Leave a Message at the Beep

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The voice on the message was foreign and ominous. Natalie hadn't a clue who it was. It could have been nothing more than a prank call, but the speaker addressed her personally. She stared at the answering machine as tiny tape reels rotated from the inside. She lived alone, which was bad enough, but now this. She pressed the playback button again: one message, ten seconds long, low static for the first five seconds, then a distant voice, low and gravelly with a direct tone that gave Natalie pause.

"I'll never forget what you did to me, Natalie. Better get your affairs in order. See you soon."

The message ended abruptly after the word "soon," and Natalie played it again, trying to decipher that voice. Was it some kind of sick joke? Who had she wronged and in which way? She didn't have Caller ID. She didn't own a gun or have an alarm system installed in her small two-bedroom house. She hadn't thought of any real need to protect herself until then. The message, she believed, constituted a viable threat.

After contacting the police, two officers showed up about twenty minutes later, knocking on her door so loud, that it made her jump. They entered her home, one with his head shaved clean and the other with a crewcut, and listened to the message, providing their most earnest assessment.

"Probably just someone messing with you, ma'am. If it persists, please give us a call."

That's it? she thought.

They asked her a series of questions about co-workers, ex-boyfriends, or anything else that would shed some light on the caller. Most of her co-workers at the Department of Children and Families were female. Her last relationship had ended amiably. She had never married and wasn't aware of any stalker in her life. She had never wronged anyone as far as she could remember. The officers told her to keep the recording as evidence.

Evidence for what? she thought. For when I get murdered?

She then made a series of excessive requests: Could they trace the call? Could their department do a voice analysis of the message? Could they post watch outside her house in shifts?

One of the officers looked at her sympathetically, only to explain the situation. Natalie would have to wait. She accepted as much and thanked them for coming by. Sergeant Jackson, the officer with the crewcut, handed her his card. As they left, her deadbolt had never been so quickly turned, her blinds so hastily drawn, and the lights in every room turned on with such abrupt unease.

Natalie then thought of Matthew. She had been seeing him off and on for the past two months. Phone cord dangling, she called him, pacing the kitchen as his answering machine greeted her with automated coldness.

"This is Matt. You know what to do."

"Hi, Matthew," she said, trying not to sound too desperate. "It's Natalie... um, are you there?" She paused, hoping he would pick up. With no answer, she continued. "Call me back please once you get this message. Okay? Thanks." She hung up the phone and walked into the living room where Ringo, her Yorkshire Terrier, was resting on the coach with his tiny tail wagging at her approach.

TV remote in hand, she turned on the television perched on its four-foot stand. A rerun of Cheers was on. Natalie rested her head back, petting Ringo, and stared up at the ceiling. Someone had gotten her number in the phone book. Big deal. That's what cowardly, depraved men did. Why let it ruin her evening?

At this thought, she noticed a news flash on TV, detailing the body of a young woman discovered in a lake twenty miles from where Natalie lived. The woman had been missing for two weeks. That alone was chilling enough, but when Natalie saw a picture with a name listed below, she felt faint and short of breath.

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