DOWNWARD SPIRAL


By Carol Michaels



The dead body sprawled on the sofa was definitely no one he knew.

He hadn't even been aware as he opened his front door that there was a body spread over the length of his new Italian leather sofa. No, his mind was on the most perfect woman he had ever met agreeing to come home with him on their very first date.

So when he heard this same perfect woman scream at the top of her lungs as they entered the room, it did catch him quite off guard.

Before him was an ugly sight. There was blood everywhere, big splotches splattered on the light ivory leather, streams of red oozing onto the hardwood floor, one big horrible mess.

Ethan let out his own version of a scream and rushed to the sofa, trying to make sense of the scene.

The man was not a big man, maybe five foot eight or nine, if that. Hard to say in that position, with his feet half hanging off the sofa, his shoes still intact. He had a head full of bushy reddish hair, with a matching beard. His right arm was stretched out almost to the floor, the other arm lying crookedly on his chest, which was now a deep red from the blood that had seeped from his heart. A gash in his neck provided another half-dried stream. It was a wretched sight, and Ethan was not a strong person. He quickly turned away, his stomach ready to spring into unpleasant action.

Catching his breath, he remembered Emily. Where was she? A quick dash around confirmed his fear. She had taken off, a beautiful chance of a lifetime down the drain. And now he must confront this horrendous situation and try to figure out who this was that had perished in his living room.

His thoughts swirled him into a dizzying panic and a selfish conclusion: it was going to look to the police like he killed this man. He wished he could hide the body and be done with it, but the guy deserved better. Plus, the murderer may have other intended victims, and he would be as guilty for not preventing those murders as the actual killer was. So be it; he would call the police immediately. Once everything had settled he would call Emily and try to salvage an otherwise great first date.

As calmly as he could muster, he rattled off his situation to the dispatcher.

"A man's been murdered in my home — my name is Ethan Trauheisen and I'm at 101 Horne Street! Please hurry!" Not that lives were at stake, but the thought of being alone with a corpse was unbearable.

The police promised they would send someone immediately. "Touch nothing!" they ordered. Ethan had no intentions of touching anything. He sat down at the kitchen table and tried to keep his mind intact, keeping his eyes from falling on the grotesque form only a few feet away. His thoughts then turned to his own sorry state.

It was not that he was a heartless man, without compassion. He felt bad for the poor guy whose life had ended just a short while ago. But the turn of events the evening had brought were just par for his course. His divorce five years ago had been the start and it was downhill from there; now he lived in this tiny house that he could barely afford. He could count any friends on one finger; his job was going nowhere and his social life even less. Depression hovered around him like an unwanted friend. He had thought things were beginning to brighten up a bit when he had met Emily; her agreement to meet for dinner had practically sent him into a drunken stupor. Then, to actually come home with him; he knew somehow his life was taking a turn upward.

Then THIS.

A pounding at the door caught him off guard and he jerked to his feet. After making sure it was really the police outside, he cautiously opened his door.

"Mr. Treehousen?"

"It's Trauheisen, thank you. Please come in. The body, as you can see, is over here. I didn't move anything, just like you told me. Do whatever you need to." Stepping aside he let the two officers (Morgan and Tilley according to the names on their tags) walk through the living room, standing by unobtrusively as they did their police work, just like he had seen on hundreds of TV shows. Only this was too real to life, 3-D in his own home.

Another knock and the medical examiner was let in, complete with his staff and all their gear. The small space was quickly filling up; Ethan realized he had never had this many people over. For a moment the thought depressed him, until he realized there were bigger problems to concentrate on. Not to mention Emily.

Everyone shuffled around, each absorbed in his own special task. In their searching, the police discovered the back door had been pried open. Nothing else seemed out of place, as confirmed to them by Ethan in the short briefing he gave to the officers. The men moved through the house, dusting for prints and looking for whatever clues they could find to put in their evidence bags. Officer Morgan approached Ethan with a serious look on his face.

"Mr. Treehoser, do you have an alibi for your whereabouts this evening?"

"The name is Trauheisen. An alibi? Well, yes, I mean I was out on a date all night, a very good one at that. Problem is she scurried off when we got home and saw, you know. The body."

"Yes, understood. We'll need her name and number to confirm your story."

