“Britney, we need to call the police,” Nicholas spoke, interrupting his sister’s thoughts.
Luke nodded, “Right. I don’t understand exactly what’s going on but you should call the cops if someone’s trying to stalk you. Is it that crazy guy from before?” Luke was referring to Larry French.
Nicholas watched as Britney shook her head, “No. The police told me it wasn’t him. He had an alibi around the time I was getting the notes and around the time Misty was killed.”
Luke looked at Nicholas, “Misty is your sister’s friend that you were telling me about?”
“Yeah. I told you things have been crazy around here,” Nicholas handed Britney her cell phone which she had put down on the coffee table, “Call the cops Britney.”
She reached for the phone as it began to ring.
It was Brad.
Britney felt herself swallowing in nervousness. She looked at her brother as she clicked the green button, accepting his call.
“Hey Britney. Did you get my fruit bouquet?” Brad asked.
Britney cleared her throat, “Yeah. I got it. Thank you.”
“I had a feeling you would like it.”
“It’s weird that you knew I liked fruit bouquets. Was it just a guess?” Britney asked.
Britney saw her brother roll his eyes, “Britney. Tell your boyfriend you’ll call him later. You have to call the cops. Now!”
“Is something wrong?” Brad asked, as he was able to overhear Nicholas.
“A couple of things have come up. I’ll tell you about it later,” Britney remained vague.
“Britney, the cops? Screw it. I’ll call them myself,” Nicholas pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and Britney stood up.
“You’re calling the cops?” Brad asked, overhearing Nicholas.
“Listen. I’ll tell you about it later. I have to go. Bye Brad.” Britney hung up on him before he could speak.
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be stupid and not call the cops?” Nicholas asked, a look of disbelief on his face.
“It’s not that simple Nicholas!” Britney ran a hand through her dark hair and groaned in frustration. She was at her breaking point and she knew it. “It’s not that simple.”
“How is it not simple? Someone has been spying on you! It’s illegal! Someone snuck into this house and planted some stupid monitor crap in your room! For all we know it was the same guy who broke in and gave me a black eye.” Nicholas had his hands on his hips. He turned to his friend Luke and asked, “Don’t you agree with me?”
Luke remained quiet, watching the both of them. His eyebrows furrowed together as he thought aloud, “Honestly, I think your sister is an intelligent woman. If she didn’t want to call the cops, there’s probably a good reason.” He looked at Britney, “It’s probably a very scary reason.”
“What?” Nicholas sighed. “Just spit it out Luke. What are you trying to say?”
Luke shrugged, “Fear is a great way to control someone.”
Britney sat back down, pale. She lifted her hands to cover her ears.
“Britney?” Nicholas asked, “I know that this is all scary for you but I’m here. I’m here for you. I’ll help you in any way that I can. Do you know how hard it is for me to see all this happening to you? We have to call the cops.”
“He’s got my friend,” Britney whispered.
Both men heard her and looked at one another in surprise.
Luke spoke first, “Britney, when you say he’s got your friend…what do you mean?”
Tears were slowly trailing down her cheeks, “He’s got her. He threatened to kill her if I called the cops.”
“Sonofa-“Nicholas was cut off by Luke.
“Britney, we still need to call the police.”
“And what if he kills her?” her voice rose in panic. “She’s one of my best friends! He already killed Misty. What if he kills Ivy too?”
“This isn’t something you can handle or negotiate. You should know that,” Luke chided softly.
Britney sniffed, “I know that! You think I don’t know that?”
“Call the cops Britney. We’ll be here for you,” Nicholas stepped forward and wrapped an arm around Britney.
“You’re right. Now that the monitor is found, there’s no way he’ll know anyway. It should be okay,” Britney whispered more for her own peace of mind.
She picked up her phone and dialed the number to someone she could trust, Officer Shelby Diaz.
Across Town: 9:00 AM: La Palmera Apartments
John Wayne wished he had finished college. If he had, maybe he would’ve been able to get a better job than as an assistant apartment manager. He wondered if it wasn’t too late to quit and go back to school.
“So any relation to John Wayne the actor?”
