THE TAIL OF THE ANSWERING MACHINE
by Kate Tana
Assistant District Attorney Joe Kimball
stuck his head around the open
doorway: "Yo, Tim, quittin' time. You ready?"
Tim Graham grinned and swung his feet
down from his desk. He gave one last, cursory
glance to the file he had been reading and stood up.
"Sure, what the hell . . . it's Friday."
He gestured to the windstorm of papers on his
desk. "These aren't going anywhere."
Joe grinned. "OK, so let's go."
"In a sec," Tim nodded as he picked up the phone. "I just have to check my machine."
Joe frowned as Tim began to dial his
home phone number. "You still getting those
"Yeah," Tim nodded as he began to punch
in his replay code. "Pretty much every day
now, but only during the week — in the daytime or when I'm not home — never when I'm
"Weird," Joe responded. "Like whoever's
doing this knows your schedule, huh?"
"Yeah, something else to worry about."
Tim listened for a long moment, punched in his
ending code and hung up the phone.
Joe brightened. "Finally gave up, huh?"
Tim shook his head. "No, there was
another one . . . . I didn't know you were into heavy
breathing, or I'd have let you listen."
The two friends left the office as
Joe said, "You'd think this guy would've figured out by
now that he's calling another guy's phone and move on already."
Tim was uncharacteristically abrupt.
He was uncomfortable talking about this
anymore, even with Joe.
"You know, Joey, you have an unbelievable
nose for the obvious. Why assume it's a
guy? As it happens, it's a woman doing the breathing. The voice is sort of husky and loud,
but it was definitely female."
* * *
Much later the same night, Tim
staggered slightly as he caught his foot coming in
his front door. He had no idea why he was dragging his only clean suit jacket along the
dusty floor like a pull-toy; maybe he'd remember why in the morning.
He stumbled again as he entered the
bedroom. A shape rose from the bed and was
silhouetted against the moonlit window. As Tim flicked on the light, the shape wagged its
tail and bounded off the bed.
"Easy, easy girl," Tim said unsteadily.
"Down, Martha, down," he continued as he
managed to pat his English setter on the head on the third try. He threw his jacket in the
general direction of the bed and submitted himself to the frantic and loving attentions of the
dog. After a couple of minutes he rose and led the dog through the townhouse, downstairs,
and out into the pocket-sized yard that attempted to live under his deck. Martha stopped at
the door and looked at Tim reproachfully; this was the shortcut he took on occasions when
he got home too late and too drunk to navigate the length of Catherine Street for a real walk.
Leaving Martha to her explorations
of the yard, Tim wove his way back to the telephone
and answering machine. The machine was blinking steadily: once, twice, three times as he
eased himself onto the bed. But as he lowered his head, the room began to rotate in slow,
Bad idea, he thought as he reached for the play button on the answering machine. As the
tape rewound, he mouthed a silent prayer. At the same time, he was unable to stop
checking his machine, waiting to once again hear that slow, heavy breathing.
Tim shook his head and tried to remember
when he'd last gotten this drunk. The reason
wasn't a real mystery; Joe had spent the entire night pumping him for information about
the hang-up calls. Tim had left the bar abruptly when Joe, after his fourth or fifth drink,
had offered the suggestion that the caller was Tim's girlfriend, Andrea.
* * *
"Get real," Tim had practically
shouted; he knew what Joe was leading up to. The
people at the next table had briefly stopped debating batting averages and turned to look at
him. "And just who the hell is it that's supposed to be fatally attracted to me, huh?"
There was a long pause before Joe replied.
When he spoke, he looked everywhere but
directly at Tim. "Well, it would have to be Andrea, wouldn't it?"
After that, Tim left the bar. Joe threw
some money on the table and ran out after him.
Joe caught Tim by the arm, but before Joe could say anything, Tim continued as though
there had been no break in the conversation. "And just suppose . . . which I don't for one
minute . . . just suppose you're right . . . why now? Why nothing in the last four months?"
"I don't know," Joe answered. "Maybe
she didn't have enough invested before now. Hell,
Tim, look, you know I don't like Andrea . . . but that doesn't change how I feel about this . . .
it's not a joke anymore . It's got to be someone who knows you and knows your schedule.
Who else could it be? Remember how Andrea got at that party last month? Hell, even the
worst dregs from the office couldn't come near you. It was like she was spitting flames."
* * *
". . . And don't forget to call
now if you'd like to come up and take a look at this
fabulous time-share property. Prime weeks are still available . . . ." Tim shook himself
and realized that the had fogged out during the first message. Before he could rewind the
tape, there was a beep and the second message began.
"Hi, darling. Me again. Or should I
say, me speaking for the first time? I thought I'd
let you hear my voice for a change. The hang-ups are effective, but it's nice to hear
someone's voice, don't you think?"
