The Caller

9

North Raleigh

Saturday Night

November 8, 2008

 

       

        While millions of eyes beheld the psychiatrist on national television, those belonging to him were peering through a windshield toward oncoming traffic.  Amidst a bright, colorful barrage of automobile headlights and towering street lamps, like man-made microcosmic stars illuminating the stratosphere of dead blackness, Dr. Krouse and his wife of fourteen years travelled north along Seven Forks Road in the new Jaguar.  They were returning home after eating at their favorite Italian restaurant.

        "This time, the cosmetic surgeon made a drastic improvement," Victoria proudly proclaimed while, once again, examining her tiny, cartilage deficient nose's reflection in the car's sun visor mirror.

        "In fact, I'd say that Steve Horowitz did a masterful job," she added.

        "'Steve Horowitz,'" repeated Walter in a mocking tone while shaking his head in contempt.

        "You're jealous," exclaimed Victoria, sounding rather delighted.

        "I'm not jealous," her agitated husband firmly denied.  "What would I have to be jealous about," he rhetorically asked.  "He's JUST a plastic surgeon.  I'M a psychiatrist," he boasted, once again trying to elevate the status of his profession above someone else's occupation.  "Horowitz has a boring job," he continued.  "It's only skin deep.  MY area of expertise is the mind!  I'm far beyond sculpting nose bones and performing tummy-tuck operations!  I research the frontier of human consciousness and emotion.  What could be more interesting than that, honey?!"

        "A perfect nose," she sarcastically replied.

        Walter chuckled, shook his head, and rolled his eyes in forfeit of his argument of the superiority of his field.  He considered his wife hopelessly superficial and shallow.

        Approaching their beloved destination, the doctor flicked on his left turn signal, slowed the car to a halt, and waited for the two cars traveling the opposite direction to pass his temporarily stationary vehicle.  Then he steered left, crossed over the other lane, and rolled up to the flamboyantly designed double gate outside his exclusive housing community.  Again, the car sat motionless, right in the center of the large steel gates which blocked its path.  On each side of the barrier was a tall, black rot iron post and beside them were slightly higher brick pillars which, respectively, supported twin, winged gargoyle statues.  He proceeded to open the door, stepped out of the car, walked up to the keypad and punched in the five digit access code, followed by the pound (#) button.  It was an irksome, yet welcomed, ritual.  Indeed, the continual task was a small inconvenience compared to the psychological benefits a fortified neighborhood offered the insecure psychiatrist. 

 

10

The accomodating gates promptly responded by departing wide -- seemingly with 'open arms' -- as if in friendly acceptance of the chosen few privileged enough to claim Llewellyn Estate "home."  The proud millionaire and his vain, jewelry adorned wife reinterred the insulated world of Raleigh's financial elite -- where they felt invulnerable.  And the protective mechanical arms of the impressive guardian fence glided toward each other to re-combine in defensive solidarity once again.

        Twelve minutes later, Dr. Krouse was undoing his tie and planning to head upstairs for bed.  He glanced at the family scrapbook which contained the November 2, 2008 newspaper article, entitled, Psychiatric Patient's Reign of Terror Inside/Outside Facility.  After momentarily considering reading it again, he changed his mind.  As the couple was trekking up the staircase, halfway to the top of it, the pesky telephone rang.

        "Just let the answering machine handle it," Dr. Krouse instructed Victoria.  "I'm too tired to talk to anyone tonight," he needlessly explained.  Mrs. Krouse could undoubtedly tell that from his lackluster eyes and rather sluggish speech.  She, too, was quite fatigued and ready to retire.  Acting on command, she allowed the answering machine to take care of the incoming phone call.

        Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring... (Walter's answering machine recording) "Hello.  You have reached the Krouse residence.  Victoria and I are obviously not here to take your call.  So, at the sound of the tone, please leave your message."  Beeep.

        A highly tense, slightly shaky voice came in through the perforated holes of the machine's speaker system loud and clear: "Walter, this is Allen Thorne.  If you're home, please pick up!" (Right from the get-go, the urgent nature of the call was unmistakably apparent.  So, Dr. Krouse quickly descended the steps and in a hurried dash, his short, stubby legs began transporting him with unusually long strides to the wall-attached telephone.)  "Otherwise, call me back immediately!  Listen, after I saw you on North America's Most Wanted something very strange happened.  We need to talk about it!  So, like I said..." (Dr. Krouse had arrived at the phone and he reached for it.  Upon picking it up, he interrupted his colleague's recorded sentence -- much to the latter's relief, since he wanted to talk to him IMMEDIATELY.

