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THE RADIO by Stephen Caesar

My radio was the only thing that kept me from utter loneliness. It was my only friend and companion, but on the night of October 17, 1945, my relationship with it changed forever. That was the night my radio spoke to me with the voice of a murdered woman. I consider myself a rational person inhabiting a world of tangible reality, but that sepulchral voice irrevocably altered every assumption and belief that I possessed.

* * *

When Germany surrendered in May, I was shipped home. My parents had reserved a small apartment for me in New York City while the building was still under construction, which had begun in 1941 but was suspended after Pearl Harbor. Now, with thousands of newly unemployed soldiers returning home, construction had recommenced in earnest. That summer, I stayed at my parents’ suburban home and mentally recuperated, but when the building was finished in September, I moved in.

I quickly landed a job at a security firm, which valued my infantry background and the familiarity with weapons with which it had endowed me. With a good job and a decent home, I should have been content, but I was away from my hometown and family, and I had not yet developed much of a social life. My existence consisted of work followed by a solitary journey back to my apartment, and a trip every weekend to the YMCA to maintain my physical conditioning.

There was only one thing that mitigated my otherwise crushing solitude: a three-foot-tall upright radio, a housewarming gift from my parents. The eclectic programs kept me company in my loneliness: I would turn it on the moment I got home and keep it on as I fell asleep, just to provide background noise in my otherwise silent home. Although it was in the living room, my apartment was so small that I could hear it perfectly while in bed, since I had placed it just outside my bedroom door.

Every night at 11:00, I tuned to a station that played soothing chamber music to help myself fall asleep. On the night that changed my life, I crawled into bed as usual and drifted slowly into that in-between state where the tired mind straddles the realms of slumber and wakefulness. My eyelids snapped open, however, when the dulcet music was abruptly interrupted by the obnoxious crackling and distortion that a radio makes when it is not precisely tuned to a station. I was more annoyed than disconcerted, but my blood froze in my veins when the distortion was itself interrupted by a piteous female voice that I will never forget: “Help…” it said, “he’s killing me….”

Then it was gone.

I sat bolt upright, switched on the lamp on my bedside table, and glanced at the clock; it was exactly 11:47 PM. I got out of bed and lurched over to the radio, which had resumed its normal broadcast. Frantically I adjusted the knobs in a vain attempt to find that haunting, plaintive voice again, but to no avail. Finally, convincing myself that I had dreamed it in my semi-conscious state, I turned the radio off and stumbled back to bed.

* * *

The next day at work I barely thought about the incident, still dismissing it as a dream. Even when I returned home that evening and switched the radio on, the strange occurrence hardly registered in my mind. Before I turned in at 11:00, I as usual tuned to the station that played chamber music. Once the light was out, however, my mind went back to the previous night—in the lonely, silent darkness, I clearly had not succeeded in convincing myself that it had been just a dream. Several times I turned on the bedside lamp and glanced at the clock, as if expecting the incident to recur at the same time. As it got closer to 11:47, I turned the light on and kept it on, staring at the clock in morbid fascination. As the final minute approached, my heart began pounding.

The clock reached 11:47.

Crackling distortion interrupted the music as if on some ghoulish cue from the world beyond.

And then the voice came.

“Help…” An electric shock coursed through me. “He’s killing me….” I jumped out of bed and lumbered over to the radio. I knelt down and turned the volume up.

“I don’t want to die…” went on the plaintive voice. It ceased abruptly and was replaced by distortion, followed by music.

Dazed, horrified, I remained kneeling before the radio as if it were a death-shrine. Was I in a dream so realistic that I didn’t realize I was dreaming? I stood up slowly and shuffled back to bed. I lay there for hours, staring at the ceiling with the light on before descending into a troubled sleep.

* * *

The following day at work was abysmal. I shambled about mindlessly, my eyes half-closed from insufficient sleep, my face ashen from the baleful incidents of the previous two nights. Thinking I was sick, my boss sent me home around noon. I trudged home slowly, and when I entered my apartment, I didn’t bother turning on the radio. Without eating, I went straight to bed, dropping off instantly. It was only hunger that woke me at nearly 6:00 P.M., and I had to surrender to my physical needs. As I left my bedroom, I succumbed to habit and turned the radio on. I went into the kitchen and made a meal while enjoying some music. As I ate, I ruminated on the incidents of the two previous nights. Was it a recurring dream that I had convinced myself was real? Was it a delusion concocted by my lonely mind?

