The Rohrschach Room

by Julian Penrod

Preface

"The Rohrschach Room" tells of the unexpected effect an unexpected feature has on a man.


A shove and he's inside.

And shutting the door quickly, before anyone notices.

A moment resting, with his back against the door.

No ringing. No one was calling. And no lights on the machine. No one had tried to contact him.

But they would be calling. And he would be here. That would work into the...

The phone rang. He answered. Crowley, as he had arranged. Yes, the rest of the figures were here. They would be ready in the morning. Tell the others to be ready.

To the door again. Check outside, to make sure no one was there.

No was was there.

Back out. Down the street. Down the side street. Across the field. Down the road. Through the undeveloped acreage. Along the dirt path. Into the bottom land. Pick up Uncle Walt's body. Carry it to the boarded over Colonial Era well. Move aside the boards gently, and drop Uncle's body in.

But not before removing his jacket, ripping it a little, rubbing in the dirt.

And cutting Uncle's body and smearing some blood on it.

Now replacing the boards and hoofing it back to the house.

An email had come in while he was out, but, fortunately, it had only been about three minutes before. He had anticipated that.

Just like he knew what the content of the message would be. He didn't even have to read it. And he had a reply.

“Something's missing. I think I know what it is. Some of those reports have been getting sloppy, not including all the material. Expect us to pick up their slack. You had no way of knowing. We'll discuss it in the morning.”

Back out again.

This time, cross country.

To the river.

To the tall grass.

Crouch low. Get close to the bank. Edge the jacket out from between the grasses into the water. The current will do the rest.

No one would have seen anything even if there hadn't been a new moon.

Back now to the house.

Rush inside. Undress. Shower. Clean the shoes, then shine them, then scuff them so they looked normal. Thoroughly brush the clothes before putting them aside for the laundry.

Put in a call to Uncle, at about the same time he had been doing several times a week for the past six months.

Then finally relaxing. Or what passed for relaxing. Taking a breather. Getting something to eat. But his mind still racing with all the details that still needed to be considered.

He had been careful. Arranging for people to contact him, even while he was in the middle of his plot. Making an act of not knowing Uncle was dead. Placing his body where no one would think to look. Especially since they will find his jacket in the river. Doing it all on a moonless night. All carefully thought out, all precisely planned. Even the touch of the lunatic, carrying Uncle's body from his house rather than transporting it in a car, leaving it in the middle of the field to go home and take the call, then going out again for the trek to the body to carry it further and drop it in the well, then hurrying home again for the email, then going out once more. No one would be so stupid as to do anything like that! Even if they found his body, they would never assume someone would carry it there. They would look for someone whose car was seen in the area.

But the next steps remained to be dispatched. Most especially, the inevitable call by the police. They would have all sorts of questions, they will have all sorts of suspicions. He had answers, very good answers. They wouldn't be able to fabricate anything against him, no facet of the event matched anything they would have experience with.

He was safe.

And, blast it, he deserved it!

He had worked to make the new campaigns work, Uncle had only overseen. He had made the company into a force to be reckoned with in local commerce. And all he got was a diffident compliment and a disgraceful excuse for a raise.

Everything reflected the systematic denial of his rights.

His car, old and broken down. It helped shape his alibi that his car was in the shop. Nobody in their right mind would carry a body all the places he did.

His wardrobe, equally worn and shabby.

His inability to afford to travel, to have get togethers with others.

Anything that caused him aggravation could be traced back to the job and how little it returned for his labors.

The phone rang. He was pretty sure what this would be.

“Yes? Hello, Robert. What? Did I speak with Uncle? No. I called, but I got no answer. I figured he might be out. He didn't go out? Then why...you don't know where he is? He isn't in his room? Who's this? Detective Collins? What's the matter? What's happening? Yes, this is Ed Banford. Yes, Walter Felton's nephew. No, I just told Uncle's butler I called earlier but got no answer. No, that's not so unusual, Uncle does a good deal of entertaining of clients and such and it's often out of the house. No, he didn't say anything to me about any plans for the evening, but that's not unusual. He's management and, while I'm his nephew, I'm still labor, and I'm not privy to the business meetings he arranges. No, he didn't say anything to me about anything wrong. What's going on? Robert says he can't find Uncle. What...he's missing? Since when? The last Robert spoke to him was four hours ago? Anything could have happened in that time! Do you have any...you'd like to talk to me? Fine. Anytime you'd like. Yes, I'll still be awake. Feel free.”

