Guilty Conscience

by Rob Mahan
Copyright © 2007

Lewis Mueller was dead tired as he pulled the leased BMW through the wrought iron security gate of his suburban Atlanta home. It had been a particularly exhausting day at the dealership. Luxury car sales were down across the country and the bills continued to pile up. All of his mechanics would probably walk out on him if another payday was late. His long time friend and business partner Hans had been worthless ever since his wife left him. All he seemed to care about now was chasing every skirt that came through the doors of the dealership. The banks were calling Lewis every day, sometimes even at home. It was getting difficult to keep the situation under control. His wife had started asking a lot of difficult questions.

As Lewis pulled into the garage, he again replayed the argument he had with Hans earlier that day. They argued a lot these days but this one had been the worst one yet.

“Where have you been all morning, Hans?” Lewis said. “You look like you’ve been up all night.”

Hans grinned and said, “That flight attendant I met last week is back in town. I forgot how much energy twenty-five year olds have.”

“Our bills aren’t going to pay themselves, Hans. I can’t keep doing everything around here while you make a fool of yourself trying to recapture your lost youth!”

The grin slowly faded from Hans’ face as he glared at Lewis. “YOU doing everything around here? That’s rich. If it weren’t for me taking up the slack while your marriage is falling apart, you would have lost your precious house and your precious car and your precious country club memberships a long time ago! Your kid even knows you are a loser at heart …”

“Insult me all you want, you sonofabitch, but leave my family out of this!” Lewis spat back. “This is just between me and you!”

“Come on, boy! You think you can take me?” Hans yelled as he pulled off his jacket and threw it aside. “I’ll kick your ass like I always have!”

Nearly blind with a rage that had been simmering just below the surface for weeks, Lewis jumped up from his desk and lunged at Hans, swinging wildly. With a huge crack, his fist connected with solid bone.

When he finally opened the door leading to the kitchen, Brutus and Cassius greeted him with their usual enthusiasm after being cooped up in the house all day long. He knew that Rottweilers needed a lot more exercise than these two got, but he felt safer with them around on the long nights he spent home alone.

“Are you boys hungry?” he said, and added under his breath “Of course you are. You always need something from me.”

After they bolted down their food, Lewis followed the two dogs into the backyard. As they chased each other around, Lewis closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the late fall sunshine on his face as he thought, It’s a lot warmer here than where Mary is tonight. His wife was traveling again, this time up north to New York City for a week long shopping spree.

Lewis opened his eyes to check on the dogs. A prickle on the back of his neck made him glance up at the house. His eyes came to rest on his own bedroom window and what he saw made his knees buckle. A face was staring down at him from inside what should have been a completely empty house. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head as a thousand thoughts raced through his brain. I should call the police, he thought, but a strange voice in his head whispered, Don’t. Lewis willed his eyes open and forced himself to look back up at the bedroom window. The face was gone but the image was still vivid in his mind’s eye.

Heart pounding in his throat and a watery weakness in his belly, Lewis struggled to get his breathing back under control as he tried to think through the possibilities. Could Mary have come home early from her trip? Maybe Clay decided to surprise us with a visit home. There has to be a rational explanation. The most rational explanation was a burglar, but deep down, Lewis knew that the face didn’t belong to any burglar. After a few more minutes of deep breathing, he felt calmer and decided that all the stress at the dealership, maybe his fight with Hans, was making him see things. But he decided to take the dogs through the whole house, just in case.

“Brutus! Cassius! Let’s go!” he called to the dogs. They obediently followed Lewis back into the garage, looking forward to a treat. Lewis opened the door and the dogs bounded into the kitchen. They didn’t seem to sense anything wrong. Lewis grabbed each of them by the collar and whispered, “We have to check the house. Be quiet!” The dogs finally picked up on Lewis’s anxiety and settled down.

Lewis led them, room by room, through the entire first floor of the house. They crept down the basement stairs, but still nothing. They went back up to the first floor. As they started up to the second floor, Lewis felt his heart start to race all over again. The master bedroom was at the top of the stairs. If someone was in there, he would be an easy target on the open staircase. He let go of the dogs and they bounded up the remaining stairs and through the bedroom door. He waited for them to attack the intruder but only silence came from the bedroom. Lewis worked his way slowly up the last remaining steps and peered around the corner into the bedroom. The only thing he saw was Brutus and Cassius sitting on the bed, tongues lolling and practically grinning, waiting for him to come and finish the game.

“You assholes!” he hissed as a wave of relief washed over him. After a quick check of the rest of the second floor, Lewis thought, Idiot, you’re just scaring yourself.

Later that evening, Lewis poured a tall glass of red wine and started to make himself dinner. Both dogs were sound asleep on the kitchen floor. The wine was making him feel warm and relaxed as he got into a rhythm, slicing vegetables with the razor sharp chef’s knife his son had gotten him for his last birthday.

