John surveyed the empty, bleak-looking apartment he had just paid six months rent on. The landlord had lowered the rate for this deal, but this now meant that even if he got a break and could afford someplace better, he was stuck here until the six months were up. He was bound to this shoddy old place. But he wasn’t concerned. He barely had enough money to make it here, and he wasn’t expecting his luck to change anytime soon. He noted that he would have to get furniture as soon as possible, for he had left everything behind. But he needed a job first. He chewed his lip as he wondered where he would start his job search. John knew no-one in this town, having only been here a few days. He decided to start with the landlord.
He went downstairs to where the landlord lived, an apartment decidedly bigger than those of the tenants of the building. He knocked on the door. As he waited for someone to answer, his eyes traced the scrollwork printed on the cheap wallpaper in the hallway. He heard someone unbolting the lock, and as he glanced back to the door it was opened by a gray-haired old man. The man had the typical old man look: glasses low on his nose, a dull green sweater-vest over a white shirt, brown trousers, gleaming black shoes, and a crown of bristly gray hair surrounding a bare scalp.
“Excuse me, I’m new in town and I was wondering if you knew anyone that might be able to give me a job.” John was patient as the landlord looked him up and down, judging his character.
“Well…You seem trustworthy. There may be something you could do for me. Tell ya what, swing by around this time tomorrow and we can talk about it.”
“Alright, then. I’ll be here tomorrow. Thank you.”
As the door was closed, John left feeling both relieved and disappointed. There was now a chance he would be able to make some money, but he had been hoping to get a job today. He went back up the stairwell to his floor and found his apartment again. Sitting at a chair playing cards with himself while looking out the window, he wondered what the next day, and the future in general, held in store for him.
The next day, he went back to where the old man resided. When he knocked, the old man once again opened the door and greeted him.
“Come on in. What did you say your name was?”
“John. And you?”
“Walter.” The old man led John into the large apartment, closing the door behind him.
Walter led John to a spacious room. The walls were covered in empty bookshelves, and there were cardboard boxes filled with books everywhere.
“As you can see, I recently had the room redone and am in the process of putting everything back in order. If you need some cash, you could organize all this for me, and if when this is all done you still want work, I’ll have other tasks for you.”
“Alright. I’ll get to work right away.”
John spent the next few weeks coming to Walter’s apartment, doing various jobs. At the end of each workday, the two men would sit together drinking and playing cards. During these times, they talked about everything. On one such night, Walter asked John why he had come to this town and where he had come from.
“I lived in California, near Hollywood.”
“Really! I once had a home there as well! Why did you come here?”
“To get away from the people.”
“People…” Walter looked at John intently. “…or a person?”
John looked up from the cards he had been dealt. “How can you tell?”
“I had a hunch. You have all the mannerisms of a broken-hearted man.”
John stared thoughtfully at the empty beer bottle standing on the table. He took a deep breathe, exhaling slowly. “I still can’t believe she cheated on me.”
“So that’s it.” Walter leaned back in his chair, the front legs coming off of the ground like those of a frightened horse rearing back from something sharp. “Tell me what happened.”
“It was the typical story. I came home from work early and found her in bed with another man.” John’s eyes glistened with moisture for a brief moment before he wiped them with his sleeve. “I just don’t understand how someone who I loved more than anything in the world could do that to me.”
Walter rose and fetched a bottle of scotch and two glasses. He unstoppered the bottle and poured them both some comfort. After John had a glass of scotch, Walter began to speak.
“You know, something similar happened to me when I lived in California.”
John smiled. “Is that why you’re here?”
Walter looked off into the corner of the ceiling as if remembering something from long ago. “Yes, actually. You see, when I was young I went to a lot of parties. It was at one of these parties that I met her. Her name was Elizabeth, and I fell deeply in love with her. She was beautiful, and men were drawn to her like flies to a corpse.” Walter laughed to himself, and John’s eyebrows furrowed together as he considered the odd word choice. There was something strange about the way this old man laughed to himself, like he knew some great ironic secret that nobody else in the world knew.
“…Or like bees to honey?”
“I guess you could say that, too. But the point is, I was passionate about her. And she told me she loved me, too. For a while, I thought life couldn’t be better. But…” Walter got up once more and retrieved a bowl of walnuts and a nutcracker from a cabinet. He sat back down and cracked a nut open, putting the shells in a pile on the table.
“She had dreams of being rich, or famous, or both. She wanted glamour, and she would never be able to have that if she stayed with me. She left. Started going after high-profile men. Actors, modeling agents, directors and such. She discarded me like a murder weapon, useful for a moment but dangerous to hold onto afterward.”
John again was alarmed by the metaphor the landlord had used. He didn’t like where this story was going…
“I was shattered. For weeks afterward, I obsessed over her. I even went so far as to follow her. I could think of nothing else. Then, one day, I saw her kissing some man near a hotel. When I saw that, I snapped, like this here walnut.” He crushed another of the walnuts and ate what was inside.
“Well…what did you do?” John was getting nervous, his throat feeling awfully dry. He drank some more scotch. He wondered if he should leave.
“Well, let’s just say she isn’t known as Elizabeth anymore.” Walter plopped another walnut into his mouth and chewed.
“What is she known as?”
Walter got up for a third time and walked over to the window, where he looked out. “You know, over sixty people have confessed, so nobody takes them seriously anymore. And I’m getting on in years, so there’s not much that they could do to me that isn’t already coming.” He turned to face John, his hands clasped behind his back. “So I feel comfortable telling you.”
John swallowed, his throat feeling like it was filled with cotton. He drank some more, and he felt he knew what was coming.
“Have you guessed as to what I did to her yet?”
“You…you killed her, didn’t you?”
Walter laughed and sat back down at the table. He touched his fingertips together and closed his eyes, almost as if in prayer. After a brief silence he opened his eyes again. “To answer your question…They call her…the Black Dahlia.”
John suddenly felt very nauseous and looked at Walter’s glass. It was still full. He suddenly realized that Walter had not had anything to drink all night. As dizziness and headache began to overtake him, he tried to rise out of his chair but fell over, turning as he fell. He saw Walter standing over him, smiling.
“You can’t keep a secret, though. But I’ve often wanted to become infamous. Perhaps it’s time I created another masterpiece.”
John blacked out.
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