        "Hey buddy, you sound nervous," Krouse said, in all manner of seriousness.

        Victoria also clearly detected the thick anxiety manifest in the younger psychiatrist's voice.  They exchanged concerned glances.

        "Did you see North America's Most Wanted, Walter," Allen inquired in a stone-cold serious tone of his own right.

        "No, but I set my DVR for it.  I'll watch it tomorrow.  Why?  What's going on?"  Dr. Krouse was completely clueless, and that bewilderment was reflected in his voice.

        "Right after the show ended, someone called me on my home phone.  It was a man with a real low voice.  But not just low -- creepy too!  I mean, REAL creepy!  Here's what he said.  'I know what you and Krouse did to Oxner.  Don't expect to get away with it!'  Then he hung up.  Hung up before I had a chance to say anything.  It blew my mind!  Scared the living daylights out of me!  Walter, someone is onto us!"

        "Hmm.  That sounds pretty bizarre!  Do you have any idea who this person might be?"

        "No, I don't remember ANYONE with a voice THAT weird."

        "Can you find out the number the call came from?"

        "No.  The operator said they couldn't trace it."

        "What about your Caller ID?"

        "It showed up as a 'Private Call.'"

        Walter returned his gaze to Victoria and gave her a motioning hand gesture to leave the room; he preferred to discuss it in private, just between the two of them.

 

11

        "I wouldn't worry about it," Dr. Krouse said, assuringly and confidently.  "If this guy had any evidence, he wouldn't just be trying to scare you," he reasoned.  "And even if he does have evidence, the DA is in our corner.  He's got our back."  Dr. Krouse continued on with his spew of security laced logic.  "So, whatever the dude might have against us would be of no consequence; it wouldn't have any impact."

        Dr. Thorne wasn't so easily reassured.  "What if," he began, hypothetically, "someone starts digging deep and the media gets involved and the DA is pressured by higher authorities to press charges on us?!  What if this guy's a lunatic out to kill us?!  What if..."

        Dr. Krouse cut in, "Look, you saw the show -- I sent the message to the stupid cops that Oxner is a raging maniac that has to be killed for everyone's safety.  All the cops watch that program!  They love it more than they love doughnuts!  When they come across him, they'll remember what I said and blow him away."

        "You can't be sure of that," countered Thorne.

        "Even if Oxner survives and talks... so what?!" (Presenting a worst-case scenario.)  "Who's going to lend an ounce of credence to a nut job that's babbling about respectable doctors torturing him?!  I mean, the guy thinks Jack O' Lanterns talk to him, for heaven's sake!"

        "That's because he was hallucinating under the influence of LSD.  Remember, Walter?!  You gave him acid that night."

        "Who can prove I did that??!!"  The question was posed sarcastically and rhetorically.

        "Well, no one, I suppose.  But what about the heroin we shot into his veins?!  You know he has scars on his arms!"

        "Simple explanation.  He stole syringes from the nurse's station and stuck the needles in his veins."

        "Okay," began Thorne, still not convinced they were in the clear, "but what if they find traces of the drug in his system?"

        "Who's to say someone didn't smuggle smack to him from the outside??!!" (Another rhetorical question.)

        "Oh, you mean like a hopital visitor," asked Thorne, seeking clarification.

        "Exactly!" affirmed Krouse.

        "Yeah, that sounds plausible."  Although Dr. Thorne was becoming more and more reassured, his racing mind continued to conjure up hypothetical situations.  "But what about the steroids he was on, as well?!  I mean, if we hadn't of juiced him up on steroids, he almost certainly wouldn't have been able to take down that cop.  Just think how much the cops would hate us if they knew WE were indirectly responsible for that beating, of one of their own!  They'd really have it in for us then!!  I mean, they'd be out to get us, big time!"

        "I hear what you're saying, but I think you're just letting your thoughts run wild.  Seriously, don't let your imagination get away with you, man!  The chances are, no one is ever going to put the pieces of the puzzle together."

        "They would if he was given a physical and steroids showed up in his system.  That stays in the body a lot longer than heroin, and nobody would believe someone was smuggling steroids to him.  He's not an athlete; why would he want steroids and, on top of that, why would someone care to provide him with them?!  You know what I mean?!  Street drugs could be used to get high... but steroids???  What if..."

