Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ellie Is Here 2 - - W. Jack Savage

Julian Povey

I never met her. We spoke in a chat room following the breakup of my third marriage. Her chat room nickname was Ellieishere2. The “is here too” part caught my eye somehow. It was like she was announcing that she existed, as if maybe she’d been dismissed in her real world. My instinct was right.

I said hello one day, and we began a chat room acquaintance which led to a friendship. We spoke to each other on Messenger and emailed each other now and then. We were both in need. I was depressed from another failed marriage, and she had problems in her marriage, too. She was a housewife in Sylacauga, Alabama with kids in their early teens. She never got too specific about her trouble at home. Her husband had cheated which led to her getting involved with an old college friend in nearby Birmingham. She seemed embarrassed chatting about that as well. So we just sort of propped each other up from time to time. After a while we communicated by letter. She sent me a birthday card, and I responded with a thank-you note. I never thought much about our exchanging addresses. Then, after nearly a year of chatting with her at least three times a week, she disappeared.

I thought about writing, but with her gone I thought maybe her husband might get the letter. I was worried about her though and finally went online and checked the Sylacauga Newspaper, fearing that she might have gotten in an accident or something. I hadn’t heard from her in ten days, and as I scrolled down the death notices I remember sighing with relief when I didn’t see her name. I was about to give up when I saw a little notice in the funeral section.

“In lieu of flowers, Bobby Harris and the Harris family have requested that donations to the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital Depression Center be made in the name of Ellie Sue Harris.”

That was it. No death notice and no visitation and no other funeral announcement for the previous ten days in the paper.

I felt awful. Here was a woman who had become my good Internet friend, and she had died under circumstances somehow not worthy of a death notice. So I got terribly drunk and vowed to find out what happened. After a few days, I let it go. The family was suffering enough I reasoned, and after sending a hundred bucks in Ellie’s name to the UAB Depression center, I sadly went about the business of getting on with my own life. It may well have ended there, but for the night I sat staring at her name on the computer screen. In fact it was the moment that I was thinking about deleting her from Messenger when she came online.

“Hello, hello,” I typed. There was no reply.

“Ellie, are you there?” I typed again. “Are you alright?”

“Who are you?” was the response I saw, and I knew at once that Ellie was truly dead and that probably her family was investigating Ellie’s Internet life.

“I’m an Internet friend of Ellie’s,” I wrote. “My name is Gary, and I live in California.” There was a long pause.

“I’m sorry,” I began again, “but when Ellie hadn’t come on for ten days, I looked for word about her in your local newspaper there. Can you tell me if it’s true? Is Ellie dead?”

“Your party cannot answer because they appear to be offline” was the usual heading in response to my last question. Whoever it was had gone offline.

I kept Messenger open all night and stayed up until after midnight, hoping they would come back online. Finally, I sent an email saying I respected their wishes for privacy at a difficult time but that Ellie and I were good Internet friends, and she helped me cope after my divorce. I also said that while Ellie seemed to have had some problems around the time we had met—problems she never shared—she had seemed fine and even upbeat right up until the time she disappeared. I asked if someone could please respond and tell me at least what happened. But no one wrote back.

The next two days I sent emails again, but the result was the same. I kept Ellie’s name in my Messenger in hopes someone would come on again. Three days later I got a letter.

Dear Gary,
My name is Carolyn Harris, and I am Ellie Sue’s daughter. I found your address on a thank-you note in her box of personal items. I’m hoping you’re the Gary who was on Mom’s Messenger. She talked about you sometimes. I guess you know Mom died. It’s been very hard for us since then, and I cry a lot. They say Mom was depressed and that she killed herself with a gun, but I don’t believe it. Mom got depressed sometimes, but lately, she had been a lot happier. They say that one day I’ll understand how depression works. All I know is that while Mom was going to school at UAB, she’d come home depressed sometimes. After she dropped out she was a lot better. Anyway, Mom is gone now, and I’m glad you were her friend. I’m sending you her journal because everyone around here is trying to pretend she never lived, and I don’t want them to find it and throw it away, too. I took it and hid it in my bed when they were going through her things. I couldn’t find the key. I loved my mom very much, and I want a friend to have something to remember her by. I didn’t have enough for first-class postage, but they said third class would just take longer. They deleted everything of hers out of the computer. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you that night on Messenger. But I thought I might get into trouble.