But I could not maintain this hard-nosed skepticism. The woman’s voice was simply too real. Had she been the victim of a murder, her anguished soul crying out for justice? Had the crime occurred in this apartment, even though I was its first occupant? Rational man though I deemed myself to be, I knew I had to learn the truth of this phantasmic enigma.

I spent the rest of the evening sitting next to the radio, trying to let the music soothe my tortured mind, but I could focus on nothing except that desperate, pleading voice. When the chamber music began at 11:00, I stood up and started pacing the room, frequently glancing at the clock on my living room wall. After an agonizingly slow forty-seven minutes, the distortion began on cue, as if some spectral hand were moving the tuning knob. I stopped my pacing.

“Help… He’s killing me… I don’t want to die!” Then she added: “The pipe.”

I was dizzy with terror, but my addled, horrified brain was lucid enough to notice that with each successive night she said the same thing but added words each time. Would further nights reveal the true origin of these nightmarish cries for help? And what did she mean by “the pipe”?

On the fourth night, I heard something entirely different: a gravelly male voice dripping with malevolence. “Shut up, whore! You deserve it; you sell your body.” I now had the killer’s voice and his motive: he had murdered a prostitute. But what good would such knowledge do me—or her? How many young women in this moral cesspool of a city had fled wretched home lives and been forced to sell their bodies? And how had she found her way into this apartment before I moved in? Worse, how could I identify the murderer based on voice alone? These anguished thoughts tormented my psyche, for I wanted nothing more than to bring her killer to justice. But how could I, if it meant telling the authorities I had learned of a murder from a ghostly voice over the radio? I realized with grim self-honesty that I would have to solve the crime on my own, and that all I could do was wait for her to speak again.

On the fifth night, the radio emitted a sound that made me feel as if frozen maggots were swarming through my innards. The music stopped at 11:47 and the customary distortion began, but this time there were no voices. Instead, I heard something that sickened rather than frightened me: the sound of a blunt, heavy object striking flesh. The nauseating thumps continued for several minutes, punctuated by gaps of morbid silence and then, more revoltingly, the whimpers of a female voice. My stomach turned as I slowly realized what the victim had meant when she said “the pipe”: she had been bludgeoned to death.

But this appalling revelation only deepened the mystery. How could such a physically demanding act of violence take place in this small apartment without awakening the neighbors? I had been here for about a month, and I had heard all of my neighbors: above, below, on both sides, and across the hall. Would not at least one of them have heard something? These seemingly unanswerable questions bothered me more than the cryptic voices and gruesome sounds that had come over the airwaves, because they gripped me in a state of infuriating impotence.

At 11:47 P.M. on the sixth night, something changed. It was the woman’s voice again, but rather than emitting a pitiful cry for help, she spoke in an objective, informative tone: “While it was being built.”

Her messages ceased after that laconic missive, but my desire for justice did not wane—rather, it grew more intense now that her communications had stopped. Had the grisly crime occurred while this edifice was still under construction? It was likely, I surmised, that one of the men who had worked on its construction brought her up here under the pretext of satisfying his prurient lusts but instead had killed her. At least now I had something to go on.

* * *

If there was anyone who knew the comings and goings of this building, it was the concierge. I spoke with him one Saturday in late October; he informed me that he had taken up his post shortly before the building was completed in order to familiarize himself with the premises. I was about to ask him if anything untoward had happened during construction, when, as if reading my mind, he beckoned me closer. He glanced around as if on the lookout for spies and then said in a hushed tone:

“We think some of the construction workers may have brought in ladies of the evening for immoral purposes—if you know what I mean.”

I felt the frigid claws of death seize my heart. As if I were not unnerved enough, he looked around again and whispered, “One of those ladies was murdered—right here in this building. They hushed it up to avoid bad publicity.”

“In which room?” I asked through a dry mouth.

“They wouldn’t tell me,” he replied with marked disappointment.

“Was she killed by one of the builders?”

His eyes bulged with lurid fascination. “We’re not sure. The building was wide open during construction, so anyone could have come in after dark with one of those”—he searched for the appropriate word and then whispered it as if it were illegal to say aloud—“prostitutes.”