He hung up the phone. Exactly what he had planned. Robert always was attentive to Uncle's wants, very devoted. He was all but certain to be the first to find him missing, and he would call the police almost immediately. And the police would look into Ed almost immediately. And they would have no problem putting whoever was available on the matter right away. Even if it meant questioning Ed at this time of the morning. Of course, it would only be preliminary, more exhaustive questioning would come later. Well, let them try. He had prepared for all of this.

He crossed to his desk and put on the light, Make it look as much like he was deeply involved in work as possible. As if it was so unusual. He frequently spent long hours finishing old business or beginning new business outside the office. He was the only one to really do any work on the company's fortunes.

And yet this is where he lived. An old, largely dilapidated building. With cracked concrete, missing stones in the border, an unreliable roof, spaces between the boards in the wall, and the rotten, decades old wallpaper in the combination living room and office.

A dark tan, which was probably more age and dirt than original color. Shapes spaced along the paper that probably were supposed to be flowers, although the dull, drab color now seemed nothing like what would be expected in flora. And the added decoration of the stains of water from rains that seeped in between the loose boards on the exterior and within.

Add a second hand couch, shabby rugs, a Windsor type chair with a spindle missing for his desk.

He was Walt's nephew and he let him live here!

Walt was about the most eminent illustration of lack of conscience of anyone Ed had seen. He was a constant threat to anyone working for him. You had to have a rampant sense of self preservation and self aggrandizement as him just to be able to survive his assaults. That had been obvious to Ed from the start and he had labored to emulate it as much as possible. Even surpass it. He wasn't certain even Uncle would have been as ready and wiling to do as he did even when he was scrabbling his way upward. But Uncle had taught him well. Ed was in a position now to undo Uncle Walt in everything, even lack of sympathy, of compassion. Whatever little conscience Uncle Walt had perhaps possessed, was not to be found in Ed.

And he was going to redress all the old wrongs. Starting with the house. No more bargain basement for him. He was moving into the mansion. It was inevitable. He already knew the business. Uncle never trusted any others enough to give them an in, that's why he never made out a will. He didn't have confidence or trust in anyone enough to want them to guard his property. But with Ed being family, the closest that Uncle would acknowledge, his future was guaranteed.

And once in the mansion, all the wrongs would be righted. Moving in the finest circles, traveling to the finest places. And make the improvements in the business that Uncle was always slow to consider.

All the hours he had spent in this room, considering, contemplating, then planning this act. The timing, the methodology, the disposal of the body, the false clues, even the questions the police would ask. “When did you last speak with your uncle?” “Did he say anything to you about being in trouble?” “Does your uncle have any enemies?” “Who's listed in your uncle's will?”

His answers were all more than adequate. There would be no...

The bell rang.

He crossed the floor at a calculatedly hurried speed and pulled open the door.

Two men stood on the front step, one quite heavy set with a cheap mustache, the other taller, more imposing, with salt and pepper hair. They identified themselves as Detectives McCurdy and Hansen. They said they had to speak with Ed.

He welcomed them in eminently warmly and led them to his combination living room and office and he turned on a table lamp to suggest concern.

The detective named Hansen took up a position near the desk, while McCurdy prowled slowly but obviously. One would ask questions, the other picking up clues. Then they'd switch roles, keep Ed guessing.

"What's happened?", Ed said on cue.

"We're not sure, yet", said Hansen, "Maybe nothing, but there are some pretty unusual things going on."

"What do you mean?"

"Your uncle is missing. His butler came to check on him about an hour ago and found him gone from his library. He searched the house, he checked the garage. Your uncle wasn't anywhere and his car was still there."

"I don't understand this. What happened?"

"We're not sure", said McCurdy, "We wanted to contact as many people as could give us any information, hoping we can figure this out as quickly as possible."

"Was he kidnapped?" Was he volunteering too much information? He would have to watch that.

"We don't know", replied Hansen, "It may be something as simple as that he took a walk after dinner and maybe fell and injured himself."

"He's not in the habit of taking walks in the evening", Ed offered, "And I've been over the grounds. They're very level and well maintained." That would be easily confirmed by checking with the staff. He was leading them in the very direction of the very type of crime he had committed. That could lower him in their sights.

McCurdy continued patrolling the perimeter of the room, looking intently, but not overtly, at everything.

"We can check that out in daylight", said Hansen, "Maybe you could give us a tour of the grounds."

"Whatever would help."

"Right now, though, we are checking some routine matters. Was you uncle on any medication that might cause him to behave erratically?"

"Oh, no, Uncle was on nothing. He was as healthy as they come."

