneth, and regular matches in the college’s squash courts had kept him in reasonably good shape. Paul got to the tailgate and looked through the glass. “Jesus fucking Christ!” he said, suddenly cupping his hand over his mouth. Paul thought he might be sick. Kenneth, standing behind him, said, “Let . let me explain.” Paul took a step back, looked at Kenneth wide-eyed. “How . who is .

who are they?” Kenneth struggled for words. “Paul—” “Open it,” Paul said. “What?” “Open it!” he said, pointing to the tailgate. Kenneth moved in front of him and reached for the tailgate latch. Another interior light came on, affording an even better look at the two bodies running lengthwise, both wrapped in that plastic, heads to the tailgate, feet up against the back of the front seats. The rear seats had been folded down to accommodate them, as if they were sheets of plywood from Home Depot. While their facial features were heavily distorted by the opaque wrapping, and the blood, it was clear enough that they were both female. Adults. Two women. Paul stared, stunned, his mouth open.

His earlier feeling that he would be sick had been displaced by shock. “I was looking for a place,” Kenneth said calmly. “A what?” “I hadn’t found a good spot yet. I’d been thinking in those woods there, before, well, before you came along.” Paul noticed, at that point, the shovel next to the body of the woman on the left. “I’m going to turn off the car,” Kenneth said. “It’s not good for the environment.” Paul suspected Kenneth would hop in and make a run for it. With the tailgate open, if he floored it, the bodies might slide right out onto the shoulder. But Kenneth was true to his word.

He leaned into the car, turned the key to the off position. The engine died. Paul wondered who the two women could be. He felt numb, that this could not be happening. A name came into his head. He didn’t know why, exactly, but it did. Charlotte. Kenneth rejoined him at the back of the car. Did the man seem calmer? Was it relief at being caught? Paul gave him another look, but his eyes were drawn back to the bodies. “Who are they?” Paul said, his voice shaking.

“Tell me who they are.” He couldn’t look at them any longer, and turned away. “I’m sorry about this,” Kenneth said. Paul turned. “You’re sorry about—” He saw the shovel Kenneth wielded, club-like, for no more than a tenth of a second before it connected with his skull. Then everything went black. Eight Months Later One The old man in the back of the SUV could have been taken for dead. He was slumped down in the leather seat, the top of his nearly bald, liver-spotted head propped up against the window of the driver’s-side back door. Paul got up close to the Lincoln—it was that model the movie star drove in all those laughably pretentious commercials—and peered through the glass. He was a small, thin man.

As if sensing that he was being watched, he moved his head. The man slowly sat up, turned, blinked several times, and looked out at Paul with a puzzled expression. “How you doing today?” Paul asked. The man slowly nodded, then slipped back down in the seat and rested his head once more against the glass. Paul carried on the rest of the way up the driveway to a door at the side of the two-story, Cape Cod–style, cedar shake–shingled house on Carrington Avenue. There was a separate entrance at the back end of the driveway. There was a small bronze plaque next to it that read, simply, ANNA WHITE, PH.D. He buzzed, then let himself in and took a seat in the waiting room, big enough for only two cushioned chairs. He sifted through a pile of magazines.

He had to hand it to Dr. White. In the three months he’d been coming to see her, the magazines—there were copies of Time and The New Yorker and Golf Digest and Golf Monthly, so maybe his therapist was an avid golfer— were always turning over. If there was a fault to be found, it was that she wasn’t scanning the covers closely enough. Was it a good idea, in a therapist’s office, to offer as reading material a newsmagazine with the headline “Paranoia: Should You Be Scared?” But that was the one he opened. He was about to turn to the article when the door to Dr. White’s office opened. “Paul,” she said, smiling. “Come on in.” “Your dad’s in your car again.

” She sighed. “It’s okay. He thinks we’re going to go visit my mother at the home. He’s comfortable out there. Please, come in.” Still clutching the magazine, he got up and walked into the doctor’s office. It wasn’t like a regular doctor’s space, of course. No examining table with a sheet of paper on it, no weigh scale, no eye chart, no cutaway illustration of the human body. But there were brown leather chairs, a glass-andwood desk that looked like something out of the Herman Miller catalog with little on it but an open, silver laptop. There was a wall of bookshelves, restful paintings of the ocean or maybe Long Island Sound, and even a window with a view of one of Milford’s downtown parks.

He dropped into his usual leather chair as the doctor settled into one kitty-corner to him. She was wearing a knee-length skirt, and as she crossed her legs Paul made an effort not to look. Dr. White— early forties, brown hair to her shoulders, eyes to match, well packaged—was an attractive woman, but Paul had read about that so-called transference stuff, where patients fall in love with their therapists. Not only was that not going to happen, he told himself, he wasn’t about to give the impression it might. He was here to get help. Plain and simple. He didn’t need another relationship to complicate the ones he already had. “Stealing a magazine?” she asked. “Oh, no,” he said, flashing the cover.

