Anyway, the first letter didn't seem like anything at all, just a plain manila envelope. In fact, I don't think I even opened it for about a day or two. I'm not really too diligent when it comes to snail mail. I tend to toss it on the coffee table, rifle through for bills, and ignore the rest. I kept meaning to investigate the manila envelope. However, junk mail tends to transmute in my imagination into something brilliant and opening it is always what makes it dull, a kind of Rorschach Schrodinger's Box. So I put off disappointment as long as possible.
One afternoon, ignoring commercials, I picked up the manila envelope. Tearing it open I found a series of black and white photos inside. Trying to remember if I'd ordered any prints recently, I cycled through them. The photos showed a wooden gallows complete with a figure hanging, presumably dead or dying, from them. The hanging looked to be taking place in a large, grimly lit concrete room. Each photo in the series moved closer to the hung until a face became clear. Me. The photos showed me, hung, eyes bulging out of my skull, tongue protruding. One even showed signs of shit dribbling out a pant leg.
I couldn't help laughing. Morbid, sure, but one hell of a prank. Whoever'd photoshopped the pics had done an amazing job. I figured whoever did them used black and white to help hide any traces of manipulation, though the macabre atmosphere certainly popped in dichromatic tones. After all, I wasn't dead. I certainly didn't remember being hung at any point in time.
My first suspicions ran to my roommate Darrel. We prank each other from time to time. Once, I turned the locks in his bedroom door around so that when he went to sleep I could lock him in from the outside. In retribution he put a wooden case with a lock around the toilet paper, and I responded by making a sphere out of several hundred rubber bands with his cellphone in the center. But he adamantly refused to admit to the letter. I didn't believe him, of course, and even went so far as to commend his acting chops. However, he consistently pleaded ignorance. I didn't really start to believe him till he took out his phone and started calling around to see which of our friends might have produced the photos.
Darrel said, "This thing is fucked up, and I want to know who sent it... if only to congratulate them."
We examined the envelope closely. No return address. No postmark. Whoever sent the pictures seemed to have delivered them his or her self. So naturally we decided it had to be someone we knew. No one confessed, but Darrel and I shrugged it off, figuring eventually someone would admit -- drunk at a party -- to the deed. I said, "Whoever did this wants me to sweat it a bit." So we hung (no pun intended) the best photo on the fridge: a shot where the face is clearly mine but the whole body, noose, and most of the gallows are in view. We showed it to guests, who laughed or shivered or both, and briefly, from time to time, speculated on its origins. The pictures turned into a conversation starter. Darrel even used them as an incentive to get some girls back to our place, "You won't believe what he got in the mail..."
But overall we ignored them... until the second letter arrived.
Once again a series of black and white photos in a plain manila envelope. No return address. No postmark. The only difference was this time, when I saw it, I tore it open first thing. The glossy set showed a dark room. A body lay in a ring of light. Several small objects appeared to protrude from the corpse. I flipped through the photos, jumping to where the details became clearer. There I lay, according to the picture, in a pool of blood. The protuberances resembled screwdrivers and kitchen knives. Close ups revealed mutilations implying chunks carved out of me. I was about to shake my head with a grin when I looked at the face. I still assumed someone was photoshopping my features into place, and this recent series was simply the result of someone pushing things further. Gleefully having gotten away with the gag, whichever of our friends was doing this had decided to go the extra mile. And why not? I would. However, the look on the face, from what little was left of it, came screaming into my mind igniting the terror anyone dying like that must feel.
When Darrel got back from work I was three whiskeys into the night. I pointed him to the new photos. They inspired him to join me in a drink, and we made the phone rounds again. Still no one confessed, and I started getting angry.
Had I done something to someone? If so, tell me. That way we can settle whatever I did, and this could stop. But no one admitted to anything.
We took the photo off the fridge. I wanted to throw the whole Hanging out, however, Darrel said, "In case this gets too weird, we'll need them for proof." I asked if he meant as evidence for the police, and he said, "I don't think it'll get that far, but let's just be prepared."
I spent the next few days brooding. Over the weekend I refused to hang out with anyone. I figured, "Fuck 'em. No one wants to be honest -- I don't care. I don't need a goddamn one of them." Gradually, my temper cooled. Darrel took me out for a night of relaxation. Translation: he paid for a lot of booze. I vaguely remember stumbling home, feeling calm for the first time in a week, and yelling to the empty streets, "Whatever. I don't give a shit. Send all the pictures you want, pussy ass motherfucker!"
The next morning a manila envelope hung tacked to our door. The previous two had arrived in our mailbox. After seeing the new series, in which I am burned at the stake, Darrel and I questioned everyone in the building. Again, no one admitted to anything, and frankly, we found it hard to believe our neighbors could be the culprits.
We went to the police who listened attentively but left us feeling like we'd've done just as well to send the pictures to a TV detective. Two days later the cop in charge of my case phoned to say they'd gotten no leads, no clues from the photos or envelope. He assured me he'd stick with it, though by the sound of his voice he didn't seem confident.
Over the next several weeks I received more envelopes. Besides being hung, mutilated, and burned alive, I now possessed photos of me being vivisected, drowned in a tank, bludgeoned, impaled, and crushed by some improvised press. I stopped going to work, and the photos still came. I stopped going outside, and the photos still came. I barely left my bedroom, and the photos still came.
At one point Darrel bought a set of small cameras he hung over our front door and by the mailboxes. He recorded around the clock expecting to catch some glimpse of the perpetrator. He came into my bedroom one day, carrying his laptop, a smile on his face. "Got the fucker," he said, and showed me footage from the cameras.
A tall, slender figure in a suit entered the building. He seemed to have a key and walked right in, up the stairs to our apartment door. There he tacked a fresh envelope in place then left. The low quality of the recording didn't provide us with distinct features. In fact, the graininess of the image made him all the more skeletal. He didn't resemble anyone we knew which was little comfort to me.
Darrel was ecstatic, glad to have something for the cops. I just wanted to see the latest series. At first, Darrel refused, but I pushed the issue, insisting I had to know. Reluctantly, Darrel gave me the envelope. "I didn't open it. I don't want to see them." Inside a set of pictures showed me stripped naked and strung up by my arms. Flipping through the pictures showed a whip snapping out of the dark as someone in the shadows, too dim to be in view, cracked a cat-o-nine tails across my back. But inside was also a sheet of paper, a rough lay out of our apartment neatly sketched on it. At certain points small red dots marked locations throughout the apartment.
Using the sketch as a map, I went to where one of the dots indicated and searching found a small camera hidden in a bookshelf. Going through the whole apartment, I found several more tiny cameras. Darrel couldn't believe it, whereas I... accepted it.
We reported it all to the police, who once again promised to do everything within their power and left me feeling hopeless. Darrel did his best to cheer me up, which I suspected was as much for his benefit as my own, but it did no good for either of us.
I went to bed but didn't really sleep. I just sort of stared until the next day. In the morning I was only mildly surprised to find a letter on the coffee table. In clean, elegant calligraphy it bore my name, so I opened the crisp white envelope. It read,
"Dear Mr. Christoff,
Observing your reactions has been a most enjoyable experience. For the time being the audience is satisfied, however, if their desires should run otherwise our representative will be along to collect you for a live performance.
P.S. Please involve the police no further as it will be futile. In addition, the waste is irritating. We prefer spending our resources bringing you back."