Tim stared at the machine and concentrated
on recognizing the voice. It sounded rusty,
but familiar. He decided that someone was disguising her voice.
The voice continued: "Still have you
guessing, don't I? Well, the answer's pretty
obvious. . . ." Here, the voice grew somewhat agitated. "You've always had a talent for the
obvious, Tim, especially when it comes to women . . . always go for the cheap and easy ones.
. . ." The voice trailed off and the heavy breathing that had become so familiar to Tim filled
the room. Then she spoke again. "However, I've always thought you were, shall we say,
trainable? Anyway, I've got you now."
Tim sank back on the bed, shaken by
the intensity of emotion in the voice. He jerked
involuntarily as the third and last message began. The voice that trilled out of the machine
this time was unmistakably Andrea's.
"Hi, kiddo, I suppose you're out on
one of your Friday night prowls with Joe. Well, hope
you had fun, but just remember: boys' night is boys' night out, not a time to scout out new
talent." Tim frowned as he listened to Andrea sigh and then continue.
"Look, hon, I just found out that I
have to work on Saturday, so I won't be able to go to
the reunion in New York with you. There's nothing I can do about it. I hate the idea of you
going there by yourself; I really hate it. But I guess it can't be helped. Anyway, I can stay
over at your place and doggie-sit Martha if you'd like. Give me a call, 'kay?"
Tim sat and replayed the two messages
over and over until a piteous whine reminded
him that he'd left Martha outside for far too long. He ignored the dog's bids for his attention
as his mind raced along several paths at once. After replaying the messages several more
times, he was no closer to deciding whether or not the two messages had been left by the
same person, and especially whether or not Andrea had been that person.
Tim finally fell asleep much later,
with Martha laying right next to him. He dreamed of
a line-up where all the suspects were Andrea, except for one woman who remained in
shadow. He sat in front of the line-up with Martha at his feet, growling at the women. A
telephone began to ring on the table next to him. As he picked it up, Martha looked up at
him and thumped her tail. He looked up and saw that all the Andreas and the other woman
each held a telephone in their hands. He woke up in a cold sweat.
* * *
Tim left for his law school reunion
on Friday, feeling as if he had never
recovered from the binge of the previous weekend. His head spun every time he considered
the possibility that Andrea was behind the phone calls. There had been more messages.
Same throaty, raspy voice; like someone giving her voice a workout for the first time in a
long time. He had agreed to let Joe get a buddy in the police department to run a tap on the
phone, but that was as far as he was willing to go yet.
Not knowing what else to do, Tim followed
his original plan and left for New York
directly from work. He said nothing about Andrea's plan to stay at his place for the
weekend, despite his misgivings. Before he left, he called her and told her that he wanted to
talk to her about something when he got back.
* * *
Andrea Banner sat back on her heels
and brushed the stray hair out of her eyes.
It was four o'clock on Saturday afternoon and she had only just finished cleaning the first
floor of Tim's townhouse. She had been amazed at the mess when she walked in the night
before; for a guy who was so particular about his suits and personal appearance, his house
was a pig-sty.
"You have my sympathy, Martha," she
said out loud as she turned to look to the kitchen;
the dog had been lying there just s few minutes ago. Now she had disappeared again. Andrea
shook her head; the dog seemed to be going out of its way to avoid her. She supposed it was
the upset at having Tim away and her there alone. Last night had been a real struggle;
Martha had thrown herself across the bed so that Andrea couldn't even get a corner to
herself. Andrea had eventually given up trying to shove the large dog over and had spent
the night in the guest room.
Now, as Andrea straightened up, her
eyes roamed around the first floor in satisfaction;
the place really looked great when it was done. She stood poised between the living room
and kitchen areas, undecided as to what to do next. The bright sunshine got her out on the
deck to water the plants.
* * *
Andrea stepped out onto the deck,
loaded down with Tim's gardening tools and a
stepladder to deal with the hanging baskets. She smiled as she spotted Martha, basking in
the sun between two redwood lounge chairs at the far side of the deck.
"Hi, Martha. So this is where you've
been hiding out. Can't say I blame you. It's
gorgeous out here, isn't it? Maybe we'll have an early dinner out here, whaddaya say?"
The dog merely lifted its head and gazed at Andrea. Andrea turned her back to the dog and
clambered up the ladder. Andrea was about four feet off the deck, while the drop to the yard
was almost 18 feet.
Andrea sighed as she contemplated watering
the dozen or more hanging baskets that hung
over the deck. She was underneath the plants closest to the sliding door. She began to pluck
the dead leaves from the plant.
Martha, now fully awake from her nap,
lay on the deck with her head on her forepaws as
she watched Andrea's every move. Andrea, in the fashion of most people left alone with an
animal, began to talk to the dog.