So that was it: Someone familiar with the half-built structure must have brought her to my apartment under cover of night. With construction still underway, pipes and other items would be lying around, easily within reach of a psychotic killer. The death blows probably came at 11:47, and in the darkness it would have been easy for him to carry her body out of the empty building and dispose of it somewhere in the city.

With a croaking voice I thanked the concierge and left.

If I thought I had made progress, however, cold reality quickly disabused me of that conceit. How could I find the killer based on such flimsy evidence? How many carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and others had contributed to the creation of so large a structure? How could I track them all down, and how would I be able to determine which one was the malefactor, especially if, after the crime, he had simply disappeared? My only hope was that his victim would communicate with me again and tell me what I desperately needed to know.

But she spoke no more, and I began to despair of ever solving the crime.

* * *

Things changed drastically, however, when I stumbled upon a happenstance that I could not ascribe to pure coincidence. One evening in early November after work, as I was walking past the concierge’s desk toward the elevator, I overheard him speaking with a man in his late twenties. Based on his overalls and his rough, working-class accent, I surmised that he was here for some sort of repair job. I was not mistaken.

“I’ll have dem pipes fixed in no time,” he was saying in a gravelly voice as I waited for the elevator. “Sometimes dey clog up like a whore.”

Ice shot through my veins as the elevator doors opened and I stepped in. The instant he half-growled that last word, I recognized his voice from the radio. I also realized that I had seen his face many times without giving it a second thought: he was the building’s on-call plumber, summoned whenever the pipes needed fixing. I stared at him with incandescent fury as the elevator doors closed. Fortunately, he did not notice me glaring at him, but continued his conversation with the concierge. I now knew what I had to do.

* * *

That night I sat on the edge of my bed, wide awake. I could scarcely comprehend the inescapable magnitude of my duty: I could only bring this man to justice by killing him, since no policeman, judge, or juror would believe how I learned about the murder. I would have to seek justice alone.

I agonized over how to implement my plan. Why the victim had abandoned me at this crucial juncture I will never know, but I knew I had to carry out my intended action. For a weapon, I instinctively decided on a carving knife from my kitchen, since I was still fresh from serving in Europe, where I had engaged in a good deal of hand-to-hand combat using my standard-issue knife against enemy soldiers amid the rubble of bombed-out German cities. Moreover, I could easily conceal it under the bulky overcoat that my parents had given me, along with a pair of leather gloves and a hat, as a parting gift. I pulled on the gloves, extricated the knife from the drawer, and meticulously wiped my fingerprints from its handle with a dish towel. I then wrapped the weapon in the towel and placed it inside one of the coat’s capacious interior pockets. All I could do now was wait.

On the Sunday following my conversation with the concierge, I decided to take action. Since it was a Sunday, I could be in the building without arousing suspicion, so I decided to create a plumbing emergency and then have the concierge alert my quarry. I jammed an excessive amount of toilet paper down my toilet and flushed. When the inevitable occurred, I telephoned the concierge and waited.

When a knock finally came at my door, it sounded like the bony hand of the Grim Reaper. Swallowing hard and trying to look casual, I opened the door.

There he was.

“Youze gotta problem wit yah toilet?” he asked in that voice that grated against my psyche like sharp stones. I calmly informed him of my problem, escorted him to the bathroom, and left him to his work. I draped my overcoat over one arm, grabbed my hat and gloves with the other, and headed downstairs. As I passed through the lobby, I said nonchalantly to the concierge, “I’m off to the Y.”

He smiled and nodded politely as I left through the front door. I walked directly across the street to a small park roughly half the size of a city block. It was thick with evergreen shrubbery and was thus the ideal location for me to lurk unnoticed, waiting for the plumber to exit the building after he had finished. I donned my coat, hat, and gloves, and waited.

After about an hour he came out. I felt a surge of loathing as I watched him turn to his left and walk down the sidewalk. I surreptitiously emerged from the greenery and followed him, thankful for the gathering darkness of the late autumn afternoon. I stayed on my side of the street, trying not to lose him amid the other pedestrians.