Ethan complied, even as he mentally crossed Emily off his list of hopefuls to ever see again. He had lousy enough luck with women; he really could have done without tonight's drama.

"We need you to come down to the station to give an official statement and answer a few more questions, but seeing as the hour is late, you can come down in the morning. You will also need to stay somewhere else for the next few days, and we'll need a way to reach you." Officer Morgan was all business and for some odd reason Ethan found himself wondering if he had a wife.

"Don't you worry about me staying here; I don't think I could sleep for a second. Nope, I'll find a hotel to hole up in until this thing's settled. I'll give you my cell number." He rattled off his number to Officer Morgan.

When they told him they didn't need him any longer, he put some clothes and accessories in an overnight bag and drove off in a daze to find a hotel, swallowed up by the darkness and his own despair.

The bright lights and highway noises that streamed into his hotel room in the morning confused him, until awareness crept in and with it the realization that life as he had known it was over. It was a very real possibility he could be convicted of murder. His job as a bank teller could possibly work against him. Maybe Bushy Red was rich and held an account with the bank he worked for. The police could say Ethan saw the figures on his deposit slips and intended on robbing the guy but instead had to kill him. Multiple scenarios went through his mind in a matter of seconds. At least today was Saturday; he wouldn't have to face his employer for two days.

It was only seven a.m. Too early, he figured, to call Emily. Call her and say what? He was still working on that.

He washed up, ran through a fast food drive-thru and headed for the police station, his stomach a tight knot. He tried not to think about what the police would ask. Did they already have him pinned as the murderer? Last night he knew he sounded shaky, sweat had formed on his brow and his mouth had been drier than cotton. No way did he seem like an innocent bystander in this. And yet he was.

At the police station he approached the desk and asked for Officer Morgan, then went in to the waiting area. Seeing Officer Morgan approaching a few minutes later, he decided to avoid the usual mutilation of his name; at least he would have the upper hand there.

"Officer Morgan, hello. Ethan Trauheisen, here to deliver my statement and to supply any information I can." Proud of himself for such a calm delivery, he felt he was gaining some control over this situation at last.

"Yes, yes, Mr. Truehazen. Come with me, over to this room here. Would you like a coffee or something?"

So much for keeping his name intact.

Having just finished a super-sized cup from the drive-thru he knew it wouldn't be wise to drink any more coffee. He politely declined and sat down. The first news wasn't good as they were not able to reach Emily and they had no call back yet to the message they left her.

So they were grilling him and it wasn't pretty. Before long they knew more about him than even his ex-wife did, including his income, friends he hung out with, silly habits and phobias, ex-girlfriends and anything else they wanted to know about Ethan Trauheisen and weren't afraid to ask. Ethan was getting more and more anxious, even as the questioning began to wind down.

"Am I under arrest?" He blurted it out suddenly, surprised at his own bold confidence.

Officer Morgan raised his head, putting his pad to the side, and lined his face up to meet Ethan's inquisitive eyes.

"No, you are not under arrest. However, be aware that you will be a suspect until we have carefully examined all pieces of evidence. We will be watching you closely. You may want to get yourself a lawyer, just so you're prepared. For now, you are free to go."

He walked out the door, his legs shaking. A lawyer? He couldn't afford a lawyer, even if he did know one. This could take weeks or months to settle. By then his reputation would be shattered, innocent or not, and he would certainly lose his job. With no income, he would lose his home and be thrown into the street to live out his days scrounging around for a crust of bread, a half-eaten burger, or whatever else he could find. Rats and lice would be his pets, and strangers would gawk at him, thinking to themselves what a loser he must have been to wind up living in an alley. He sank lower and lower as he sat in his car, wondering if he should just end it all. And to think, just a few short hours ago he had been dining out with such a lovely woman, for once feeling that his life was on the upswing. Now here he was, on his way to the electric chair, or to be lethally injected. Or to live out his life in a tiny cell, screaming prisoners on either side, fighting for survival every minute of every day.

He didn't want to go sit in his dreary hotel room so he headed for the mall, where he could be alone and still surrounded by people. Once there he got some food at the food court and pondered his situation. Perhaps he was accepting defeat too soon. He must take control of things, at least what was in his power to control. Explaining himself to Emily certainly qualified.