John stared at Julian Gregorio, the manager of La Palmera apartments, and held in his snide remark. He wanted to tell Julian that John Wayne was a stage name the actor used so the question itself was ridiculous. Instead he smiled, “No. No relation to the actor.”
“That’s too bad,” Julian answered, wiping sweat off of his forehead. He hitched up his pants, that were clearly too tight and said, “We could’ve told tenants that to draw them in. I’ll tell you what…let’s just say that you are related. It’s not like they’ll ever know.”
John’s fake smile was reaching its limit.
Julian led John to a golf cart. Today he was showing John how to do the monthly apartment inspections. “Every quarter, the apartments we inspect change.”
“So we can just go into their apartments?” John asked.
“Of course! It’s in the lease and we already gave them advance notice John. The tenants are supposed to crate their dogs if they have any inside the apartment. We should know which apartments have dogs since they have to pay a pet deposit.”
“Do we ever have apartments that have pets without a deposit?” John asked.
Julian nodded, “Yeah. Some tenants think they can get one past me. I can tell when they have a pet without permission. The carpet is usually soiled and there’s a certain smell the apartment gives off.”
John grimaced. This job sounded horrible so far. He watched Julian rub his beefy hands together before he started the golf cart. John asked, “So today we’re going to do apartment inspections to check for any major damages and for unauthorized pets?”
“You got it partner,” Julian said in a country accent, making John cringe. “The first apartment we’re going to is number four hundred,” Julian explained as he pulled up in the golf cart to the building with a large number four on it. Julian and John walked to the apartment with the number four hundred and knocked.
No one answered the door. Julian knocked again. Still, there was no answer.
Julian looked at John, “Now the tenant may be at work, so we go in and just leave one of our notes.” He held up a stack of half-sheets of paper that were attached to a clipboard he was holding. They were notices indicating that an apartment inspection had been done.
John nodded and unlocked the door as Julian instructed him to. The apartment was quiet and immaculate in its cleanliness.
“This person must’ve taken our notice that we were coming seriously,” Julian smiled as he stepped into the kitchen, “John, you go ahead and check the bedroom. Just make sure that the blinds aren’t broken or missing and that the door handles are still working.”
John nodded and stepped to the bedroom door which was locked. He opened it, “Door handle works,” he called out to Julian, who was inappropriately looking through the tenant’s refrigerator.
John rolled his eyes and stepped into the bedroom. What he saw shocked him. A woman was tied to the bed. She was wearing sweat pants and a large T-shirt. Over her face was a large pillow. Her lack of movement and the failure of her chest to rise and fall indicated that she was no longer living.
His mouth opened, but words wouldn’t come out. Pricks of fear spread down his back. John stood there in shock. He wasn’t sure what he was looking at but he knew it wasn’t good.
“Are you done in there John? We have to finish before noon,” Julian called out. When John didn’t respond, he walked into the bedroom. He stood beside John and dropped his clipboard. He pulled out his phone to call 911.
John was finally able to speak, “Julian?”
The Home of Britney and Nicholas
Officer Shelby Diaz was sitting across from Dr. Britney Chong, fuming. “Explain to me again why you didn’t report this sooner?”
“He threatened to kill her if I called the cops,” Britney’ eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying.
“You received this message yesterday?”
“Has your stalker sent you any other messages?” Diaz asked.
Nicholas spoke up, “He sent me pictures of Britney.”
“You?” Diaz asked.
Nicholas nodded, “Not too long ago. He left a note telling me to leave Britney alone for a night. He sent a bunch of pictures too. It scared the hell out of me.”
“I want to see the note,” Diaz said.
“Sorry. I tore it up,” Nicholas grimaced. “I was angry. I still have the pictures though.”
Officer Diaz looked at him suspiciously, “Fine. I want to see them. Anything you’ve received, I want.”
“Thank you for believing me,” Britney whispered.
Shelby Diaz had already called in a unit to drive by Ivy’s home and check on her. She was surprised to get the call from Britney and decided not to tell Officer Dean Winters about it. He hated Britney and wasn’t afraid to show his hostility. She held the pieces of the broken monitor in a plastic baggie. “You should have brought all of this to our attention sooner,” she scolded.