Halfway through a piece of celery, something bumped his elbow and he pushed the blade across the first two fingers of his left hand before he could stop himself. The knife was so sharp that, at first, he felt no pain. But moments later, as the blood spread across the cutting board, a dull throb started in his fingers and raced up his arm, all the way to his shoulder. Staring dumbly at the deep cuts in his fingers, he finally realized that something had bumped his elbow. The image of the face at the window leaped back into his brain as he wheeled around to face his attacker! As he spun around, an arc of blood droplets flew from his fingertips and traced a path from the wine glass on the counter all the way across the front of the refrigerator. But he was alone in the kitchen. Both dogs raised their heads and just looked at Lewis. “Shut up! Just shut up!” he screamed at the bewildered dogs as he grabbed a dish towel to wrap around his bleeding hand.

After bandaging his fingers as best he could with a shaking right hand, Lewis had lost his appetite. He sat in his favorite chair in the living room with another glass of wine, staring at monotonous cable news shows but not really seeing them. His thoughts kept going back to the face he thought he had seen in the window. That face. I know that face, he kept thinking but he couldn’t quite remember where he had seen it before. The longer he sat in the chair, the more real the face in the window became in his imagination. Stomach in knots, fingers and now head throbbing too, Lewis finally dragged himself up the stairs where he collapsed into bed with Brutus and Cassius curled up at his feet. He immediately fell into a fitful sleep.

In the darkness after midnight, both dogs leaped off the bed barking and snarling ferociously at the top of the stairs. Awake and disoriented, Lewis stumbled out of bed, heart pounding against his ribs and fingers throbbing at every beat. With the hair on the back of his neck sticking straight up and testicles sucked into his belly from stark terror, Lewis fumbled a pistol from the nightstand and willed himself to the top of the stairs, where Brutus and Cassius were nearly lathered into a frenzy.

With the sickening taste of bile rising in the back of his throat, Lewis forced himself to look around the corner and down the stairs at the front door. Light from the street was coming through the stained glass windows and he could see that the door was still closed. Gun in hand and his two ferocious dogs snarling right behind him, Lewis flicked on the stair lights. He screamed as he saw the shape of a man sitting motionless in his favorite chair in the middle of the living room.

There was something oddly familiar about the silhouette, familiar and yet frightening.

As he inched down the stairs, the chair slowly swiveled toward Lewis. In the dim light, he recognized the face of his long-time friend and business partner, Hans.

A voice from the chair floated across the room. “Hello, Lewis, old buddy. Payback is a bitch.”

Shaking, Lewis whispered, “This can’t be happening. You can’t be here, Hans.” He clamped his eyes shut, wavered on his feet and almost fainted.

When he opened his eyes again, Hans’ face was gone. Now the starkly mad face glaring at him from the chair was his own … and it was the face he had seen in the bedroom window.

The detached sound of his own voice came from the chair. “Yes. It’s time to pay, Lewis.”

Screaming as he sank to his knees, Lewis brought the gun up in front of himself with both hands. With a long wailing moan, he emptied the entire clip towards the accusing sound of the voice.

Early the next morning, neighbors could see crime scene tape draped across the front entrance of Lewis Mueller’s house. His dogs were tied up to the porch railing.

“What do you know so far?” Detective Baker asked the CSI who had arrived at the scene first.

“Well,” the CSI replied, “the deceased is Lewis Mueller, age forty-two. This is his home. Apparent cause of death is multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, but we’ll know more once the ME gets him on her table. Liver temp indicates he’s been dead about four hours, give or take.”

“Lewis Mueller?” said Detective Baker. “He owns a car dealership downtown and it’s about to go bankrupt. His business partner was found murdered in his office at that dealership yesterday morning. It’s my case.”

“Wow,” said the CSI, as he began to process this new information together with the evidence he had collected so far.

“Looks like we have a classic case of murder – suicide,” Baker said. “I may get to the lake today after all. Do you know anything else about this crime scene yet?”

“We didn’t find any evidence of forced entry. There didn’t appear to be any kind of struggle in the house, except for the cuts on the deceased’s left hand and some blood in the kitchen. But the blood was dry and the cuts happened several hours before death. But I’m afraid I have to disagree with your conclusion. The evidence just doesn’t support it.”

“What do you mean, the evidence doesn’t support it? It seems pretty clear to me.” growled Baker . “No forced entry. No signs of a struggle. The guy gets in financial trouble, kills his long-time business partner, can’t live with the guilt and offs himself. What’s not to like?”

“No powder burns or gunshot residue around the entry wounds.” explained the CSI. “He wasn’t shot at close range. It wasn’t suicide.”

“Damn,” muttered Detective Baker. “There for a minute I thought I was going fishing.”

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