He dialed the number. Getting only voicemail threw him off and fumbling for words, he burbled out thoughts of concern and his hopes to straighten things out. He hung up feeling like a fool.

It was now early afternoon. He decided to kill some more time, and bought a paper from the newsstand.

It was right there on the first page, a small paragraph. "...Lester Byrd, age 48, of 109 Bell Way, was found dead in the home of Ethan Trelhoosen, of 101 Horne Street..." The rest was some dry text about how the body was found, who the investigating officers were, and so on and so forth. Ethan skipped over most of it, too upset to read on. Suddenly he was filled with the feeling that all eyes were staring at him, like a condemned man on display. He had to get out of there.

He raced back to the hotel, shut the door, and ran in to take a shower. The hot water running down around him felt like a good massage; his tense muscles relaxed and he felt as though he could start to think clearly again.

Except that as the shower cleared his mind, what came to fill it were frightening ideas of who this Lester Byrd was and why he had come to die in Ethan's apartment. Was Ethan the true intended victim? But why? What had he done? Did he make some slip-up at the bank and this was someone's revenge? Was there a hit man out for him, and when they realized they got the wrong guy they'd come back and finish the job? Why would a hit man be after him? Instead of the relaxing calm he had hoped for, he was now a bundle of worried nerves. Here the police were probably ready to arrest him, and instead they should be protecting him!

He turned off the water and got dressed, filled with overwhelming panic. He was afraid that if he stepped outside he would be gunned down by this mysterious hit man. He stayed holed up in the hotel room for the rest of that day and Sunday as well, going out only briefly to get some food.

Monday morning came too soon. He tried calling Emily again and got her voicemail. He skipped leaving a message.

It was time to face the music and head off to work. Calling in sick would have been pretty transparent, and anyway, he still had a life to somehow muddle through.

The moment he stepped foot inside the bank he knew something was up. The atmosphere was tense, the usual Monday morning banter absent. And then, before he could step into his teller's booth, he saw his supervisor wave him over. Not a good start to the day.

It played out much as he had feared; they were requesting him to take a temporary leave of absence until he was cleared of any suspicions. Being in a public job, and especially one that dealt with money, they could not risk the souring of their reputation. Besides, he had plenty of vacation time saved up; this could be a good opportunity for him to take a little "breather."

A breather like this he could do without, but Ethan nodded his head appropriately and left the bank, his life closing in on him faster than he could keep up.

Dark clouds overhead mirrored his inner depression as Ethan went back to the mall to kill his day. It was all he could do to get a coffee and sit at a table, watching the few weekday customers. Mostly older people shuffling along, doing the same as him, trying to pass the time in a place where at least they weren't alone.

He had given up on Emily, given up on ever going home to his own bed, and given up on this case being solved in his favor. It was only a matter of time before they came for him with the cuffs. He was doomed any way he looked at it. Either he would be gunned down by whoever was still out there and had it in for him, or the police would find some shred of evidence that would put him away forever. Paranoia was taking over every nerve in his body; he would surely lose it altogether and become a madman. If only he drank, he could be downing scotch right now instead of lukewarm coffee. Maybe this was a good time to start...

He spent the next few days in a fog, wandering around from here to there during the day, the nights spent watching mindless reality shows. Heck, he had his own show going on 24/7. If he ever got out of this maybe he could sell his story to some Hollywood producer, get his own fifteen minutes of fame.

He had few friends, and no one that he would want to see in his present state of mind. They were pretty much losers like himself; maybe misery did actually love company but not for him right now.

The week dragged on while he waited to hear some news. When his patience ran out he called the police station but that yielded nothing. They were "working on it."

He had taken to watching Court TV all day, imagining himself as the subject, the camera zoomed in on his guilty face, the judge stern and solemn, his co-workers tuned in to watch this killer who had worked alongside them day in and day out...and then the verdict being read, and him screaming out his innocence to no avail. If only he could reach Emily! She would stick up for him, and defend his innocence. If only something in his life would go right for a change...

He almost didn't hear the phone ring over the blare of the TV. He pressed mute on the remote and grabbed the receiver.

A raspy voice responded to his cautious hello.

"Is this Ethan Trauheisen?" (Had he heard that right?)