Fortunately, the streets of my neighborhood were a square grid, so it was not difficult to follow him. My chief concern was that he would see me and recognize my face from our brief encounter. I flipped up the collar of my overcoat and tugged the brim of my hat down to my eyebrows, feigning defense against the November chill. However, since he had no reason to believe that anyone was following him, he took no notice of me.

I dogged him furtively for several blocks until the environs began to grow noticeably seedier. As the darkness thickened and the neighborhood became more dilapidated, it dawned on me that this disreputable locale might be the Red Light district. The veracity of my supposition was confirmed as, the darker it got and the deeper we penetrated into this decaying, impoverished borough, I began to see a young woman on nearly every street corner, standing under a streetlamp, dressed provocatively and giving me alluring stares. It now made sense: this was a neighborhood rife with prostitution, a perfect hunting ground for a psychotic killer.

My mind crawled with questions. Was the woman on the radio his first victim? His so-far only victim? In the time since he had killed her, had he killed others? Where did he kill them, now that my building was no longer under construction, and where did he dispose of their bodies? These questions would have to wait: my most pressing concern now was not to lose him as the streets and alleyways of this squalid neighborhood grew increasingly chaotic.

Suddenly he ducked into a gloomy alleyway. I crossed the street and followed him, my heart pounding maniacally. The dingy walls of the narrow alley seemed to close in upon me like sentient, threatening life-forms. The only illumination was a grayish stripe of dying sunlight several stories above, and an equally dismal swath of light directly ahead. I grew increasingly apprehensive as I saw my quarry’s figure outlined against the dim light straight ahead of us: all he had to do was turn around and he would see me. I had no cover whatsoever, but I had to keep him in sight so as not to lose him in this gloaming pit of refuse and urban blight.

My mind raced frantically as I kept my gaze on his silhouette. Was he carrying a gun? Would my foot accidentally kick an empty can or bottle and alert him to my presence? A homicidal thug like him would surely have no compunction about shooting me in cold blood.

Don’t turn around, my mind repeated, fecklessly trying to send signals to the killer. Don’t turn around… Don’t turn around…

It was like I was back in Germany.

However, so apparently self-assured was he that he made no effort to glance over his shoulder even once. He issued from the far end of the alley and strode confidently into what I saw was a rubble-strewn courtyard. I held back, not wanting to expose myself, just in case his cockiness flagged and he should turn around to see if he was being followed. He did no such thing, but continued toward the opposite side of the courtyard, negotiating his way in the dimness through the bricks, cinder blocks, and pieces of lumber that lay strewn in his path. The building on the opposite side was partially demolished; its rear wall had a doorway with no door and a window with no panes. I surmised that this was to be his intended killing ground; it was the perfect place for a murder.

Once his shape had melted into the black rectangle of the doorway, I exited the alleyway and crept across the courtyard. As I wended my way through the wreckage, my mind again went back to my time in Germany, hunting enemy soldiers amid bombed-out buildings. Finally, I reached the doorway and carefully peered inside. To my surprise, the interior was not totally dark. Since nearly half the roof was gone, there was still a feeble light coming down from the glowering sky. In this weak illumination I was able to descry his outline and, to my horror and dismay, the figure of what clearly was a young woman.

They were speaking to each other. Her voice was unmistakably young and feminine, and his was the same gravelly, malice-filled voice that I loathed so intensely. Obviously, they were discussing what she thought would be a monetary transaction, pitifully unaware of his true intentions. Although I was glad that what I was about to do would save her life, I realized that she would be a witness.

Before my racing mind could decide what to do, he took her by the arm and began leading her to the very doorway through which I was peering. Apparently, I had miscalculated: this building was a liaison spot, and not the place where he intended to kill her. I quickly moved aside and flattened myself against the exterior wall just to the right of the doorway. As I did so, my foot touched something heavy and solid: a large cinder block. It was then that I instantly formulated a plan. I picked up the block with both hands and raised it over my head.

Within seconds they emerged, the girl first, being half-shoved, half-guided by the plumber. After they had taken a mere two paces into the courtyard, but before either of them could notice me, I brought the cinder block down on his head. It was not a particularly heavy blow—it did not have to be, given the sheer weight of the object. Silently he collapsed to the ground. The prostitute whirled around and gasped in horror.

“Go!” I said, muffling my voice behind my turned-up collar. “He kills women like you! Get out of here and forget you ever saw me!”

