Finishing Touches by Rhema Sayers

A novelist with a tragic past witnesses a neighbour's suicide; by Rhema Sayers.

I've made my decision and written the first page. It's terrible. I delete it and walk around the apartment. Irritated, I pick up my cigarettes and step out onto the balcony to think. I'm on my second cigarette when Bill Samuels opens his door and steps out onto his balcony, eight feet away. The strident voice of his wife knifes through the street noises from below.

"Don't you walk out on me, you..." The voice cuts off as the door closes behind him. He walks to the railing and looks down, fishing in his coat pocket. Not finding anything, he looks up and meets my gaze.

"Need a cigarette?" I ask.

"Yes! Please."

I toss him my pack and lighter and he draws on the lit cigarette with pleasure. We stand there in companionable silence for a time, smoking, studying the street fifteen stories below.

He turns his eyes to me, his gaze full of sorrow and weariness. "Thanks for the cigarette." He smiles slightly, steps over the railing and disappears.

I can hear screams from below. Finishing my cigarette, I stare down at the street. A crowd has gathered around the tiny crumpled figure on the sidewalk.

Sighing, I go back to the computer and get back to work. The police will be here shortly and I want to get my thoughts down before I lose them. Mrs. Samuels is screaming in the apartment next door. Her husband never made a sound.

Lost in my thoughts, the doorbell probably rang a couple of times. Sighing, annoyed, I go let the police in.

"Yes, Officer. What can I do for you?" I ask after introductions have been made and badges examined.

"Are you aware that your neighbor fell to his death from his balcony this afternoon, Mr. Topperson?"

"Yes, Officer. I saw him jump. It was at 3:17 PM."

The two policemen stare at me, then at each other. "You saw him jump?"

"Yes. I was out on my balcony, having a cigarette. Samuels came out on his balcony, stood for a couple of minutes and then just stepped into space."

"Did he say anything?"

I tell them about the cigarette.

"And what did you do?"

I hesitate, perplexed. "Me? I came back inside and got back to work."

Both policemen gawk at me. "You didn't try to stop him? You watched a man fall fifteen stories to his death and you just went back to work? Shit, man! Nobody's that cold."

The other cop raises his voice. "Did you call 911? Did you go next door to comfort his wife? Did you do anything?" His anger rises with his voice.

I sigh. "Look, Officer..."

"Detective. It's Detective."

"Okay. Sorry. Look, Detective. I barely knew the man. We'd nod at each other in passing, but we've never spoken more than a few words to each other. And I couldn't see any reason to add my call to the dozens that the 911 operators got. As for comforting his wife, the woman is a shrew from what I've heard during their noisy arguments over the years. I had no interest whatever in comforting her."

And I had nothing I could have said to him, nothing to offer him that would have changed his mind. But I don't tell the police that.

"How long have you lived here?"

"About nine years."

"You lived next door to this man for nine years and you never talked to him? What are you? A hermit?"

The policeman stares at me suspiciously, as if I had pushed poor Samuels over the edge.

"I'm not much of a socializer." I say with another deep sigh.

"Yeah. For sure," he says. Then a light dawns in his eyes. "Topperson! The Topperson murders! That was what? Ten, eleven years ago? You're Jonathon Topperson."

I nod.

The younger officer looks in question at his partner.

"He was arrested and tried for the murders of his entire family. And he got away with it."

They both regard me with increased interest.

Same old story. "Yes, Detective. I am that Topperson. I was found not guilty and I resent any implication that I got away with multiple murders." I let a little ire creep into my voice. Eleven years and no one had forgotten. No one cared that I had been acquitted. The trial had been sensational, attracting national interest. The press had declared me guilty. The stigma was still there.

At this point I am more than a little irritated and I let it show. "Unless you have any other pertinent questions to ask, Detectives, I have work to do."

They leave without protest, in fact hurriedly, as if I had some horrible contagious disease.

The interlude has upset me as Samuels' suicide had not. I have lost the mood.

I sink into the couch, exhausted. My mind drifts. Eleven years.

I had come home from a business trip, having completed a successful deal, but the bonus it won me would not come close to paying my gambling debts. My creditors were after me. I was desperate. Even if I sold the house, I would still be in debt. About midnight I unlocked the front door and felt the wrongness. A house with people in it feels different than an empty one. There's a stillness, a void. I felt it when I stepped into the foyer. Marcy and the boys should all be asleep. Somehow I knew they weren't. I was more terrified than when the thug Henry sent had put the barrel of a gun to my forehead.

When I turned on the lights in the living room, time stopped. They were all there. In pools of drying, blackened blood. My wife. My sons. Dead. Butchered. Chopped. Pieces. Blood! Falling to my knees, I started screaming. I think I vomited. I don't remember much. Eventually the police were there and I was sitting in the kitchen. A man was speaking to me, asking questions in an abrasive voice.

Another, quieter voice intruded. "Lay off, Zach. He's almost comatose."

"He's coming around."

I looked up then, staring around at Marcy's kitchen. So neat and orderly. So cheerful with pale yellow walls and bright flowered curtains. She'd designed it herself. We were sitting at the round table in the breakfast nook, with a view of the huge backyard. But it was still night and all I saw was my reflection in the window. My gaze shifted away from the haggard face in the glass to the man sitting across from me. "Who are you?"