“I tried to,” Britney whispered.
“You asked us to close your case,” Diaz reminded her. “I’m not going to lie Dr. Chong. I understand that people are afraid to call the police when someone they care about is being threatened. It’s a scare tactic I would never have expected you to fall for.”
“I understand what you mean…but when it’s affecting you personally. It’s not as easy to be so detached. I feel like I’m slowly losing control of everything in my life and it terrifies me Officer Diaz. I’m wondering when I’ll lose my sanity.”
Officer Diaz nodded in understanding. Earlier, Britney had practically begged her to find Ivy. She hadn’t turned off her CB radio and the sound of the static-like voices filled the room of crimes around the town of Hilltop.
“Tell me your friend’s address,” Diaz had a pen out and a small pad.
“It’s the La Palmera apartments across town. I don’t know the exact address.”
Diaz nodded as another report came in through the CB radio, “10-54 at 1515 Turner Street. La Palmera apartments. All available units please respond.”
Britney paled, “What’s a 10-54 mean?”
Diaz sighed. She didn’t believe in sugar-coating things, “It means a possible dead body.”
Nicholas ran to his sister and hugged her as she began to bawl. Meanwhile, Luke, who had been sitting in a loveseat across the room, looked at the time on his phone. He wondered what Gabby was up to.
Later that Evening
He was feeling antsy. On his desk was a framed picture of Britney leaving the radio station. The glass covering the picture was cracked and he smiled as he looked at it. By now, the body of Ivy had been found, identified, and at the morgue. They wouldn’t be able to trace it back to him. He had been very careful to erase any messages of him on her phone. He had never allowed her to take a picture of him and the number he used to contact her was under Britney’s name.
He pulled out a photograph and giggled as he turned it over to scrawl a message for Britney. The photograph was placed in a red envelope. He didn’t lick the envelope but instead, used a damp cloth to wet the seal. He couldn’t stop giggling as he thought of how she would react when she saw his new message and whispered to the framed picture, “You ruined my life…now I’m ruining yours.”
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five stages of grief played like a broken record in Britney’s mind. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She kept thinking she just needed to get through these five stages and everything would be alright.
Nicholas was coming towards her with a bottle of water, “Britney?”
She looked up at him with watery bloodshot eyes.
“It’s been almost twenty-four hours since you heard about your friend and you haven’t moved from the couch. I have an appointment for one of my designs. Are you going to be okay here alone? Should I call Brad?”
“No!” Britney shouldn’t have answered so adamantly because it caused Nicholas to give her a strange look.
“I don’t want to leave you alone. Is there anyone I can call to stay with you?”
She shook her head. Yesterday had been horrific. It had been confirmed that Ivy was found dead in her apartment. She had been suffocated. Britney didn’t move, didn’t eat, and didn’t sleep. Nicholas slept in the love-seat across from her so that he could keep an eye on her.
“I don’t want to leave you alone. It’s not safe Britney,” Nicholas was wearing a suit jacket.
“Are you going on an interview Nicholas? I thought you only did freelance?” Her question surprised him since it was so out of the blue. He still answered it.
“No Britney. It’s not an interview. I’m having a meeting about one of the ads I created for a local clean-up campaign. Apparently they thought something was wrong with the logo I created and they want to discuss it.”
“They couldn’t discuss it over the phone?”
“I asked and they said the guy in charge wanted to meet face to face. I don’t know why. Some of these suits have no vision whatsoever.”
Britney smiled, trying to push back her guilt regarding Ivy, “You’re so artistic. I bet your real parents were artists.”
Nicholas grimaced, “It doesn’t matter what they were. They gave me up for adoption.”
“Yeah, I bet they were artists. Do you know what I used to think my parents were?” Britney asked ignoring his previous statement.
Nicholas thought the conversation was strange but he went along with it since it made his sister stop crying, “No, what?”
Nicholas gave a grin, “Yeah. That’s interesting because I used to think you were an alien.”
