The slight dripping sounds from the kitchen abruptly ended my post vacation buzz as soon as I opened the front door. Knots that I had hoped were lost somewhere on a Hawaiian beach returned to their home in the small of my back as I began the process of doing mental math. The last plumbing mishap relieved me of a month's pay and half of my comic collection. Judging by the competing tones of multiple drips, I told myself this was going to be an expensive plumbing emergency.
Rounding the corner, my jaw went slack at the sight of thick red liquid dripping from my ceiling. During my absence, my ceiling had transformed from a bland, sterile beige to an oozing crimson tapestry. I rushed out the door to my upstairs neighbor's apartment as I dialed 911. My silent prayer for their safety was interrupted by the dispatcher's mechanical greeting. Before she could finish, I began rattling off the first words I thought of.
"My name is Edward Michaels and I lived at 3710 Santiago Lane. I just returned from vacation to find blood dripping from my ceiling. It's coming from the Andersons' apartment and .... Wait, their front door is ajar."
Numb, I attempted to narrate the scene as I choked back a resurgence of airline chicken. Mr. Anderson at the head of the table, his wife to his right, and their little boy to his left all bound and gagged in their places at the dinner table. Each one gutted and served a plate of their own entrails. On the Dinning room floor a message, written in intestine, the one clue as to the mind of the one who did this.
"Es fließt frei."
Spots crowded around the corners of my vision as I staggered backwards. Ears ringing, I didn't catch the response of the operator as I weakly excused myself from the call. What use was an ambulance at this point, anyway?
Instinctively, I sought out the safety of the nearest person. Mrs. Richards, the retired teacher who baked cookies for the tenants every Christmas, lived across the hall. Desperation in my knock shifted to dread when the force of my blow caused the door to swing open.
For nearly a second I attempted to convince myself that the initial rush of copper and decay was actually baking sugar cookies. The dark, red smear from the living room rug, that disappeared down her hallway, was the result of a spilled glass of wine and faulty rug cleaner. The viscous message on the wall was a leftover Halloween decoration. No amount of self induced denial was able to explain away the familiar phrase.
"Es fließt frei."
Determined to prove I wasn't the only living person within the complex I continued checking on the floor's inhabitants. Door by door I entered the unlocked rooms finding only more evidence of the carnage I missed. 34C, a man I'd only known through hallway greetings, had been dissected like a high school lab experiment. The centerpiece of the Jensen's living room was a toy chest full of viscera. Morbid curiosity confirmed my hunch; packed away neatly in stacks were organs from victims throughout the complex. Every apartment contained the same message.
Despairing, I finally headed downstairs to the super's apartment. Again, the unlocked door offered no resistance to my exploration. By now, I had begun to expect the worst at the turn of the knob. Yet, I still couldn't have predicted finding the super's body suspended like a marionette, strips of flesh excised to spell the words I dreaded. Crumpled on the floor, his utility belt still held the assorted tools needed for his job - except his set of master keys.
Then I realized, I hadn't unlocked a door since my return. Not a single neighbor's door was locked. A freezing sensation crawled along my spine; my door had been unlocked.
Without hesitation I ran up the stairs to the main entrance. Refusing to turn, the door held firm despite repeated blows. I very nearly missed it under the sounds of my desperate hammering, a door slammed shut upstairs. Just as I convinced myself I was hearing something, another door slammed, but this time it was slightly closer.
Soon, doors were slamming shut in a torturous cacophony. I backed away, hiding under the stairs just before the clunking boots could be heard on the stairway. Frozen, I listen as the individual descended one floor and then started slamming more doors shut.
The stalker had to have heard me, and yet it appeared to be in no hurry to kill me. It was putting on a show, and I only had one more floor between it and me. I didn't have long before it would be able to kill the one resident it had missed.
Solid, secure and the furthest point from the intruder, the boiler room seemed like my best chance at salvation. Serving as the occasional tornado shelter, it was built to withstand primal forces. That fact was the only reassuring information I'd had all day.
I slid the doors shut and piled whatever nearby objects I could in front of it. An old wobbly desk that the super had been promising to fix for the better part of a year, parts to the last water heater, and an underutilized grill shielded me from the madness but not the slamming doors.
Taking advantage of the first moment of security, I surveyed my surroundings for anything that would help strengthen my barrier. Lying next to the air conditioning unit there was a mysterious pile of tubing, tanks, and a gas mask. Empty, the tanks were useless beyond an ironic bracing for my barricade.
No longer were doors slamming. For an eternity, I imagined myself alone. Daydreams of safety were shattered as the barricade shook from a series of impacts. The grill, a bargain unit, bent as the intruder put its' weight into entry. The wobbly desk leg splintered, but held, after a running attempt at the door.
My fingers slipped as I repositioned one of the tanks. With a terrible clang one of the tanks broke free of my grasp and rolled across the floor. I nearly broke from the door to retrieve it, but I restrained myself.
Through the door slipped a phrase full of deliberate calm, "Ich bin noch nicht fertig mit spielen."
After he spoke, I continued pushing against the door for what felt like hours, expecting another assault. Just as I had began to rest against the wall, a grinding thud shook the door. An axe soon burst through, deeply scarring the grill. I grabbed a tank, preparing to swing it as soon as the door gave way. If he wanted a toy, I was willing to play.
Much to my relief, the firefighter's shouts assured me that my earlier call had been heard. Within minutes I am escorted outside within a protective ring of cops, medics, and firefighters. The coffee in the ambulance provides bitter comfort as I slowly start to bear witness.