Her mouth open and her eyes bulging in fear, she whirled back around and half-stumbled her way toward the alley. Once she had disappeared, I dropped the cinder block and pulled out my knife. I could have dispatched him with a few more blows of the cinder block, but I wanted to make absolutely sure of his demise, and I knew a knife across his throat would remove all doubt.

He was on all fours, his forehead nearly touching the ground, and in the last vestiges of daylight I could just barely see blood trickling from his head. With a methodical resoluteness that I had developed fighting Nazis, I extricated the towel from my inside pocket, unwound it, put it back in my pocket, and knelt down, the knife in my right hand. Then an idea came to me: I would slit his throat with my left hand, despite my right-handedness, in order to throw the police off. I had been trained to use both hands with equal proficiency in knife fighting, so I took the knife in my left hand, grabbed a handful of his hair with my right, and calmly lifted his head so we could make eye contact. I wanted to be dramatic, to tell him about the woman on the radio, but I had to finish my task and vanish.

With the steely coldness of a bloodied combat veteran, I slit his throat. I barely saw the blood in the dimness, but I heard him give a sickening gasp followed by the morbidly satisfying sound of his lifeblood spilling onto the concrete. I wanted to do more to him, but there was no time for such theatrics. I knew there was no way he could survive both the blow to the head and the slit throat, so I calmly removed the towel from my pocket, wrapped the knife in it, and walked back toward the alley, gingerly picking my way through the detritus as I stuffed the knife into my pocket.

Once I entered the filthy alleyway and began heading back toward the street, my icy resolve melted into a sense of mounting dread: would the prostitute summon a cop? There was, of course, no way she could know that what I had told her was the truth, and as far as she was concerned, I was the stone-cold killer, while the plumber was just another lust-filled customer. As I approached the opening of the alley, fear strengthened its iron grip on my pounding heart: I could picture her dragging a police officer by the sleeve, pointing at me and screaming “Murderer!”

When I emerged onto the dimly lit sidewalk, however, there was no sign of her. I began heading in the direction from which I had come, looking at the ground not just to hide my face from potential passersby but also to search for a sewer grate. Inevitably I spotted one, and bending down I pulled the towel-wrapped knife from my pocket and dropped it through the malodorous opening. Once I heard the splash of the object hitting the foul water below, I straightened up and headed home.

* * *

The walk back was an eternity: to my mind, every shadow hid a policeman who would jump out and arrest me; every alley sheltered a witness who would jut his finger at me accusingly. But I made it back to my building safely and anonymously.

Before I entered, I removed my gloves, hat, and overcoat. If the woman did indeed go to the police, I did not want to be seen in any recognizable attire. I put the gloves in one of the pockets of the overcoat, which I then draped over my hat in my left hand. I went inside, greeted the night concierge as casually as I could, and stepped into the elevator. Once I had entered my apartment and locked the door behind me, I threw my hat onto the kitchen table and slung my coat over the back of one of the chairs. It was 11:26 P.M.

I turned on the radio as I headed toward my bedroom. As the apartment filled with chamber music, I slumped wearily onto my bed, still in my street clothes. For what seemed like hours, but was only twenty minutes, I lay on the covers staring at the ceiling, my mind devoid of cogent thoughts. Then, at precisely 11:47, I heard the crackling sound of distortion followed by a familiar female voice:

“Thank you.”

And I heard from her no more.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Stephen Caesar is former professor of English literature at Newbury College in Boston and former senior Docent at the Harvard Semitic Museum. He has had two peer-reviewed research articles published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly and one fiction story published in Black Petals.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Radio”:

Author Stephen Caesar has given us an intriguing post-WWII ghost tale/murder mystery. We liked that his main character is not a police detective, just an ordinary citizen thrust into an unexpected role. This makes the story more compelling and resonant.

We want to point out that this piece represents a bit of an exception to our general rule of not publishing stories that contain killing and violence. But in this case, we felt that it contained sufficient mitigating factors (the killing is not overly graphic and is justice-driven, not for revenge).

The astute reader might also notice that none of the characters, including the main character, are named. Yet, because the author has so firmly anchored us in his main character’s head and told us all we need to know about him, his name is unimportant. If anything, not divulging any names keeps us more focused on the story itself and therefore makes for a stronger story.