        Dr. Krouse interrupted his friend and colleague, sounding mildly annoyed and very tired: "Listen, Allen, I've got to get some sleep.  We'll talk about this some more Monday at the office, okay?!  In the meantime, try not to worry so much!"

        "Well, I think [you're] not worried enough!  But I'll [try] to take your advice."

        "Goodnight, Allen."  Walter hung up the phone and left the kitchen, heading to the bedroom where Victoria was already asleep.

***

        The next morning, while Victoria was at the stove cooking breakfast, Dr. Krouse remembered that following the conversation he had forgotten to check his answering machine for more messages before he wearily went to bed.  It was something he did every day, and last night was a rare exception to that routine.  He pressed 'Replay.'

        Six messages resounded from friends and family commenting on his appearance on North America's Most Wanted.  He enjoyed hearing the compliments while looking forward to actually seeing it for himself.  There were two business-related messages mixed in there, as well.  Next, came the ninth recording: "On behalf of Ralph Oxner and all your other psych victims, I'm going to turn your life into a living hell, Krousey Boy!"

        The viciously threatening statement, in and of itself, was questionably the scariest aspect of the message; for the voice was disturbingly gruff, guttural, and barbarous.  It sounded almost inhuman.  And if that wasn't bad enough, wildly fluctuating, hysterical laughter -- like a totally deranged madman -- followed those mercilessly spoken words for a full eight seconds.  The combined audible effect was more than jolting; it was emotionally overwhelming!

 

12 

        Victoria, her head up from the stove, gasped, "Oh my God," and placed her hand over her mouth.  Their gazes locked again.  This time, the consternation that was reflected in their eyes the previous night was, now, greatly intensified. 

        Allen Thorne's thwarted message played out.  And after the farewell beep, the answering machine, as well as the shocked couple, stayed silent.

***

        The Thornes lived in a very affluent North Raleigh neighborhood, although not as luxuriant as the Krouse's Llewellyn Estate.  Exiting his house for his car in the driveway was, now, very unnerving for the younger psychiatrist, almost like walking through a combat zone.  Was The Caller lying in wait???  The drive to work consisted of numerous rear view mirror glances for a trailer, and now Allen Thorne's right hand shook as he kept trying, but failing, to insert the key into the keyhole.  He finally managed to do it.  Not just another day at the office, he thought, afterward. 

        He turned the key, then the doorknob, opened the door and walked inside the office.  Then he checked his watch.  7:47a.m.  All alone in the cold office, until Walter arrived around 8:00, he had little else to do aside from coffee making and shifting through the magazines that were stacked on the little table... and more worrying.  So after he turned on the heater and prepared the percolator, he hastily selected one of the many magazines, normally reserved for waiting patients, and sank down into one of the big, marroon, leather chairs with the Time magazine in his trembling hands.  He suddenly felt like he was in their place... in more ways than one!

        Concentrating on the political article he'd chosen to read was difficult.  A book came to mind that he'd bought a few years ago.  It was titled, The Psychology of Serial Killers and he thought, God forbid, it might pertain to the mystery caller.  So he got up and walked to the bookcase to look for it.  Aah!  There it was, on the next-to highest shelf.  Reaching up, he pulled down the thick paperback and started back toward the chair.  Halfway there, he heard the doorknob turn and the door begin to open.  The book descended from his hand to the carpet as the panicked carrier flinched and lost his grip on it.  In a flash, he realized that he'd forgotten to lock the door.

        "Good morning," Dr. Krouse greeted in a hearty tone as he stepped inside.  Allen placed his right hand on his chest over his heart, took a deep breath, and exclaimed, "Geez, Walter!  You scared me to death!"

        "Obviously not, because you're not dead," Walter retorted, then smirked.

        Allen folded his arms above his stomach and raised his voice: "Don't make fun of me and don't make light of this situation, Walter!  You know it's serious!  We could be dealing with a homicidal psychopath!"

        "If your name was Larry, I'd call you 'Scary Larry," but I can't think of anything that rhymes with Allen," Walter chided.  His sarcasm was escalating to downright disparagement.

        "You know you're a coward too, Walter," Allen shot back.

        "Yeah, I know," Walter conceded.  But at least I don't nearly have a heart attack when someone simply opens a door."