“There was an article I wanted to read.” “Oh, God,” she said, frowning. “That might not have been the best one to put out there.” Paul managed a grin. “The headline did catch my eye. Otherwise, I might have tried a golf magazine. Even though I don’t play.” “Those are my father’s,” she said. “He’s eighty-three, and he still gets out on the course, occasionally, if I can go with him. And he loves the driving range.

He can still whack a bucket of balls like nobody’s business. A lot less chance of getting lost when you don’t actually head out onto the course.” She extended a hand and Paul gave her the magazine. She took another glance at the headline as she tossed it onto a nearby coffee table. “How’s the head?” she asked. “Physically, or mentally?” “I was thinking, physically?” She smiled. “For now.” “Dr. Jones says I’m improving the way I should be, but with a head injury like I had, we have to watch for any effects for up to a year. And I’m still having some, no doubt about it.

” “Such as?” “The headaches, of course. And I forget things now and then. Sometimes, I walk into a room, and I have no idea why I’m there. Not only that, but I might not even remember getting there. One minute, I’m in the bedroom, the next I’m down in the kitchen, and I’ve got no idea how it happened. And I haven’t gone back to squash. Can’t run the risk of getting hit in the head with a racket or running into the wall. I’m kind of itching to get back to it, though. Maybe soon. I’ll just take it easy.

” Anna White nodded. “Okay.” “Sleeping is still, well, you know.” “We’ll get to that.” “My balance is getting pretty good again. And I can concentrate pretty well when reading. That took a while. It looks like I’ll be back to teaching in a couple of months, in September.” “Have you been to the campus at all since the incident?” Paul nodded. “A couple of times, kind of easing into it.

Did one lecture for a summer class—one I’d given before so I didn’t have to write it from scratch. Had one tutorial with some kids, got a good discussion going. But that’s about it.” “The college has been very patient.” “Well, yes. I think they would have been anyway, but considering it was a member of their own faculty who tried to kill me . they’ve been accommodating, for sure.” He paused, ran his hand lightly over his left temple, where the shovel had hit him. “I always tell myself it could have been worse.” “Yes.

” “I could have ended up in the Volvo with Jill and Catherine.” Anna nodded solemnly. “As bad as things are, they can always be worse.” “I guess.” “Okay, so we’ve dealt with the physical. Now let’s get to my area of expertise. How’s your mood been lately?” “Up and down.” “Are you still seeing him, Paul?” “Kenneth?” “Yes, Kenneth.” Paul shrugged. “In my dreams, of course.

” “And?” Paul hesitated, as though embarrassed. “Sometimes . just around.” “Have you seen him since we spoke the other day?” “I was picking up a few things at Walgreens and I was sure I saw him in the checkout line. I could feel a kind of panic attack overwhelming me. So I just left, didn’t buy the things I had in my basket. Got in the car and drove the hell away fast as I could.” “Did you honestly believe it was him?” Slowly, Paul said, “No. I knew it couldn’t be.” “Because?” She leaned her head toward him.

“Because Kenneth is in prison.” “For two counts of murder and one of attempted murder,” Anna said. “Would have been three if that policeman hadn’t come by when he did.” “I know.” Paul rubbed his hands together. It had been more than just luck that a cop came. The officer in that cruiser he and Kenneth had driven past had decided to go looking for that Volvo with a busted taillight. Anna leaned forward onto her knees. “In time, this will get better. I promise you.

” “What about the nightmares?” he asked. “They’re persisting?” “Yes. I had one two nights ago. Charlotte had to wake me.” “Tell me about it.” Paul swallowed. He needed a moment. “I was finding it hard to see. Everything was foggy, but then I realized I was all wrapped up in plastic sheeting. I tried to move it away but I couldn’t.

And then I could see something through the plastic. A face.” “Kenneth Hoffman?” Paul shook his head. “You’d think so. He’s been in most of them. What I saw on the other side was myself, screaming at me to come out. It’s like I was simultaneously in the plastic and outside it, but mostly in, and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I was trying to push my way out. It’s a new variation on my usual nightmare. Sometimes I think Charlotte’s one of the two women in the back of that car.

I have this vague recollection, before I blacked out, of being terrified Kenneth had killed Charlotte.” “Why did you think that?” He shrugged. “She hadn’t come with me to the play. My mind just went there.” “Sure.” “Anyway, thank God Charlotte’s there when I have the nightmares, waking me up. The last one, my arms were flailing about in front of me as I tried to escape the plastic.” “Are you able to get back to sleep after?” “Sometimes, but I’m afraid to. I figure the nightmare’s just on pause.” He closed his eyes briefly, as though checking to see whether the images that had come to him in the night were still there.