"Detective Wallace. And this is Detective Yoto," indicating an Asian man, leaning casually against the wall.

Wallace was in his fifties, squat, thick, balding, dressed in a brown suit straight off the rack from Sears. He had loosened his brown tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, as if it were too tight.

Yoto was maybe thirty, medium height and muscular, thick black hair falling over his very sharp brown eyes. He wore jeans and a denim jacket over a Guns and Roses T-shirt.

He pulled out a chair from the table, turning it around and straddling it, crossed arms leaning on the back. "We'd like you to tell us everything you remember from the time you walked in the door."

I went through it. There wasn't much and I broke down when I tried to describe the blood and horror in the living room. I started crying and sobbing and I couldn't stop until Wallace grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I nearly fell out of the chair.

They gave me a few minutes and then grilled me on my trip. I told them. About the business deal. About the gambling and Henry and the thug and the gun and the threats. I told them about the desperation I felt, knowing there was no way to pay off the debt, about my fears. But my fears had all been for me. I never even thought of danger to my family. How stupid can you get?

That was the beginning of my nightmare. The police found out about the life insurance policy on Marcy with me as beneficiary. The sum was actually enough to pay my debts. When they mentioned it to me the next day, I had forgotten that it existed. They were skeptical.

I had had dinner with a couple of my colleagues and a friend of theirs. It turned out that the friend was associated with Henry. The memories of our conversation about my family and my home seared my soul. I realized I had told that man everything he needed to get to my family.

The money I transferred to Henry's account, hoping to placate him, was seen as paying off a hit man to do my bloody work. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence. I'm sure Henry planned it that way. But I had a very good lawyer. He had seen the opportunity for making a name for himself. His eloquence and the circumstantial nature of the evidence were what got me acquitted.

For months after the trial I sat in the kitchen, avoiding the living room. I wanted to sell the house but couldn't work up enough energy to do it. Most days I'd sit with a book in my lap, staring out at the backyard. I didn't think about the murders or Marcy or Trey or Alex or what I was going to do. I didn't think at all. My lawyer took over my finances, paying the mortgage, the bills, the car loans. He'd come by every few days, bring food and paper towels and toilet paper. He was even honest. And he got Henry and his mob off my back, using the life insurance money. A few old friends would drop by during the first few weeks, but I never responded in more than monosyllables and the visits stopped.

One day, just like all the rest, I looked at the book in my lap. The Count of Monte Cristo. Alex was reading it for English class. I guess I had gotten bored with my lethargy. I read the book. A couple weeks later I found my apartment and moved. I hired a realtor and sold the house. And I began to think.

The search took nearly three years, and another three years to work my way through the men who had butchered my family to get to Henry. Henry no longer resembled anything human when I left him. I walked away and no one ever knew who killed him.

Then it was all over. I thought I'd feel some relief, some lightening of my spirit, some closure. But I was still angry and full of hate. I spent the next few years writing. I wrote a novel, which was well received. One critic said, "You can feel the fury just beneath the words." I've written ten more. I sent the last one off to the editor last week.

I sit up suddenly, cold sweat on my forehead. I'm still on the couch. It's after midnight and my mind is clearer after sleeping. I walk back to the computer and read what I had written earlier. I delete it and start again.

I don't finish until 5am. I'm finished, although not satisfied. I doubt I'll ever be satisfied. But it will do. I look around the apartment. There is so little of me here. Most of me is in the lines of my books and in this story. I have nothing more to say. I walk out onto the balcony, light a cigarette and savor the smoke. Standing at the railing, I look down at the street. No one out this early. One car and a delivery truck sitting at a stop light. I crush out my cigarette very carefully. I wonder if anyone will care. I wonder if the same policemen will come.


  1. A tense story, fraught and burdened with angst throughout. Well crafted and a good read. Thanks Ceinwen

  2. a very interesting read. i particularly liked the ending, with its several possible causes. all in all, a strong story and one I would think suitable for filming.
    Good luck

    Mike McC

  3. Good Dialogue. Just enough description to make it visual without slowing action.

  4. The narrator's reaction to witnessing the suicide had me hooked right through to the ending, which felt like a smack in the face (in the best possible way). A great story, this one will stay with me.
    Mandi L

  5. Excellent! They say that short stories are like bombs - everything weighted on that final impact.This one bounces you straight back to the begining which - for my money - is the best bit; the apparent nonchalance of the narrator, the dumb police assuming they know everything about human nature. I laughed, I was gripped, and was the name Topperson a pun I asked myself - even before I knew all about Henry and co. Life is full of blokes with tragic pasts writing 11 novels in 15 storey apartments, and making blunders about life insurance policies, but what is so good - and different - about this story is its elegant technique of book-ending. We end where we begin, even though the front cover of the book weighs significantly more than its back. You may well have invented a new genre; the bouncing bomb!

  6. Yikes! Packed with tension throughout. His pain was almost palpable. Then comes the ending and I'm saying, "Stop, Don't do it!"

    A dark story, but well told. Kudos to the writer.