You just never know who you're chatting to online.
Frustrated wannabe writer, Joe Barron, had no idea such a simple act could irrevocably change his life.
Just as he was typing yet another post, grumbling about his chronic writers' block, on the online Writers Forum he frequented a little too much, he heard the slap of the mail on the hallway lino of his lonely two-bedroom flat. A flicker of excitement prompted him to exit his writing room - so-called as he was supposed to write in there, but seldom did - and he headed for the front door.
He subconsciously exhaled on seeing there were no brown A4 envelopes within the small pile of mail, which meant the dream was still alive regarding the three chapters and synopsis he'd sent out to the last wave of carefully selected agents on his list. He flicked through the mail: a mundane assortment of junk, including a cheap-looking clothing pick up service pamphlet, some crap about double glazing, a couple of bills and, he was surprised to see, a white envelope with handwriting he didn't recognise on the front.
Could this be some kind of response from an agent, maybe requesting the rest of the manuscript? Exhilaration swept through him, tempered by panic as he'd still not finished the 'novel' yet despite starting it three years ago. The idea of publication was what Joe dreamed of, but the discipline and hard slog of achieving it was another thing altogether. He hastily ripped open the letter and stared in shock at its contents:
Dear Mr Barron,
So now I know your name, you foolish, foolish man.
Did you really expect me to forget our disagreement?
You reap what you sow.
Expect a visit.
Yours truly, HM
For the rest of the day he stewed on the letter, but couldn't make any sense of it. It had clearly been meant for him, though he had no idea who 'HM' was and couldn't recall any disagreements he'd had recently.
The 'expect a visit' part was playing on his mind and he pulled back a curtain and glanced at the street three floors below. Everything looked as per usual; people going about their business, kids playing football against the graffiti-ridden substation wall and a solitary car parked up on the road. He didn't recognise the car and strained to focus. There was someone in the driver's seat: a man.just waiting.
His vivid imagination began to zoom and he chided himself aloud, 'Joe, you daft sod. Stop being paranoid.' He knew his excessive cannabis intake didn't help with the latter.
Then the man looked up, directly at him. Joe retreated behind the curtains, his heart-rate speeding.
A moment later he checked again and the man was still sitting there, but not looking up. His head was dipped towards his lap; he was reading a newspaper, or was it a laptop?
You're being stupid, Joe, he told himself. Sometimes having the mind of a writer was a hindrance: over analytical, reading too deeply into things and all that. He decided a chat with his like-minded virtual friends was required. They understood him, unlike his family, who just regarded him as the mad, pot-smoking writer!
Joe took a long audible drag of a freshly rolled joint, harsh on his throat, but its effect instant in chilling him. Flash Fiction Feline was online and the first to comment on the thread he'd created in the hope of reassuring perspectives on the letter.
FFF stated it was probably one of his 'Friends messing about and not to worry. 'Writer Online was next: 'You could go to the police if it's bothering you, but as there's no direct threat in the letter then they wouldn't waste money on checking for prints, etc, so I doubt they'd take it very seriously.'
Creative Carl was more philosophical: 'If this idiot was the real deal then he wouldn't send a letter first. It's like when people yell from the rooftops threatening to kill themselves - they never jump. It's the quieter ones who commit suicide. I wouldn't let it bother you, Joe.'
Joe felt much better and was glad he had such great friends, even though he'd never met any of them as they were scattered around the world. He considered having a stab at progressing his novel, but the thought filled him with dread as it had been like pulling teeth lately, so he made a coffee and returned to the computer for another chat.
Three more comments on the thread he'd started. He knew he was procrastinating - a disease perpetuating his frustration - and that if he carried on like this he'd never finish the novel, but he remained on the forum to read the comments regardless. The first two were pretty much reiterating the previous postings and then he came to the third.
Hatchet Man said: 'You're not fretting are you? I once knew a bloke who'd had an online argument, but nothing came of it.'
Joe responded: 'Hi Hatchet Man, long time, no hear. That happens a lot, but it's all part of the forum thing, isn't it? Not everyone will agree all of the time.'
'Yeah, but this guy got personal.'
Joe shuffled in his seat. 'Was that on this forum?'
'You know it was, you foolish man!'
Joe's heart somersaulted. He glared at the screen as realisation kicked in. Hatchet Man. HM! Joe's hands were shaking like an MFI wardrobe as he typed: 'Did you send the letter?'
HM: 'What do you think, Mr Barron?'
Shit! He vaguely recalled coming home drunk and stoned about a year ago andhaving a minor spat with him about a topic so irrelevant he couldn't even remember.
'What did I say that's made you so pissed? It's been deleted by the moderator.'
HM: 'I can recall it word for word.'
Joe: 'Well, whatever I said, I didn't mean it.'
HM: 'Even the fact that I am supposedly a "Mummy's boy," and you were, "Gonna hunt me down and kick my arse"?'
Joe didn't respond. He couldn't deny it. He'd had a few ding-dongs in the pub that night and had had a right one on him.
HM: 'Well, there's no need to hunt me down now is there? The last man who messed with me isn't here any more. Fancy changing your pen name on here, you fool.'
Joe jumped out of his chair, clattering it backwards, and ran to the window. He saw a tall man dressed in all black, alight the car. Closing a laptop, the man glanced over both shoulders before placing it in the boot. He again gazed up at Joe and walked purposefully towards the entrance to the flats.
Joe clasped his hands on his head. 'Oh, fuck!' He felt his adrenaline pumping, making him feel nauseous. What are the chances of having an argument with someone on the net and them hunting you down? Trust me to find the only lunatic on a forum for supposedly intelligent people! And why the fuck did I change my pen name to my real name?
He called the police, but struggled to find the right words as he was that scared and stoned. When he began swearing down the phone, the silly bitch hung up! He threw the phone in anger and it smashed onto the laminate floor. Scrambling on his knees he tried to piece it back together, but it was useless.
He heard a deep voice echoing in the outside corridor. Looking through the spy-hole, he saw a distorted face staring back at him. Joe jolted back from the door.
Three loud bangs on the door. Hatchet Man would have only gone this far for one reason. He ran into the kitchen and grabbed a kitchen knife. This man was clearly a fuckin' psycho. Three more louder bangs on the door. I'll show the bastard.
Joe opened the door and lunged at Hatchet Man with the knife, plunging it straight into his stomach. The scream of a woman was followed by a door slamming across the corridor. Hatchet Man slumped to the floor, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, both hands clutching the protruding handle of the knife. A leaflet wafted to a stop beside him.
Breathless and numb with shock, Joe stared at the leaflet. It detailed a smart-looking bathroom suite with free fitting. He looked down at the man who gurgled then lay motionless.
Joe's gaze fixed disbelievingly on the growing pool of claret on the carpet and it began to trickle down the stairs. Like a zombie, he trudged into his writing room and checked for any further messages on the forum.
HM: 'I meant the last man I argued with isn't on the forum anymore. He'd obviously had enough.'
HM: 'Joe, are you there?'
HM: 'Okay, Joe. This has gone too far now. The letter was to spook you, that's all. When I'd seen you'd put your full name on I just couldn't resist it. I admit it was a childish revenge. Shall we call it quits, mate?'
The cell was cold, smelly and very basic, but at least he wasn't sharing. And with no internet connection, maybe now he'd finish that damn novel.
BIO: Col Bury lives in Manchester, UK, with his wife and two children. He is currently writing a crime novel and is the co-editor - along with thriller author and ex-cop, Matt Hilton - of a 'site encouraging new writers to showcase their talent: Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, where more of Col's stories reside.