Britney didn’t give him a reaction like she normally would have and Nicholas sighed, “You know…I can reschedule my meeting. I think I need to stay here with you.”
“No. You should go. I’ll be fine. I’ll call a friend over.”
“Are you sure?” Nicholas asked.
“Yeah. I’m positive. Please go before I start to feel upset that you’re treating me like an invalid,” Britney picked up her phone and dialed Gabby’s number.
Gabby picked up and her hello was filled with sniffles and sobs.
“Can you come over?” Britney asked her friend.
“Sure I need to talk to you anyway,” Gabby answered and they both disconnected the call.
Nicholas watched his sister and sighed, “I’m not going to be able to wait for your friend. Make sure you lock the door, okay?”
“I will. Stop worrying,” Britney stood up and walked with her brother to the door.
“Who’s coming over? Is it Brad?” Nicholas asked, glancing at his watch.
“No it’s Gabby. I don’t think you’ve ever met her.”
Nicholas laughed, “I guess I haven’t. Her name sounds familiar though.”
Britney shrugged, “Hurry up and make some money bro. I want you to buy me something good to eat before you come home.”
“McDonalds?” Nicholas smiled.
“Gross,” Britney muttered.
“Okay, how about Popeyes?”
Britney rolled her eyes, “That’s my brother…the big spender.”
Nicholas pulled his sister into a hug and whispered, “I’m sorry Britney. I know this is hard on you. I wish I could help you but we’re going to get past this okay?”
She nodded, a fresh batch of tears forming. “Okay…okay. I’m backing away before I cry all over you.”
Nicholas was walking out the door when Britney called out to him, “Hey Nicholas…”
He turned back around, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing…just don’t forget.”
“Your promise to me.”
“Promise?” Nicholas didn’t understand what she was talking about.
“Your promise not to leave me, remember?”
A faint memory of Britney telling him of Misty’s brother being sad that his sister died came to mind. Britney was asking him not to die on her too. He gave her a big smile and waved, “Come on sis’ you know I’d never leave you. Not unless a supermodel asked me to.”
He laughed and walked away, getting into his truck. Britney watched him drive away and a sadness filled her. She was afraid that she would be left alone soon. Both Misty and Ivy had been killed. What if something happened to Nicholas? She didn’t know what she would do.
Twenty minutes later, Gabby was ringing Britney’ doorbell.
“Gabby,” Britney tried to hug her but Gabby didn’t return the embrace. “How are you holding up?”
Gabby’s nose was red from crying and her eyes were a pink color. “Britney we need to talk.”
They sat on the sofa and Gabby continued, “The police talked to Ivy’s parents.”
“Did they get any news on who did this?”
Gabby shook her head, “No, but they know why it was done.”
Apprehension filled Britney, “What do you mean?”
Gabby shook her head in disgust, “You know exactly what I mean Britney. Why didn’t you tell us?”
Britney opened her mouth but no words could come out.
“Here you are…the supposed smart one from our group and you couldn’t even tell us that someone was targeting your friends? Wasn’t Misty’s death enough? Ivy’s dead and now your psycho stalker is probably going to come after me!”
“Why are you acting like this is my fault?” Britney stood up and took a step away from Gabby, wanting distance between them.
“How is it not your fault? A guy is after you and you didn’t tell us! Then he started coming after your friends! Detective Winters told us everything! How could you Britney?”
“I…I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Britney was crying again, something she didn’t think was possible.
“Sorry? Is that all you can say? Well I’m sorry Britney but that doesn’t cut it. Do you know how devastated Ivy’s parents are? When I think about Misty’s brother, Damon, it makes me sick. He was so broken up over his sister’s death.”
“Are you trying to make me feel worse? It started off with pictures Gabby. Just random pictures taken from across a room. It could’ve been anyone! What was I supposed to tell you guys? Hey there might be someone watching you so be careful! I didn’t know what to do! He said he would kill her if I went to the cops” Britney defended herself but the words felt bitter in her mouth.
“Yeah well it looks like he killed her anyway, didn’t he?” Gabby crossed her arms and stood up, “Listen, I didn’t want to stay long. I just wanted to tell you that Ivy’s family doesn’t want you at the funeral.”