        "Cut me some slack, will you?!  Last night I had nightmares about Charles Manson and his hippie girl followers breaking into my house and stabbing me."  As Dr. Thorne recounted this, he began to pace.  He continued, "It was terrible!!!  I read that book, Helter Skelter.  There are crazy people out there!  Just think of all the psychos that saw North America's Most Wanted!"  By now, he was pacing as far as the walls allowed.  "What if another Charles Manson has a gang of brainwashed, drugged-up zombies ready to follow his orders?!  What if he hates psychiatrists because one screwed up his head?!  What if he knows where we work and live?!  What if he sends his gang after us?!  What if..."

        Dr. Krouse interrupted in an exasperated tone, "Allen, please be quiet!  You're starting to give me a headache with all of your 'What If's.'"

        "Oh God, I've got to lock the door!  I almost forgot again!"  While Allen dashed to the door, Walter shook his balding head and his facial expression was one of disfavor toward his co-worker's lack of composure and over-precaution.

 

13

        Allen resumed his wall-to-wall pace, this time with his hands on his hips.

        "Let's sit down and talk," suggested Walter.

        "Okay," Allen agreed, starting toward the patient couch, while Walter went for his own chair, ostensibly assuming the role of therapist.  However, being totally caught up in the moment, neither of them realized how it appeared or what it could have been deemed to symbolically signify.

        Now they were seated.  "We need to try to analyze this shit," Walter set forth.  He was trying to issue a stabilizing comment and establish dialogue.  Allen was so high strung and unhinged that he decided not to fill him in on his own Caller experience an hour earlier so as not to worry him further or give him something else to yap about.

        "Who do you think it could be," Allen asked.  He trusted his buddy's reasoning abilities more than his own.

        "I think it's probably someone in the resthome or someone that knows someone in the resthome.  That's my guess."

        "You don't think it was a nut sitting at home watching North America's Most Wanted?"

        "That's possible, but he knew you worked with me and he called us right after the show ended.  We both have unlisted numbers.  Even with the technology out there, I doubt that someone who's totally unaware of us beforehand could've gathered that much information so quickly.  I think The Caller was somebody who already knew us, or knew about us, prior to seeing the show."

        "How can we find out who it was?"

        "I'm going to start my own investigation, and if that doesn't work, I'll hire a PI."

        "Why not just go straight to the police," asked Allen.

        "I can't do that because this guy might -- and I say 'MIGHT' -- have evidence on me, or you, or both of us.  So I can't get the police involved, at least not right off the bat.  I doubt he can prove anything, but I just want to play it safe, you know."

        "Well, let's say, hypothetically speaking, that you manage to discover his identity... what then??"

        "If I was sure, I mean ABSOLUTELY SURE, he didn't have anything on us, I'd have him charged with harassment and communicating threats.  I still have the message -- I saved it, of course.  If, on the other hand, he's got something even mildly substantial, I'll hire a hit man."

        "HaHaHa!!!  You don't have the guts to go that far!  I remember when you were talking about hiring a hit man to kill your ex-wife when she was about to divorce you.  You never did it!  You'd just chicken-out again."

        "No, I wouldn't!!!  This is different!  There's more at stake in this situation than just money and property!  Our careers and reputations would go down the drain!  And if it could be proven that we did things like conduct pain-threshold experiments with cattle prods, we'd probably go to prison.  The media would label me something like a 'Mengele Monster,' and you'd be considered my simian underling."

        "But haven't you assured me that we have the DA on our side.  Can't we count on him?  I mean, wouldn't he protect us like you said??"

        "Yes and no.  It's a secure thought.  I'm sure he'd protect us if he could keep everything under the rug.  But if news of what we've done broke out in the papers and on TV, then that would be an altogether different situation.  He sure as hell wouldn't sacrifice his job and reputation for our skins.  Not that I'd blame him!  I wouldn't go that far for his hide either."

        This roused Allen up a bit and he said, "But Walter, you practically promised me that the DA would come to our rescue if we got into trouble," his voice louder and higher, indicating that his anxiety level shot up, as if it wasn't already high enough.

        "I think there's a good possibility he WOULD come to our rescue.  We have him in our back pockets.  But I'm just saying that we can't bank on the DA.  Yes, we do have a powerful connection there, but we can't totally rely on him to bail us out regardless of the circumstances.  We can't put all our eggs in the good ole' DA basket, no matter how comfortable that idea may seem."

        "Damn!" exclaimed Walter, dejectedly, as if he'd just received a shock to his system. (The trusty DA's protection had always been like a security blanket to him, preventing him from getting into loads of serious trouble in the past wherein the DA refused to file felony charges on him despite the evidence that was presented to him.)