Yours Truly,
Carolyn Harris

How terribly sad I felt when I read the letter. It didn’t get any better the third or fourth time either. One thing did seem odd though. Ellie had said she was thinking of taking some classes at UAB the previous fall. I remember encouraging her, but later she said it hadn’t worked out and that she never enrolled. Her daughter seemed to suggest that her dropping out had been a recent development. Now, in the spring, I wondered why she hadn’t told me she was going to school, unless she wasn’t attending but just getting away for a day now and then. And what the daughter had written about Ellie’s recent mood was the same thing I had noticed. She had seemed happier than ever.

The days before the journal arrived had gotten long for me again, and when it came, I tore it open like a kid with a present. After twenty minutes of trying to pick the lock with a paper clip, I gave up and cut the strap holding it together. As I paged through the early entries, I noticed that Ellie didn’t write every day. Once or twice a week, she’d reflect on one thing or another. It went back two years, and she began the entries shortly after she found a love letter in her husband’s pocket from his secretary. She seemed so conflicted about what had happened. She admitted that the honeymoon had long been over, but when she confronted her husband Bobby with the note, he became violently defensive. He accused her of spying on him and left that night and never returned home. She drove out to the apartment complex where his secretary lived and saw his truck there in the morning. But she was scared of losing her home and decided in her own interest and that of her children that she’d try to get through it.

There were other entries. She wrote of finding me on the Internet. I cried when I read how much I had meant to her and what a “rock” I had become in her life. It was nearly two in the morning when I put it down and undressed for bed. I took the journal to bed with me and marked the place that I had stopped reading. I felt I needed to page ahead before sleep and found her last entry. This is what it said:

Dear Journal:
I have finally taken the bull by the horns, and by tomorrow my ordeal and the ordeal of other women like myself will be over. I am meeting with U.S Attorney John Barnes and will give him a deposition and the other evidence that will prevent this from happening to any other woman in the future. Maybe I should feel scared, but what I’m really feeling is exhilaration that I haven’t felt in years. I know I’ve made mistakes; however, doing this is not only the right thing to do, I feel it’s the only thing to do. And that makes me feel great!

I went to sleep that night knowing the Ellie Sue Harris I knew did not take her own life. Someone took it for her.

The next day I read the rest of the journal. Ellie and many other women in and around the Birmingham, Alabama area had been the victims of a fairly elaborate ruse. It began with choosing attractive women who were housewives and mothers, seducing them and taping the event without their knowledge. But then two men posing as government agents would approach the victims. They would show them the tapes and say that they’d been investigating their lovers who, over time, would have threatened to reveal the tapes to their husbands to make them perform sexual favors with others for money. They’d tell the victims that they were lucky they caught this in time, or they would have had no choice but to name them in their investigations.

Then the other shoe would drop. As a condition for keeping their names out of all this unpleasantness, the victims would have to perform certain duties over a probationary period until their investigation was completed. If they refused, their names and the tapes would come out in the indictment. If they consented, they simply had to…well…fuck whoever they told them to for a period of months, usually six. And while this seems ridiculous, both on the surface and at the heart of it, what real choice did the victims have? They’d lose their homes and their children in the subsequent divorce, and while they might have explained their way out of it if only their husbands found out, a televised scandal with indictments must have seemed overwhelming. Besides, they had already cheated on their husbands. Why not simply do it with many lovers for the period and be done with it. And even if they figured out what was going on, the penalties for not agreeing were just as severe.