"He didn't take any kind of mood changing drugs, or anything stronger, to cope with situations at work?"

"Never. he always wanted to be completely clear in handling the business."

"You own this place?", McCurdy asked suddenly.

"No, I rent."

"From who?"

"From my uncle, actually. Really, from a holding company he keeps for side business deals, some small real estate transactions and like that."

"A little on the seedy side, if you don't mind me putting it that way."

"I've said worse about it myself."

"He couldn't provide you anything better?"

"Not in my price range."

"he couldn't cut you any sort of break?"

"I didn't ask for one, I wouldn't have expected one."

"It doesn't bother you, your uncle putting you in a place like this?"

"There's a strong motivational value in it. I look forward to the day I can get a better place."

"You don't resent him not putting in a word to give you something better?"

"I understand how it is for Uncle."

Take him off guard, keep him from expecting what they were going to do next. A nice touch.

"Did you contact your uncle any time this evening?"

"I tried to, a few hours ago."

"What about?"

"Just some business matters."

"You didn't speak to him?"

"No."

"That didn't bother you?"

"No, Uncle often is out talking to clients over drinks or impromptu suppers."

"Surprising that any business could get transacted with that iffy a system of communication."

Jumping to conclusions. Unfortunately, they were a little too close to the truth.

"Uncle tended to do things his way no matter what he was told", Ed replied, "Overall, it didn't matter what he was told or not."

"Is this wallpaper?", McCurdy asked.

They were getting a little far afield. Not that Ed couldn't keep up, but it was beginning to annoy him their two pronged attack.

"It used to be. It was pretty old when I moved in. I didn't change it."

"What're those? Flowers?"

"They used to be flowers. The color's pretty much faded. But there's a lot of staining from rainwater seeping through..."

What the devil?

The shape on the wall McCurdy was standing in front of, the one he was looking at, it resembled...

"Did your uncle mention anything about troubles with any business contacts, anything that might blow up into something serious?"

...two figures, one bent over, as if sitting at a desk, the other standing behind, arm raised, holding something large,...like an old fashioned stapler.

Did it look like that to the detective? Did he mention the shapes on the wallpaper because that struck him? But why would it strike him? They had no way of knowing Uncle was attacked from behind, with a blow to the head. They had no way of knowing he was attacked at all. The figure would have to be just so much random spotting on the wall!

"Excuse me?" The words seemed to come from out of nowhere.

"What?" Blast! He didn't want to seem flustered or occupied. They could read too much into it.

"Did your uncle mention anything to you about any business contacts that were giving him problems, anything that might escalate into violence?"

Should he make it look as if the question suddenly opened up considerations he hadn't expected? That that was why he suddenly became vacant?

"I'm not saying anything like..."

"I know Uncle's business dealings. They were always handled on the up and up. He was too proud of his company to take any chances in getting a bad reputation."

"So..."

"Anything of a private matter, I wouldn't know about. He never confided anything like that to me. You could ask his butler."

"I'm sure someone is doing that right now."

"Your uncle never mentioned anything to you about feeling ill at ease?", asked McCurdy, "Like someone was out to get him?"

So the other detective was going to get involved now. Well, let them try to break him! Ed has his story completely...

What? McCurdy had shifted his position. He was next to another stain on the wall. A stain that looked like...

"Your uncle didn't summon his servant, Robert, to lay out anything for him to wear, or even to provide any refreshments", Hansen said, "We feel this wasn't some official company business. We think someone came in on their own, through some unguarded entrance."

"That would mean they had a knowledge of the house", added McCurdy.

...two figures, one crouched low, carrying the other figure, who hung limp. And were those suggestions of long grasses the figure was moving through?

“Do you know who might have that complete a knowledge of the layout of your uncle's mansion?”

Were they playing with him? Tossing questions at him to throw him off while the images on the wall unnerved him? No! They didn't know anything about the patterns on the wall. To them they were just so many splotches. They were trying to break him, but it had nothing to do with the pictures on the wall.

The patterns on the wall!

“Well, a lot of people stop by. Uncle has a large family and, while they may not be on the best of terms, the others do stop by often, at least for holidays. And he always has business associates drop by. But, remember, if somebody really wanted to do something to Uncle, they would get the knowledge of the house necessary by any means possible.”

But why should the patterns suddenly be striking him now? He had lived in this house for five years. He was aware of the staining on the wall, but it never resolved itself into such clear images before!

“That's true”, said Hansen, “We are only beginning to assemble a list of possible suspects. And, don't forget, we can't really do anything until twenty four hours have passed. This is just because your uncle's butler was so upset. We just want to have some preliminary points out of the way if this does escalate into an investigation.”