        "Don't worry about all this too soon.  I've just been throwing out contingencies that probably won't ever transpire.  I mean, I really doubt we'll ever face criminal charges.  I don't think it'll come to that.  And even if we were charged, in a court of law it has to lead to a conviction for someone to be locked up!  With our money we could hire the best defense attorneys in the state of North Carolina!  But like I said before, it's more than likely that The Caller is just full of hot air."

        "Yeah, but even if that's the case, the dude might be thinking about something far worse than legal action.  He might want to... KILL US!!!  Didn't you hear his voice?!  He sounds crazy as hell!"

        Krouse countered with a combination of factual data and logic.  "Statistics show that premeditated murders rarely occur following a direct threat.  Think about it.  The purpose of a threat is to scare the hell out of people, not to kill them.  Why give advanced warnig to someone and allow them to prepare to defend themselves and alert the authorities?!  If he intended to kill us, he'd be planning a surprise attack.  Also, I doubt that that's his real voice.  He probably just changed it to sound like a psycho in order to frighten us to a higher degree.  And if that was his purpose, it has certainly worked, hasn't it?!"

 

14

        "Okay Walter, so what you're basically saying is that he was just a prank caller?"

        "No, I think that we have to take him more seriously than a mere prankster or a nuisance.  I say that because he knows, in his own mind, that we have committed felonies, atrocities even.  See, the reason we're so worried is because we didn't think ANYONE knew about what we've been up to.  And that's a legitimate concern!  But, again, the only question is whether or not this joker can back up an accusation with substance."

        "Would he need actual proof?"  Allen posed this inquiry as if he was consulting a lawyer.  That's how much regard he had for his superior's intellect.

        Dr. Krouse replied, "He wouldn't necessarily need proof, but he would need strong evidence."

        Dr. Thorne opined, "Judging from the content of what he said, and how he said it, I sort of gathered that he felt confident he had something on us."

        "Yeah, but again, you have to keep in mind that it was probably just a scare tactic."

        "So, what do you think is going on in this guy's head?  I mean, what would motivate him to employ such a scare tactic?"

        Dr. Krouse took a deep breath and thoughtfully prepared an answer.  "Now, this is just conjecture, and it may be totally off the mark, but here's what I think.  Somehow, some way, he found out about our antics.  Saturday night, he saw my interview and got real angry because he knew the truth, while everyone else was in the dark, and he felt like he couldn't do anything about it.  You can imagine how that would feel.  So, like I said, he saw my interview and it set him off.  He couldn't hold back any longer.  He didn't even worry about his voice being preserved on tape."

        "If he's that mad at us, then there's no telling WHAT he's capable of doing!"

        "Personally, I'm not worried about getting killed.  The only thing I'm worried about is going to prison.  But if you're so concerned about your safety, why don't you just carry a loaded handgun around with you everywhere you go?!"

        "Because I'm scared of guns.  I've always preferred mace.  But I might get a taser."

        Walter was silently amused at the wimpy vibe of his subordinate's response.  However, this time he suppressed his urge to ridicule him.  He remembered that Allen was offended by his disparaging remarks at the onset of his arrival, and he didn't want to incite another squabble.  Walter enjoyed making fun of his friend, but he knew when it was time to stop.

        Casually, in a relaxed tone, Dr. Krouse said, "You haven't started in on the coffee, have you?"

        "No, there's a full pot of it.  I was getting ready to pour it in my cup when you came in."

        "I'm gonna have a cup.  You want some too, Allen?"

        "Yeah, pour me a cup and bring it over here, will ya?"

        Walter got up and transferred the brown liquid from the pot to his cup first, after he rinsed it out over the sink.  Then he took a sip.  "Eh, it's gotten cold.  But I'll drink it anyway; I need a caffeine fix to get me through the day.  You still want some?" 

        "Sure, I'll drink it cold." 

        Walter strolled over to Allen, who was still sitting on the couch, and handed him the cup, then he returned to the chair with the other cup in his hand.  Tired of discussing The Caller, he changed the subject.  "So, Allen, how's the legal stuff going?"

        "Her family is going to contest the will.  They're saying she was senile when she signed everything over to me and that I coerced her and shit.  Well, that's true, but they can't prove any of it.  I guarantee you they won't see a dime of their mother's fortune!  It'll ALL be MINE!!!"

