Friday, April 11, 2014
There’s a payphone on the corner where Essex and Fairview intersect. Mark Watkins passes that same payphone everyday on his mail route. Why is this worth noting? Well, with the evolution of cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices, these primitive eyesores have been declared obsolete.
When you do actually see a payphone, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. As did the prehistoric communication fossil mounted to the side of the public library on the corner of Essex and Fairview.
Mark certainly noticed it on his daily walks as it was the only payphone left standing in Ridgewood, and probably all of Long Island for that matter.
It was a Friday in December when he turned the corner of the Ridgewood library that the phone astonished Watkins as it began to ring.
He stood slightly aghast as the rings droned on, refusing to cease. Then he looked to the left and to the right, scoping out the area. Whoever this call was meant for, they clearly weren’t there to accept it. So Mark did what felt natural. He stepped up and took the call for them.
Standing under the privacy hood, Mark lifted the black receiver to his ear and said, “Hello?”
He could hear breathing on the other end of the phone, heavy yet oddly distant, as if the caller had him on speaker phone and was standing quite a distance from where the phone was set.
“Anyone there?” Mark inquired.
“I’m here,” a voice finally spoke with a harsh whisper. It was a man’s voice, Watkins was sure of that.
“Who are you trying to reach, sir?”
“You, Mr. Watkins.”
Mark took another look around, eyes frantically glancing in every direction. The coast seemed clear, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being monitored.
“Are you watching me?”
“I am incapable of watching, Mark Watkins. Just as I am incapable of enjoying a cold beer or enjoying the company of a beautiful woman. This phone is my only form of interaction.”
“Who are you?”
“Barney Stahl.” The name jarred Watkins. His head wobbled back and forth in disbelief and he cringed as it felt as though his inside were being stirred around with a metal whisk.
“Stop playing games,” Mark said, eyes darting around again, trying to nab the culprit. “Barney Stahl is dead. He died right here on this street corner. It happened one year ago.”
“You’re correct,” the voice said. “Now please don’t hang up, because I’m about to tell you something very important.”
“Oh, yeah?” Mark sneered. “What’s that?”
“I’m about to tell you who killed me.”
It had been days since Stacy Montgomery had seen the sun or sucked in a breath of fresh air. Her right ankle was raw and purple from the shackle that kept her chained to the cold cellar floor. The chain was ten feet in length, giving Stacy some mobility, but offering no possibility of escape.
Her captor was not a man who could be reasoned with. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want to be on the six o’clock news. This wasn’t about fame or fortune to him.
He wanted to see seventeen-year-old Stacy suffer to her last breath.
Starved and beaten, Stacy had undoubtedly suffered. And the worst was still yet to come.
She let her nervous mind wander. It helped her from pondering what her captor had in store for her next.
An image of a five-year-old girl with pigtails skipping rope brought a fleeting smile to her face. It was the younger version of herself. The version of Stacy that hadn’t yet been robbed of her innocence. The version of Stacy that had yet to discover the horrors of the real world. The version that had never experienced fear before; not on a level of this magnitude.
But that smile was short-lived and it evacuated the moment she heard the cellar door open. Light flowed in from the upstairs fixtures, and an imposing shadow was cast over the rotting wooden staircase.
“I’m back,” a chilling voice called down to the cellar. “Did you miss me?”
In the lengthy conversation that ensued, Barney Stahl–or the man claiming to be Barney Stahl–had spilled his guts. He had caught his own brother, Darren, red-handed. Literally.
Darren’s hands were covered in blood and one hand was still grasping the straight razor when Barney found him holed up in that soundproof cellar. The girl was a drifter, brown hair, eighteen or nineteen. And she wasn’t the first either. She was the fourth.
He tried talking some sense into Darren. Tried talking to him about getting some help. But Barney could see his brother was beyond help.
That night, he snuck out and walked to the nearest payphone on the corner of Essex of Fairview. But Darren had trailed him there. And before Barney could place that call to the police, Darren had pierced his lung with the edge of a sharp knife.
Barney urged Mark to put a stop to Darren before he killed again. “223 Ridgewood Drive,” was the last thing Barney said before the line went dead.
Watkins was at a crossroads. What could be done? If he went to the police and babbled absurd tales of haunted payphones and vengeful spirits, they’d tell him to beat it or haul him off to the local laughing academy in restraints. And if what Barney said was true and he tried to take on Darren Stahl himself, he could easily wind up dead. It was quite the predicament he had found himself in.
So he improvised.
An anonymous call was placed to the Ridgewood police department. Darren Stahl was arrested one hour later. Stacy Montgomery was found locked inside his damp, soundproof cellar. A few bruises aside, the girl was relatively unharmed.
Physically speaking, that is. Mentally, the scar that Darren Stahl had left on Stacy would not soon fade. But her trauma was soothed when she heard the news that Stahl was looking at five consecutive life sentences.
She never got to thank her mysterious savior, the one who had placed the call. The cops were able to trace the call, but all it led to was a payphone on the corner of Essex and Fairview.
A week later, Mark Watkins was on his daily route when he turned the corner of Essex and Fairview and the prehistoric payphone began to chime. With no one else around to answer the call, Mark hesitated briefly before lifting the receiver to his ear.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Thank you,” was all Barney said before his voice faded away.