“What?” Britney was speechless.
“You’re a psychologist, you should understand that it’s probably hard for them to look at you when it’s your fault their daughter is dead.”
Gabby straightened her purse and walked past Britney as if she wasn’t there. After she left, Britney sat on her sofa and cried.
Later that Evening
Britney looked at her phone and wondered where Nicholas was. He still hadn’t come home and several hours had already passed. She was still feeling raw and frazzled from her conversation with Gabby.
The doorbell rang and she hurried to the door and answered it to see that it was Brad.
“Brad, what are you doing here?”
“Your brother called me. He said you needed a shoulder to cry on. I’m sorry about your friend.”
Britney wondered why Nicholas would call Brad after she told him not to. “It’s been a bad couple of weeks.”
They were standing awkwardly at her door when he asked, “May I come in?”
Britney just stared at him as if she didn’t understand until he laughed. Then she excused herself and let him in, “You really didn’t have to stop by.”
“Of course I did. I wanted to make sure you’re holding up okay.”
“Riiight,” Brad tried to hug her but she brushed him off.
“Britney, did I do something?”
“What do you mean?”
Brad put his hands in his pockets, “I just feel like you’ve been brushing me off lately and I don’t understand why.”
“I haven’t been brushing you off,” she said knowing it was a lie.
“You don’t think you have?” he asked.
“No,” her voice came out at a higher pitch than normal, indicating it was a lie.
Brad laughed, “I call BS.”
“You heard me. I call BS. You’ve been avoiding me and I want to know why. I thought we had a great date and that you liked me.”
“Brad,” Britney didn’t know how to explain what was going on.
“Be honest with me Britney. We both know a relationship never works without honesty.”
“Fine, you want me to be honest?”
Brad nodded, “Yes!”
“You asked for it. The truth is that I’m scared Brad. Do you hear me? I’m scared!”
“Of being in a relationship?” Brad asked, surprised.
“No. Of you!”
“Me?” Brad didn’t know how to respond to that, “I don’t understand. What did I ever do?”
“Someone has been sending me notes, pictures, crazy texts. Threatening me. Someone has been doing all that and it all started about the same time you showed up Brad! There’s something fishy about you and your too good to be true act.”
Brad was quiet for a moment. He just stared at her in disbelief.
“Well aren’t you going to deny it?” Britney yelled.
Brad let out a low chuckle and Britney took a step back.
“You’re right,” he whispered.
“What?” Britney had yelled at Brad because she was frustrated but she didn’t expect him to agree with her.
“I’ve been pretending to be better than I am. I’ve lied to you,” Brad looked up at Britney, “Shall I explain?”
She simply nodded, taking another step back.
“I only took this job…moved to Houston…all of it. I did it because of you,” Brad sat down on her sofa and placed his head in his hands.
“What are you talking about?”
“I knew who you were before I moved to Houston. One of my clients listened to your radio show. She used to talk to me about you so I looked you up.”
Britney wasn’t quite following him, “You Googled me?”
“Ugh I sound like such a loser… but yes. I Googled you. I saw your picture on the Heart-breakers website and I thought you were beautiful.”
Britney took another step back.
“Britney,” Brad continued, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“No. I only believe in lust at first sight.”
Brad laughed, “Me either. At least I didn’t. I don’t know…maybe I still don’t. The point is I purposely took this job when they offered it to me because of you.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Britney asked.
“Because I want you to know that if I seem too good to be true it’s because I am! I’m trying my best to impress you. Bottom line Britney- I like you!”
Britney still didn’t respond.
“I don’t know anything about notes, texts, or threats. I have nothing to do with that.”
“Why should I believe you?” Britney asked.
“Because I’m asking you to.”
Britney shook her head. She didn’t know what to believe. She wanted to believe Brad but something was holding her back. Just then her phone dinged. It was a message from a familiar number she dreaded to hear from.
She slid her finger across the home screen and looked at the message. It was a picture taken from across a restaurant. It was of her brother, Nicholas.