When he opened them, he said, “And I guess it was four nights ago, I dreamed I was sitting at the table with them.” “With?” “You know. Jill Foster and Catherine Lamb. At Kenneth’s house. We were all taking turns typing our apologies. The women, they had these ghoulish grins, blood draining from the slits in their throats, actually laughing at me because the typewriter was now in front of me and I don’t know what to write and they’re saying, ‘We’re all done! We’re all done!’ And you know how, in a dream, you can’t actually see words clearly? They’re all a-jumble?” “Yes,” Anna White said. “So that’s why it’s so frustrating. I know I have to type something or Kenneth, standing there at the end of the table, looking like fucking Nosferatu—excuse me—will kill me. But then, I know he’s going to kill me anyway.” Paul’s hands were starting to shake.

Anna reached across and touched the back of one. “Let’s stop for a second.” “Yeah, sure.” “We’ll switch gears for a bit. How are things with Charlotte?” Paul shrugged. “I guess they’re okay.” “That doesn’t sound terribly positive.” “No, really, things are better. She’s been very supportive, although having to watch me go through all this has to get her down at times. You know, before all this happened, things weren’t exactly a hundred percent.

I think Charlotte was going through something, almost a kind of reassessment of her life. You know, ten years ago, is this where she would have imagined herself being? Selling real estate in Milford? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, you know? I think her dreams were a little different when she was younger. But my nearly getting killed, maybe that had a way of refocusing things. They’re better now.” “And your son? Josh?” Paul frowned. “It hit him hard when it happened, of course. Thinking your dad might die, that’s not easy for a nine-year-old kid. But I wasn’t in the hospital long, and while I had some recovering to do—and still am—it was clear I wasn’t going to drop dead right away. And he splits his time between his mom and me. So he’s not necessarily around when I wake up screaming in the night.

” Paul tried to laugh. Anna allowed herself a smile. They were both quiet a moment. Anna sensed that Paul was working up to something, so she waited. Finally, he said, “I wanted to bounce something off you.” “Sure.” “I talked about this with Charlotte, and she thinks maybe it’s a good idea, but she said I should get your input.” “I’m all ears.” “It’s pretty obvious that I’m . what’s the word? Haunted? I guess I’m haunted by what Kenneth did.

” “I might have used the word traumatized, but yes.” “I mean, not just because he nearly killed me. That’d be enough. But I knew him. He took me under his wing when I arrived at West Haven. He was my friend. We had drinks together, shared our thoughts, connected, you know? Fellow sci-fi nerds. How could I not have seen that under all that, he was a monster?” “Monsters can be very good at disguising themselves.” Paul shook his head. “Then again, there were many times when I wondered whether I knew him at all, even before this.

Remember Walter Mitty?” “From the James Thurber story?” Paul nodded. “A boring, ordinary man who imagines himself in various heroic roles. Kenneth presented as a drab professor with some secret life as a ladies’ man. Except with him, the secret life wasn’t imaginary. It was for real. He had this underlying charm that women—well, some women— found hard to resist. But he didn’t advertise it to the rest of us. He didn’t brag about his latest sexual conquest.” “So he never told you about women he was seeing?” “No, but there was talk. We all knew.

Whenever there was a faculty event, and he’d bring his wife, Gabriella, all you could think was, is she the only one in the room who doesn’t know?” “Did you know his son?” “Len,” Paul said, nodding. “Kenneth loved that boy. He was kind of—I don’t know the politically correct way to put this—but he was a bit slow. It’s not like he was somewhere on the spectrum or anything, but definitely not future college material. But Kenneth would bring him out on campus so he could hang out for hours in the library looking at art books. Kenneth’d gather a stack of books for Len so he could turn through them page by page. He liked looking at the pictures.” Paul gave Anna a look of bafflement. “How do I square that with what he did? Killing two women? And the way he did it. Making them apologize to him before slitting their .

I can’t get my head around it.” “It’s hard, I know. So, you wanted to bounce something off me.” He paused. “Instead of trying to put all of this behind me, I want to confront it. I want to know more. I want to know everything. About what happened to me. About Kenneth. I want to talk to the people whose lives he touched. And not just in a bad way. The good, too. I want to understand all the different Kenneths. If it’s possible, I’d like to actually talk to him, if they’ll let me into the prison to see him. And if he’ll see me, of course. I guess what I’m searching for is the answer to a bigger question.” Anna tented her fingers. “Which is?” “Was Kenneth evil? Is Kenneth evil?” “I could just say yes and save you the trouble.” She took in a long breath, then let it out slowly. “I could go either way on this. Do you honestly think it will help?” Paul took a moment before answering. “If I can look into the eyes of evil in the real world, maybe I won’t have to run from it in my sleep.”


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