"I think that after I finish these
plants, I'm going to go to the grocery store, Martha. We
need some wine and maybe a nice steak for dinner for tomorrow night when Tim gets home.
He said he had something special to talk to me about, and I think I know what it is." Andrea
finished watering the first group of plants and began moving closer to the edge of the deck.
Martha raised her head and cocked it to one side. Thus encouraged, Andrea continued to
"I think you're going to be seeing
a lot more of me after tomorrow, Martha. I think that
Tim wants to talk to me about moving in here — won't that be great?" In her enthusiasm,
Andrea rocked the metal stepstool; causing the sun to bounce off the side bar. Martha's eyes
narrowed as the glare bounced around the deck.
Andrea steadied the stool. "Jeez, I'm
such a klutz sometimes. Anyway, this is going to
be terrific, Martha." She laughed again. "I guess you're going to have to learn how to share
Tim with another woman, huh?"
Andrea was redecorating Tim's house
in her mind as she dragged the stepladder until it
stood under the flowerpots closest to the end of the porch. A few feet away, Martha rose and
padded silently across until she was standing next to the stool. She stood at the foot of the
stepstool and jumped, pushing her forepaws violently against Andrea's leg.
Andrea felt a sudden drop in the pit
of her stomach; she equated the feeling with the loss
of her footing. As she felt the stepstool go out from under her, she instinctively grabbed
for the only available support, the hanging planter. The screw holding the planter to the
wooden beam came flying out with a crack almost as soon as Andrea threw her weight onto
it. She had no time to scream.
Martha sat back on her haunches and
watched Andrea claw at the air as the combined
force of the fall and the pull of the planter sent her careening over the edge of the deck and
onto the ground 18 feet below. Right before she hit the ground, Andrea uttered one short,
powerful scream. The force of her body landing on the ground broke four ribs and both her
legs. The jagged edges of the broken ribs punctured several vital organs. Andrea was
unconscious almost immediately; the internal bleeding didn't kill her for almost an hour.
She wasn't discovered until Mrs. Grayson from the house in the back came out into her yard
to light her barbecue two hours later.
Above, Martha lay on the deck with
her head hanging over the side, napping as Andrea
died. Afterwards, Martha went inside and continued her nap on the bed she shared with
* * *
Two week as after Andrea's funeral,
Tim sat in his office, staring into space.
Outwardly, he looked like a man on the far edge of exhaustion. Inwardly, his mind raced at
a furious pace. He hadn't really started grieving yet; he knew that. For one thing, there
was the guilt: Andrea had died hours before he was going to call a halt to their relationship;
he had never had a chance to confront her about the phone calls. And he hadn't gotten over
the horror of the whole thing; the bruised and shattered shell that he had to face in the
morgue that weekend, and in the funeral home afterwards. Tim's reverie was interrupted
by the arrival of Joe, carrying an envelope.
"Tim . . . hey, man . . . how're you
doin'?" Joe cocked his head to one side and eyed Tim
speculatively. "You don't look so good. Getting any sleep? You gotta get sleep. Won't do
anybody any good if you start passing out."
Tim tried to rouse himself. "Yeah,
Joe, I'm OK, not great, but OK. What've you got for
me?" He stretched out his hand to take the envelope.
Suddenly, Joe looked uncomfortable;
he ducked to avoid meeting Tim's eye. "Well, it's . .
. well, I've got . . . ."
Tim was suddenly exhausted. "Just say it, Joe. I've got to get out of here."
Joe sighed. "OK, OK. I'm not sure I
should do this, but I thought you'd want to know,
even though . . . . . Well, here: We finally got the results of the trace we put on your
phone. We tracked thirty of them."
"And there were no calls. None."
"That's impossible. You heard the messages.
And besides, the answering machine gave
the dates and times of the calls." Tim took a deep breath. "Damn it, Joe, you heard the
"Hold on," Joe replied. "I didn't say
there were no messages; only that there were no
calls." At Tim's puzzled look, Joe continued. "The messages were left on your machine by
someone in your house. All the messages were left at times that you were out of the house,
based on the schedule you gave me."
"Well, at least that lets me out as
a psycho who was calling himself." He paused and
sighed. "Thanks, Joe, I appreciate you checking this out for me." He gestured to the phone,
and then almost defiantly dialed his home number.
"At least I don't have to be afraid
to check my machine anymore," he said to Joe as he
punched in his code. "Poor Andrea, she was much more screwed up than . . . ."
Tim's voice trailed off as he stared
at Joe. He held the receiver away from him as if it
had suddenly turned into a snake. He forced his now-shaking fingers to punch the speaker
button on the phone: The insistent and familiar sounds of heavy, female breathing, so
intense that it was a panting sound, filled the room.
Story copyright 1994 by Kate Tana
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