For the perpetrators, the advantages of using housewives under duress were many. To begin with, they weren’t prostitutes. They were clean, well mannered, and attractive; they had no choice but to simply make lemonade out of lemons. For her part, Ellie had not only been afraid of losing her home when she found out her husband was cheating; she admitted as much to the old college chum she favored with a roll in the hay after running into him at a mall one day. However, Ellie figured it out pretty quick, and the guys posing as government agents went as far as to suggest she begin by thanking them personally and sexually at their initial meeting which she did.

As I read on I became saddened on many levels, not the least of which was how her souring marriage mirrored at least two of my own in some ways. But my sadness quickly and frequently gave way to the kind of rage I hadn’t known in many years. Even so, the diabolical nature of this scam and, in particular, the kind of language and legalese with which these people presented themselves made me feel whoever was running this thing wasn’t stupid. Ellie’s death was proof enough of their ruthlessness. But the most disquieting factor was the fact that, whoever did this, knew she was going to see a real U.S. Attorney. They faked her suicide before she got there. The likelihood that real government officials had knowledge of these events was at least possible. The final problem was that no one and I mean no one—whether victim or perpetrator—would want these matters to come to light. That presented a solution that happened to fall right in my wheelhouse.

As my plane landed in Atlanta, my notes seemed adequate to the occasion. I knew, of course, there’d be plenty of improvisation but that presented no problem. I rented a car and headed to Sylacauga. I found a florist and by mid-afternoon placed my flowers on the grave of my friend. As I did, I felt someone looking at me. I turned around and saw a young girl of thirteen or so. I knew immediately who she was. She joined me at the grave.

“Did you know my mom?” she asked.

“Yes” I said. “We were friends on the Internet.”

“I knew it was you,” she exclaimed. “I had a feeling it was.”

“You have good instincts, Caroline,” I said looking back at Ellie’s grave. We stood there silently for a minute or two. I could feel her stealing looks at me every few seconds.

“My Mom didn’t kill herself, did she?”

“No Caroline, she didn’t. You were right about that, too. But everyone will assume she did and your knowing the truth won’t change what they think. Do you think you can be satisfied with that?”

She was quiet for a moment. “I guess so,” she said. “Do you know who killed her?”

“No,” I said. “We’ll see.”

I said goodbye to my friend’s daughter and drove to Birmingham. I checked into the Birmingham Marriott where Ellie had met all of her men; I tipped the bellman $40.00 and asked if he could tell me where a gentleman might meet a suitable and clean lady for the evening.

“I think that could be worked out, sir,” he said. “Will you be dining at our fine restaurant this evening sir?”

“Unless you can recommend someplace better, I will be.”

“No, sir,” he said politely. “I think our restaurant is excellent. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. May I ask if you have any specific preference in a lady sir: blonde, brunette, redhead?”

“Apart from her being attractive and amiable,” I began, “none at all. Let me add that she has to be clean—no one who walks the street if you know what I mean.”

“I can assure you, sir, the fellow I’ll refer you to would never use such women,” he said.

“I see…but I was hoping to deal just with you young man. The need for discretion is of great importance to me as I’m sure you can understand.”

“I certainly understand, sir; the man I’m talking about is a frequent visitor to the lounge in our fine restaurant. Believe me, he is very discreet.”

“How will I know this man?” I asked.

“He’ll find you sir,” he said. “Enjoy a cocktail before dinner. Will there be anything else, sir?”

I smiled and shook my head. After he left, I showered quickly and dressed for dinner. It was going pretty much as I supposed.

In the lounge I noticed the restaurant was indeed popular and three quarters full by seven-thirty. I sat down and ordered a scotch on the rocks. Before the drink arrived, I saw them.

She was about thirty with a homespun sort of look about her. I imagined she made wonderful Sunday dinners. She looked as though she probably did volunteer work wherever she lived. He was short and stocky and had the look of a top ten salesman. They saw me, but ambled toward the middle of the bar just the same. He exchanged some words with the bartender and then came over. He introduced himself and the lady, asking if I might like to join them at a table.