        "No, I mean the drunk driving manslaughter charge."

        "Oh, I'm not worried about it.  My lawyer is trying to get the case thrown out on a technicality.  Even if it goes it goes to trial and I'm found guilty, the most I'll get is two years probation.  And if that happens, I could probably bribe the probation officer to leave me alone."

        "I saw the young couple you killed in the newspaper.  They were real lookers!"

        "Yeah, their names were Lawrence and Farah Stratton.  They looked better than movie stars.  He was an artist and she was a nurse.  I'm glad they died so they couldn't sue me!"

 

15

        "What was your blood/alcohol level," Waltered inquired.

        "Point twenty-six, over three times the legal limit," answered Allen proudly, followed by a smug grin.

        "Sheesh!" spouted Walter in surprise, not expecting to hear it was that high.

        "'Sheesh' is right!  I was pretty wasted!  I've got to get out of the habit of drinking and driving, or next time it might be ME that dies!"

        "Yeah, you've been pretty lucky so far.  I saw in yesterday's paper where it mentioned the guy you collided with when you were nineteen.  You never told me about that one."

        "Oh, yeah.  I read that, too.  I've only caused two accidents my whole life, and the reporter is trying to make me out to be a habitual offender.  Also brought up the fact that he was paralyzed from the waist down."

        "You mean before or after you ran into his car?  I just skimmed the article before I went to church."

        "Ha!  Well, let me put it this way: If it wasn't for my love of booze, the bastard would still be using his legs to this day.  That was when Judge Monroe was on the bench."

        "'Monroe,' repeated Dr. Krouse slowly while rolling his eyes up and thinking, trying to place him.  "I think I know who you're talking about.  Isn't his grandson and up-and-coming T.V. news correspondent?"

        "Yeah, he's really on the rise!  I saw him reporting a story on the national news last week."

        "That must be exciting!  I mean, for a young guy like that to travel all over the world and cover big events and get to be on T.V."

        "Yeah, that would be cool," agreed Allen.  Getting back on track, he continued on with his line of thought: "So, like I was saying, Judge Monroe presided over my case.  He and my dad were golfing buddies at the country club.  That's why he cut me a break!  I was actually found guilty, but Monroe got their verdict overturned on account of 'jury misconduct.'  The thing is, there was no misconduct!  The clever fox just made it up out of the blue.  Then he asked the DA not to pursue a retrial, and the DA obliged his request," explained Allen.

        "What were you driving back then," the fellow car enthusiast inquired.

        This question gave Allen the opportunity to talk about past cars he owned and reminisce about the incident.  "I had the wreck in a new black Corvette.  It was a beauty, but it was totaled in the crash.  Surviving that crash, in itself, was a miracle, but the fact that I had only minor injuries was REALLY unbelievable!!!  I escaped with some scrapes and bruises here and there, but that Corvette wasn't quite so lucky; it was absolutely crushed.  I mean, it was smashed like an aluminum soft drink can after someone had stomped it flat with their foot.  Responders at the scene couldn't fathom how I had gotten out of it alive, let alone with only mild marks and abrasions.  They were flabbergasted!  My dad vehemently refused to buy me another car after that -- partly because he was pissed off at me for drinking and driving, but mostly because he didn't want me to die young.  So I ended up getting a part-time job and buying myself a used Volkswagon Bug with the money I earned from it.  I actually loved that cute little red Bug even more than the new sporty Corvette I demolished.  I guess a lot of that had to do with the fact that the designer of the Volkswagon was my hero."

        Dr. Krouse glanced down at his Rolex wrist watch and told Allen, "I've got someone scheduled at 9 but I'm going to cancel that appointment.  When she gets here, just tell her that I'm having back pain and couldn't make it to the office.  I'm going to drive to the 'old folks' home' and ask around to see if anyone has been asking around."

        That sounded just find to Allen; he said, "Hey, my first appointment isn't until 11, so I can counsel her in your place.  Where's her case file?"

        "In the next-to-last file cabinet drawer.  Her name is Paulina Price.  Thirty-one years old, bipolar, on Prozac -- high dosage.  Average intelligence, divorced but currently married, three kids, religious fanatic.  That's all the information you need in order to sound like you know what you're talking about.  It's not even necessary to skim through her case file; just improvise.  She'll mostly be filling your ears up with loads of crap about things like church and her kids, anyway.  That's about all she ever talks about, aside from her freaking emotional problems.  By the way, I've got two of her kids doped up on Ritalin.  I'm going to get the youngest one on it pretty soon.  He's only 15 months old."