“You know, I don't think I would ever live in a place so dilapidated”, McCurdy said, “No reflection on you. I'm just saying if it was me, I'd have left long ago, even if it meant getting into debt to do it.”

“Well, there was the prospect of appearing ungrateful, what with Uncle arranging for me to be able to rent this place.”

“Oh, you were grateful for this place?”

“Well, yes.”

“Offhand, could you name anyone who would benefit so much by your uncle's death that they would try to get rid of him?” That from Hansen.

“Well, Uncle had provisions drawn up for the transfer of control in the company. A number of the company bigs would shift upward in the event Uncle was killed.”

Now to make the move to establish his credibility.

“In fact, even I would benefit, from the portion of Uncle's money that would...”

McCurdy was moving again. Now he was standing in front of...

“That would what?”, asked Hansen.

...another stain on the wall, a combination of water and faded flowers. It looked like...

“Mr. Banford?”

...two figures, one active, one limp, standing near a huge gaping hole in the ground like the opening of a well. The one figure was lowering the other...

“Is there a problem, Mr. Banford?”

“What?”

“Is there a problem? You seemed to be lost in thought.”

Not good. He was acting suspiciously and they were noticing it. Stop thinking about the patterns on the walls and start manipulating the situation.

"I was just wondering if there was anyone who might benefit from Uncle's will."

"Do you know the contents of his will?"

"I saw the version he drafted a few years ago. It wasn't much different from the one he had had drafted shortly before that."

"Are there any specific bequests to any questionable individuals?'

"Not necessarily. I was wondering if there was a way someone might have felt they could indirectly benefit."

“That could suggest an accomplice”, offered McCurdy, “Do you think there's more than one person involved?”

Good, they were getting away from what really happened and...

“It's possible one of them might be used by the other without their knowledge”, said Hansen.

“But it would have to be the other who carried out the murder”, said McCurdy.

A figure, hiding in tall grass, on the side of a riverbank. In their hand, a jacket. They're tossing the jacket into the river.

“That might make the real culprit someone lower in the organization”, said Hansen, “Do you agree, Mr. Banford?”

A figure, running now through tall grass. In perspective, a shape in the distance that resembles Ed's house.

“Mr. Banford?”

The figure now pulling off all their clothes and throwing them into a hamper.

“Mr. Banford?”

And now, the figure opening the door. In the rectangle defining the opening of the door, two figures, one heavy set, the other...

“Are you alright, sir?” It seemed to be Hansen who asked.

“What?”

“You seem to have drifted a bit”, McCurdy said, “You must have been lost in thought.”

“I...I...”

“We don't mean to upset you”, said Detective Hansen, “As I said, this is still not even an investigation. We didn't intend to make you think we suspected you or anything.”

“Is there a problem?”, asked McCurdy, turning away from Ed, “You seemed to be staring at the wall paper.”

No! Not the wallpaper! Don't cause them to notice the wallpaper!

“I...was...just...envisioning anyone who might have benefited from Uncle's death.”

McCurdy didn't turn back, but continued to scan the wall.

“I see what can fascinate you”, he said, “You can see all sort of pictures up here.”

“Does that calm you, Mr. Banford?”, asked Hansen, “Because we definitely don't want to leave you feeling disturbed or agitated.”

“Like there”, McCurdy said, pointing to the picture of a man reaching through tall grasses to leave a jacket in the river, “That looks like a tank moving through a forest.”

“I see what you mean”, agreed Hansen. Gesturing to the image of Ed carrying Uncle Walt through the tall grass, Hansen said, “That looks like a tree with thick branches sticking out.”

Were they making fun of him? Were they testing him? Did they really not see in the images what he saw? But what of when they begin to find evidence? Blood traces on the stapler? The lack of car tracks. Uncle's sweater in the river? Will they remember these images and put a new interpretation to them? Should he admit it all now? Display remorse? He won't benefit from the will, but at least he won't suffer any...

The phone.

“Do you mind?”, Hansen asked, “We left your number with the station when we came here.”

“No”, Ed answered blankly, “Not at all.”

Hansen was cool answering the phone, efficient at conversing with whoever was on the other end, and very official in hanging up.

“Headquarter”, he announced, “They have someone. A former employee they found hanging around the estate.”

“An employee?” It was almost too good to be true. Ed didn't rise to the bait of hopefulness. He wanted to make sure there was really something there. “Who?”