“So Mr. Fox,” he began, “What brings you to Birmingham?”

“Business, of course,” I answered. “I’ll be looking at some properties around town for possible development. I was told someone would meet me here in the lounge tonight. Is that you, Mr. Brown?”

“Yes it is.”

“Then, if you don’t mind,” I said, “I’d prefer we discuss that business.”

At this, Kathy, after being introduced, excused herself to the ladies room. After sitting back down, he began again.

“How long will you need Kathy tonight?” he asked.

“Probably no later than ten thirty, I’m thinking, and I’d prefer if she could join me for dinner here as well.”

“I’m sure she’d like that,” he said. “I can arrange the charges to be spread out over your hotel bill if you like. I understand you’ll be with us for three days.”

“Yes,” I said, “but there’s no need for the subterfuge. I’m an independent contractor, Mr. Brown. No need to fool anyone about expenses. You do take credit cards?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think $300.00 should cover everything.”

“That’s fine provided she’s clean.” I said.

“I can assure you that she is.”

After concluding our business in the lounge, Kathy and I went in for dinner. I noticed a white band on her finger where her wedding band had been. We had a nice dinner and talked about the area a little. She was candid about being married and spoke of a daughter in junior high school. Afterwards we went up to my room where I made a phone call. After hanging up, I told Kathy that something had come up and that I wouldn’t be needing her after all. As she was leaving, I stopped her.

“He’ll...Mr. Brown will be down there won’t he?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll credit you. I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, he may send you to another...client.”

She looked down. “Maybe.”

“I don’t want to put you out that way. Why don’t you stay here for a while and watch television? I would like the company while I work and that way you can go home afterward.”

She smiled sadly and said, “Thank you.”

“No problem; I enjoy your company. Why don’t you order us some tea?”

I sat at the table with my laptop and made some notes regarding the initial meeting. After our tea arrived, I outlined a series of questions I wanted to ask her. It had to do with a hunch I had about the initial motel where Ellie Sue and her old college chum had gone.

“Tell me Kathy,” I said. “You know the area and I don’t. Do you know much about the northeast part of town? There is a restaurant and motel complex near where I’m looking for development properties. I believe the motel is called the Outer Limits.”

Her face told me my instinct was correct. “Yes, it’s not a very nice part of town. Not dangerous or anything but kind of run down.”

“Good,” I said. “And how near the juncture of these two freeways would you say it is?”

She came over and looked at the map.

“I’d say less than a mile for either one.”

I took off my glasses and looked at her. “I’m not sure if Mr. Brown will question you about this evening, Kathy, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention the areas I’m looking at.”

“No, I’d never do that.”

I got around to asking her about the second area nearly an hour later, and as I suspected, she was familiar with it, also. They used the Outer Limits Motel for the taping. Then they’d send the ladies downtown to an old Federal Building, only partially filled with new private renters. There, someone posing as a judge would inform them in official tones of how they were going to “get themselves out of this mess.”

Nearing ten thirty, I’d got to the point in the questioning that would most closely resemble normal curiosity, and Kathy had warmed to me in ways I felt she could answer my questions in a candid manner. She told me the men she dealt with amounted to only four altogether and there was also one woman. Two men posing as U. S. Attorneys, this fake judge and his secretary, and Mr. Brown seemed to be all there were. But she’d never seen more then two of them together at once. As to any other women she knew of in the same circumstance, she had only met one. It was clear, however, that they didn’t let any of the women interact with each other in an unsupervised manner. This made perfect sense, of course, but also made my job a little harder.

“Tell me something, Kathy,” I said, “These officials you speak of—is there anyway you can contact them?”

“Only through Adam, that is Mr. Brown, and Judge Henry downtown.”

“I see. Did you ever see the judge again?”

“Not yet; next month my probationary period is over. I have to see him then. Please don’t tell Adam that I told you anything about this.”

I shook my head and got up.