        Allen chuckled and remarked, "Well, they're never too young for good ole' Ritalin!"

        "You said it, brother," Walter concurred, with a devilish grin and a wink.

 

16

        Five minutes later, Walter Krouse was behind the wheel of his car, on his way to Springmeadow Nursing Center.  Although he looked ahead, his mind wasn't paying full attention to what his eyes saw; he was preoccupied with his thoughts as he drove, trying to piece together the puzzle of the mystery caller.  He sped through a red light to the hectic sounds of other cars' brake skids and horn blows, the mechanical equivalent of angry men shouting.  He swerved to avoid impact and immediately realized that he was allowing his concerns to distract his awareness from the here and now.  However, despite this, he failed to take personal responsibility for his recklessness and he certainly bore no forgiveness in his black heart for the offending drivers.  After he rolled down his window, he reached his arm out and gave the honkers the finger, while screaming curse words at them as he drove away.

        The Jag pulled up into the parking lot.  After Walter got out of it, he entered the facility, looking for Ralph Oxner's 24 year-old bubbly blonde nurse.  Before long, he saw her coming out of a patient's room and approached her with a smile.  But, as always, it wasn't from the heart.

        "Hi, Lisa," he greeted, consciously trying to sound upbeat while forcing a smile.

        "Hey," she returned, naturally upbeat, flashing a broad smile; hers was genuine.  "I saw you on North America's Most Wanted.  I still can't believe all that has happened!"

        Dr. Krouse neither had the time nor the patience for small talk, so he jumped right to the subject.  "Look, I was wondering if you've heard anything from anyone about Oxner since he escaped."

        "The police asked me if I had any idea where he'd be headed to in the car he stole.  I told them he talked a lot about his family in Florida."

        "I mean besides the police."

        "Well, let me think."  [Four seconds of reflection.]  "Oh, his social worker dropped by and talked to me for a while."

        Now Dr. Krouse was interested, thinking he might have a lead.  "Did he say anything about me?"

        "Uh, yeah.  As a matter of fact, he did."

        "What did he say," Krouse eagerly probed.

        "He wanted to know what medications you were giving him."

        "Is that all he said about me?"

        "Umm... Oh, he asked me if I noticed any unusual patterns after you had your counseling sessions with him, like if he seemed to be dazed and confused.  I didn't know what he was getting at, but he seemed to be real suspicious of you.  I couldn't see why because it's obvious that all you care about is helping your patients and making their lives better.  That's basically what I told him."

        At this point, Dr. Krouse was strongly suspecting that Ralph's social worker was The Caller.  But he had a few more questions to ask before he'd be done with the girl.

        "What did his voice sound like?"

        "It just sounded normal."

        "It didn't sound deep or gruff?"

        "No, just average."

        "Did he say anything about Allen Thorne?"

        "No sir, he didn't mention him."

        Satisfied with the information he'd obtained from Lisa, Dr. Krouse muttered a quick, "Thank you" before turning around and walking away.  If the last two questions had of been answered in the affirmative, that would have confirmed in his mind beyond a shadow of a doubt that Fred Lewin was The Caller.  Even before he'd returned to his car, he'd formulated a precise plan to ascertain for sure if Mr. Lewin was, in fact, guilty of harassing and intimidating him and his colleague.  It was simple, yet it'd be effective, he thought.

***

        Night had descended.  The grand clock on the wall in the Krouse's living room read 7:10.  Dr. Krouse was ready to call The Caller, or at least the man he suspected of being The Caller.

        "Okay Victoria, I think this Fred Lewin just might be the guy.  But I'm not 100 percent sure of it.  So, what I'm going to do is this.  I'm going to call him on the phone and tape the call.  Not only will I have his voice on tape as a comparison to the message I got, but I'll also be able to pick up on how he feels about me.  I know it'll show through in his tone, even if he tries to conceal his emotions.  If he hates me a lot, then it's definitely him.  And if I'm able to keep him on the phone long enough, I'll talk about the calls Allen and I received.  His reaction to that issue will either exonerate him or give him away.  Believe me, I'll know if he's the one!  I'll be able to tell by the way in which he responds and how he sounds.  If he's innocent, he'll be natural and relaxed... but if he's guilty, his responses will be inappropriate and defensive, and his voice will sound tense.  Alright, I'm going to call him now."