"Yes, yes it is. Officer Morgan?" He braced himself for the next round of wherever this whole thing was headed.

"Well, Mr. Trauheisen, I have some good new for you. You are free to go back to your home. We got the guy, signed confession and all. Sorry you had to go through all you did, but that's what we have to do, you understand? Thank you for your cooperation." He sounded almost sincere, even friendly.

"But who killed the guy in my living room? Who killed Lester Byrd? You owe me at least that much." Maybe not, but he really needed to get some closure out of this.

"Sure, of course, I was getting to that. You have been through quite an ordeal, I'll grant you that, so here's the nutshell version. Hold on to your hat, it's a bit difficult to follow. Seems our Mr. Byrd was having an affair with the wife of his neighbor, of all people, who had them both followed when he got suspicious. Must have really gotten to him, because he decided to have Byrd whacked, and pin the blame on his wife, kill two birds with one stone, if you follow. Or one Byrd anyway, get it? Well, so here is the plan, a lame one if you ask me. The guy knows his wife has a dinner meeting and about what time she told him she would be home, so he tells her he is going out with some buddies after work, and he does. That gives him an alibi. Same day, he had a note delivered to his wife at her job, pretending to be from Byrd and saying he wants to end the affair. Then, he had already arranged with a hit man to follow Byrd, knock him out and drag him to his own house, not Byrd's. The hit man's supposed to wait and kill him there close to the time the wife should be back, so her dinner meeting isn't an alibi. Then she comes home and finds Byrd dead, and she's got this note, and the police will think she did it out of anger at him for wanting to end the affair, on account of the note, which her husband plans to make sure they find out about. Are you still with me?" He stopped to take a breath, obviously winded from the excitement of relating his tale.

Ethan murmured a yes, and Officer Morgan continued.

"But see, here's the thing, which is so crazy, this mad husband is cheap and he gets a discount hit man, a low life who can't remember where he's supposed to go after he knocks the guy out. Byrd must have been walking home in the alley back of your place, which cuts through over to his, because that's where the hit man knocked him out. But then, the hit man's got this dyslexic thing going on, and gets the addresses confused — 101 Horne is you, and the guy who hired him lived at 110 Bell. Bell, horn, get it? So that's why he dragged the guy into your place. Once we started checking everyone out the husband got all nervous and confessed, and maybe he was afraid the hit man would come after him for the money, which he never got because he botched the job. So we got him too, and the wife is a royal mess. That's the whole story. Maybe they'll turn it into a TV movie, sure enough sounds like one. Anyway, that's it and again many thanks for your cooperation. Good luck to you." The phone clicked down before Ethan had a chance to say anything, which was perfectly fine, since he had absolutely nothing to say.

And he thought HE was the one with all the bad fortune.

For a moment all he could do was sit in silence. It was really over. He wasn't going to hang, wasn't going to get gunned down the next time his toe stepped over the doorway, wasn't going to wind up living in an alley. He could go home! He would buy a new couch, sleep in his very own bed, eat in his own kitchen. He could see about going back to work. Could this mean, dare he even think it, that perhaps his life was back on an upswing? Or better yet, on a new swing altogether, a swing where things actually went right more times than not? Hearing about these strangers and their own horrible chain of events somehow gave him the notion that maybe his bad luck had possibly taken a turn for the better.

Well, there was one test he could perform to find out if his little theory held any water. With shaking hands he picked up the phone, the number etched in his memory. Gingerly he dialed, waiting and hoping to see if she would actually pick up this time. He felt positive, even hopeful, still riding high on his recent vindication. Would she even still want to talk to him? He would have to reassure her that he was no longer a suspect, the true killer was found and behind bars; she could now trust him, pick up where they had left off so many nights ago...

"...is no longer a valid number..."

Ethan sighed long and hard as he hung up the phone. What a relief to know his life was back to plain old run-of-the-mill bad luck.


Carol Michaels writes strictly for fun and enjoys trying a variety of story types. She has been published in several print and online magazines that include Futures Mysterious Anthology, Woman's World, and Tethered By Letters. She works as a customer service rep by day and writing is a great outlet for unwinding from the tension that can produce!


Copyright 2014 Carol Michaels. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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