“Kathy, believe me that knowledge of any of this could put me in danger, too, I’m sure. I would never betray your confidence. In fact, I have an idea that might interest you. This would be for my protection as well, but I was wondering about something. Is there anyway I could hire you for the next three days and end your obligation earlier? You said next month you would be done with this, and I assume at one day a week that would bring you closer.”

“I could ask,” she said, “but I don’t think I could explain it to my family. One day a week is all I’ve been able to handle.”

“Yes, of course, but if your Mr. Brown was amenable to ending your obligation early, would you at least consider it?”

She agreed and, after meeting with Brown the next morning, he was encouraging as well. He offered her for $800.00 a day which I got down to $700.00 after telling him there’d be future visits to Birmingham. He “assured me” she would be amenable.

“I like only one girl at a time,” I told him. “I’d want someone else in the future.”

“That works out perfectly,” he said, leading me to believe they might actually let these women off after their obligation was done. We stood up and shook hands.

“You provide a fine service, Mr. Brown. I’ll be sure to recommend this...hotel to others.”

He agreed to meet me with Kathy for dinner that evening. I left with my briefcase around ten and headed downtown.

After spending the morning getting the cook’s tour of the old Federal building from a representative from the investment company holding the lease, I stopped for lunch. I had noticed a door with Judge Henry’s name still on it. He explained the new renters only used the office now and then and hadn’t bothered to change the name. But, as we were leaving, I noticed some movement behind the frosted glass. After lunch I went back and talked to a couple of tenants. I tried the door at Judge Henry’s office, but it was locked. After knocking, a middle-aged woman with glasses answered.

“Hi,” I said. “Some people I’m working with are interested in the building. I always make it a point to talk with some of the renters. Would you have a moment for me?”

After trying to put me off with talk of only using the office to receive mail and some storage, she finally let me in. The outer office seemed normal enough for a Judge. At first glance, nothing would give the impression it was not Judge Henry’s Office.

“Oh, I must have misunderstood,” I said. “Doesn’t the judge doesn’t keep an office here?”

Just then a heavyset man with red hair walked in. He exchanged looks with the secretary who was beginning to look uneasy.

Twenty minutes later I left the office, turning the lights out and locking the door on my way out.

I put the bag in the trunk of my car and headed for the Outer Limits Motel.

“Hi, it’s me Terry at the motel,” he said in almost a whisper. “I think you’d better get over here right away. Some developer is looking at buying the place, and the owner is taking him on a tour of the rooms. I told him yours was under repair, but I think they’ll want to see it anyway. I can stall them for a while, but the owner has a master key.”

After hanging up I said, “That was very good Terry. Are they coming together or will there be only one?”

“They always come together, but I don’t know for sure.”

“Fine,” I said. “Here’s the first five hundred. You’ll get the rest after I’ve met with them.”

As I heard the key turn in the door, I listened for footsteps. They were both there. Ten minutes later I came out, locked the door, and went back down to the office.

“Here’s the rest of your money, Terry,” I said handing him $1000.00. “I’d wait at least two days if I were you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help, and I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that, in any case, I won’t forget this...or you.”

Terry shook his head as he fingered the money. “No…no problem,” he said nervously. “Not a problem.”

Nearing seven o’clock, I saw Brown and Kathy walk in the front door. He looked confident as ever, and I felt sure none of the day’s events had come to his attention. I cut them off on the way to the lounge and asked if I could speak with him privately. I gave Kathy the key to my room, saying I’d prefer we eat there later. On the way to the parking lot, I told him my travels took me to an interesting property north of town and wondered if he had a few minutes to take a look at it with me. He agreed and I headed to a largely vacant industrial area I had seen. We got out and I began by talking about the property.

“You see, my people are looking for undervalued areas not unlike this one,” I said, “with good access to the main artery highways.”

He nodded and looked around. As he did, I shot him in the knee. He screamed and rolled around in pain.