 

17

        Walter pressed "Record" and dialed the social worker's home phone number.  Victoria starred at him as he waited for a pick-up.  Following the sixth ring, a man said, "Hello."

        "Hi.  This is Walter Krouse, Ralph Oxner's psychiatrist."  (Without saying anything further, he waited for a response -- halfway expecting to hear a hang-up.)

        "Oh, hi. how are you doing, Dr. Krouse," he said cheerfully, which surprised Walter.

        "Quite frankly, I haven't been doing well at all.  I've been worrying about Ralph day and night."

        "Me too.  He's a good person.  It's just a shame he has all those issues and got into so much trouble.  I've had trouble sleeping since everything went down."

        By now, Walter was a bit confused; Fred sounded open and friendly.  He decided, on impulse, to cut right to the chase.  "I heard you were in the facility inquiring about me.  So I decided to call you to answer any questions you might have."  (Walter wasn't sure if this impromptu move was the ideal one at this juncture in the conversation.  His original plan was to mention the anonymous calls first.  Walter regarded the conversation as a verbal chess game.)

        "Yes, sir, I was asking about you.  I'll tell you something."  (It sounded to Walter like he was on the verge of a confession.)  "After I saw you on North America's Most Wanted, I received a call.  A man told me that you had been abusing Ralph for years.  I assumed it was just a prank caller and I hung up on him.  But then, a little while later, I regretted not staying on the line and listening to what he had to say.  I'm not saying I believed him; I know that you're a psychiatrist and wouldn't hurt anyone, least of all your patients.  But he placed a seed of doubt in mind.  When I spoke with Lisa the other day, she convinced me that you're a good guy.  I'm sorry I let that guy make me douth you, sir."

        Dr. Krouse gulped.  He fully comprehended the threat additional calls posed.  This, he knew, was much more dangerous than slander and defamation of character because the accusations were not false, but, instead, horrifyingly true.  It was an extremely serious situation, full of potentially tragic consequences.  He realized that there was no telling HOW MANY other people The Caller had contacted.

        "Well, listen, there's a lot of sickos out there.  I don't suppose you were able to trace the call."

        "No, sir.  I pressed Star 69, but the recording said it was either out of the area or marked private."

        "Well, if he calls back let me know.  Here's my number... You ready?"

        "Yes, sir."

        "919-793-5468"

        "Okay, Dr. Krouse, I'll inform you if he calls me again.  And if you want, I could also notify the police."

        "No, No, No!!!  Don't do that!!  Just tell ME, and I'll take it from there."

        "Alright, whatever you say.  I hope you catch him!  And thank you for doing so much to help people."

        "Well, I'm in the business of helping people.  Goodnight, Fred."

        "Goodnight, doctor."

        Dr. Krouse forcefully hung the phone up on the wall-attachment with his lips tightly pressed, and eyes full of fury as they stared blankly at the telephone.  Despite hearing only one end of the conversation, Victoria was still able to figure out what happened. 

        "He called Fred, too, didn't he?" she asked, seeking confirmation of what she'd already surmised.

        He husband's head didn't turn, nor did his eyes shift; his gaze remained fixed on the telephone.  He just nodded slightly, barely acknowledging his wife.  But not out of disrespect, due to intense emotion.

        Five seconds later, speaking in a very stern tone, he said, "Don't worry, Victoria; nobody's going to pay attention to The Caller.  I have everything under control!"  His voice was getting louder and angrier.  "I'm going to find out who this S.O.B. is, and then I'll sue his ass off, and see to it that he gets a long prison sentence on top of that!!!"

        Krouse was a good actor; he knew how to sound strong and confident.  However, he actually lacked faith in his own words; for his conviction was cosmetic like his wife's face.  Indeed, he was possessed by the demons of fear and doubt!  In direct contrast to his outward comments, he was inwardly speculating that his life was on the verge of spiraling out of control, into the abyss where utter disaster awaits.

 

18

        Now he knew that The Caller was fully determined to destroy every last shred of his life.  But Walter was just as intent on doing everything in his power to prevent that from happening!  The Doctor of Demise hastily tramped toward the kitchen door with a countenance and body language that exuded the same anger and frustration that was formerly reflected in his voice.  He blew past his wife, completely ignoring her presence, and slammed the door behind him.  After he was gone, she walked to the answering machine, pressed "Play" and listened to the other half of the conversation.