“Someone named Carstairs”, Hansen announced, “He says he was terminated a month ago. He claims he was looking for some kind of revenge but never got around to it. It looks like he got his revenge and wants to appear innocent.”

Carstairs. That's right. Ed hadn't been paying enough attention with the patterns on the wall unnerving him. He could have put the detectives on Carstairs' trail long ago, even if Carstairs hadn't been found lurking around Uncle's mansion. He could have put them onto any of a number of people. Those images on the wall had really derailed him. But at least this was some luck.

“We're sorry about disturbing you, Mr. Benford”, Hansen said, “It appears our man was right in front of our eyes all the while. They'll be taking him to Booking and we'll start talking to him. Don't worry. We don't expect to bother you again.”

“No bother at all”, said Ed, hoping he was hiding his relief well enough, “I was glad this whole thing worked out.”

“If we need anything else”, said McCurdy, we'll be in touch, but I don't expect we will.”

The two men left and Ed carefully closed the door slowly enough so as not to reveal how much he felt this turn of events to have been unwarranted and even unreasonable. When the door shut he rested, not thinking, for several minutes, then shuffled back to the living room.

Carstairs had been hanging around at just the moment that Ed needed a patsy. He hadn't thought about arranging a dupe to take the blame. That just came out of nowhere.

And it didn't bode badly for Carstairs. This wasn't an execution state, so he could be looking at, at most, some decades in prison. Carstairs never was a totally pleasant individual to work with, this would keep him out of other people's hair, as well. It worked out well there. And it boded well for Ed. The police are notorious for being content with whoever fills the bill at least most of the way. They wouldn't be looking at Ed, anymore, they had their man. And, with execution not an option, the juries were more than likely to just go along and sentence him.

It all worked out.

But almost not, because of those blasted patterns on the wall. Ed looked, wondering if his imagination and tension had made them look like what they weren't. But, no, they were all there. His attacking Uncle from behind, him carrying Uncle Walt through the long grass to hide his tracks, his dropping Uncle into the old well. How could they know? They were just pictures! How could they so completely and accurately depict what he did? What could make them arrange themselves to illustrate Ed's crime?

But what if they didn't arrange themselves to show what Ed had done?

What if it was the other way around?

What if...what if...what if, in all his hours of staring at the patterns on the wall, simultaneously working out the details of Uncle's death, he had subconsciously absorbed what the patterns and spots illustrated and worked that into his...

Of course! That had to be it! He had allowed himself to be led by the pictures into committing a crime that fit the images exactly! So the wallpaper really was an admission of his actions, for anyone who took the time and puzzled as deeply as he had.

The first thing to do, remove the wallpaper. Remove it and burn it.

And paint over the wall.

Leave no trace.

At least until the day he inherits Uncle's...

What?

Another pattern of faded flowers and water stains. Near the floor, between the couch and the corner.

One figure carrying another figure, but not through tall grass. Short, cropped grass, with some bushes. And, behind one of the bushes, a figure, crouched and watching.

Carstairs!

He was at Uncle's estate, the police said it! How long had he been there? Long enough to have seen Ed carrying away Uncle Walt's body? But that was a good few hours ago. Would he have stayed there in the bushes all that time, waiting to be picked up? Did he arrive after Ed left? Did Carstairs wait there to see what would happen next? Did he leave then come back to talk to the police? Were the detectives only conning him when they told him not to worry. Had Carstairs already spilled everything?

Or was it someone else watching from concealment. Someone else with a grudge against Uncle Walt. Maybe against Ed, too. And they saw what Ed had done and were waiting to blackmail him for...

That stain, just on the other side of the corner from the first stain. A huge black space, like the opening of a Colonial Era well. And a group of individuals milling around. He was sure the one who had been crouching watching Ed's crime was one of them.

Who was out there? Who had seen his actions? Who knew what Ed had done and was only waiting to decide what to do with that information? What to do?

Try to find out carefully who knew something?

Just run now before they came back with accusations?

Admit everything and hope for leniency?

Admitting it would gain the good will of the court, but it would still destroy everything for Ed. He would gain nothing from the will. His reputation would be destroyed. He would be trusted by no one.

But it was the safest alternative, the only one with no repercussions. There was no other way. There was...

Up there, near the ceiling. A thin trickle of water stretching down, ruler straight. Down to...a figure, dangling from the neck from the line, the shape of an overturned chair just below.

The alternative. Like someone hypnotized, Ed walked out to the garage. There would be rope there, and exposed beams and something he could use as a chair. It was the only way out.

After all, the images hadn't steered him wrong yet.

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