“Your partners are dead,” I said and shot him again in the ankle. “You’re gonna be dead in minute, too. But I thought you’d like to know why you’re all dying. Remember Ellie Sue Harris? She was a friend of mine. I’m afraid all I can offer you is a shorter death then you deserve, but one last thing remains. And if you don’t tell me...right now, I’ll kill you all night, and believe me, it won’t be fun.”

I squatted down near him as he writhed in pain.

“Who told you Ellie was coming to Birmingham to give a deposition?” I asked.

He writhed some more and shook his head. I shot him in the elbow, and he screamed again.

“Last chance, pal, because I’m not asking after this. Who told you Ellie was coming to town to give a deposition?”

“Oh, God,” he choked. “I…it was my brother. He works in the U.S. attorney’s office.”

“His name?”

“He didn’t know anything about it,” he screamed. “He just told me things.”

“Deadly things, as it turns out. Last chance for a name and an end to this Brown. His name?”

“Tom,” he said.

I shot him in his other elbow.

“Complete name, please.”

“Tom Scarborough….Oh, God please... Oh, God.”

I stood up and put two in his stomach and walked away. On the way back to the hotel I disposed of the tapes I’d taken from the old federal building.

Back in my room, I sent Kathy home to her family saying I was quite sure she’d never need to do this sort of thing again. She kissed me in a way that told me she was grateful and with a passion that indicated she might indeed do this sort of thing again. That couldn’t be helped, of course.

The next morning I watched Tom Scarborough kiss his wife goodbye at the front door and secure his small son in the child safety seat of his Bronco before driving off. I decided to let it go.

As I was checking out of the Marriott, I saw the bellman who had referred my prey. I tipped him another $40.00 and thanked him for his help.

“It was a pleasure, sir,” he said with a smile. “I hope everything was satisfactory.”

I nodded and said, “You’ve been a help to me young man, and I’d like to tell you something that might help you. In a day or so the police will want to interview you. If you have any reason why you wouldn’t want that, it might be better if you weren’t here or at the address you gave the hotel.”

He understood and nodded quickly.

Forty-five minutes later, I stood before Ellie’s grave once again. After a few minutes I saw Caroline walking down the path toward me. She carried schoolbooks in her arms. We were silent for a few minutes. She stole looks at me from time to time and seemed to be forming a question. But she never quite got it worked out.

“I don’t think your mother would like it that you come here every day,” I said.

“I won’t now.”

We stood there for a while longer, and I felt her take my hand. “Thank you, Gary.”

“You’re welcome Carolyn,” I answered.

She started to walk off and then stopped and turned ten feet away.

“Did you kill them?” she asked.

I turned and looked at her evenly. “Yes,” I said.

She walked back to me and handed me an envelope. It was my thank you note to Ellie with my return address on it.

“Thank you,” she said. “Goodbye.” I smiled and waved as she walked off.

I drove back to Atlanta to catch my flight. That fact is I don’t have many friends. Ellie Sue Harris was my friend and avenging her murder was an act of personal satisfaction. I’ve been in this business for nearly thirty years. I had never killed for pleasure before, only business. Caroline’s heartfelt gratitude put this whole episode back on the business side of the ledger to some degree. I smiled to think of it.

Photo Credits: Julian Povey

About the author: Walter “Jack” Savage quit high school and spent two and a half years in Vietnam as a paratrooper and helicopter doorgunner, all before his twenty-first birthday. A life long fan of short stories, Jack began writing his own fifteen years ago while pursuing his graduate degree in film studies. He published a collection of his twelve best entitled, Bumping and Other Stories last year. Jack is a graduate of Brown Institute and Mankato State University in Minnesota and is a career broadcaster currently heard on 790-KABC Radio in Los Angeles. He is also a veteran stage actor and Associate Professor in Telecommunications and Film at California State University, Los Angeles. Jack and his wife Kathy live in Monrovia, California. You can visit his website here.

From Sydney Nash: See "Editorial Notes" in the main 'zine if the author sounds familiar to you.