I've worked a lot of odd jobs over the years. What can I say? The economy sucks.
My level of education is not sufficient to get hired at the jobs where you make the big bucks. For a long time I cut grass, shoveled sidewalks or flipped burgers. And then there was the time I scored a position as a night watchman at a local office complex.
The Maynard Building has been around a long while. It's an old brick structure that I've driven past for years, barely even looking at it, but when times got really lean I found myself in its lobby, interviewing for a position.
There wasn't much to the night watchman job. The building is three floors and a basement, most of which is viewable from a bank of monitors in a back room. The building's in a pretty quiet area of town, and there's nothing in it to steal, so really, I discovered on my first shift that this was a pretty low-key sort of job.
Gerry showed me the ropes, along with the guy I'd be sharing part of my shift with, a younger guy named Mike. Gerry was nearing sixty, if he wasn't already past it, but the best you'd ever get from him was "Forty-five and holding." Mike was younger than me; didn't even look like he's been out of high school for very long.
Gerry was the afternoon security guard who, technically, was in charge of Mike and I. Which is to say that he made sure we kept the sheets properly and caught hell if we didn't, but he didn't actually have any authority over us, and never acted like he did. If anything, it was more like three guys who did the same job; Gerry did his from 4 PM to midnight, Mike came on duty at 5 PM, which is when the business day was officially over, and stayed until 1 AM, and I started at midnight and finished at 8 AM, officially opening the doors in the morning to let in Lester, the morning security guard, whom I rarely ever interacted with.
Within a week, I fit into the rhythm of the place very easily. Gerry and Mike were fun guys. I'd get there in time to hang out with both men for a bit, share a smoke with Mike and Gerry before Gerry departed for the night, and then hung out, joked, smoked and argued with Mike until he left, at which point I'd usually pick up a novel, play games on my phone or just about anything to keep my mind occupied, until the morning.
There were duties other than monitoring the stations, of course. Every hour, on the hour, a full circuit of each floor, and the basement, was necessary, and I was to mark on the sheet that I had done so, and put an "AC" for "all clear" next to my name, unless I found something out of the ordinary, which rarely happened. I was told that at worst I might right down that a light needed replacing or there was a drip in the ceiling somewhere.
Mike wasn't a stickler for doing his rounds, and Gerry didn't care if we missed a few corners, but I usually did my best to ensure I'd done my duty there. After all, it was the only part of the job that actually felt like work, plus I was pretty sure that if I missed something big, it would be recorded by the cameras that I didn't do my rounds.
About three weeks into the job, I first heard the term "Joe the Creep". Gerry said it in response to something Mike had said. When I think back to the conversation, I can't really recall what Mike said to prompt him, but Gerry had laughed and said "Yeah, and I'm gonna let old Joe the Creep get me, too." Mike laughed back in response.
I didn't pay too much attention then, but after a couple of other references to "Joe the Creep", I started to get a little curious. It would always be a snide reference of some sort, like "Don't take too long in the toilet, Mike, Joe the Creep's probably watching you masturbate" or "Shower before the next shift, okay, Gerry? You're starting to smell like Joe the Creep" or even "Dude, the only guy interested in your story is Joe the Creep."
The straw that broke the camel's back happened on my last night there. I'd been there for just over three months. You'll understand in just a bit why I quit the next morning.
I was running slightly behind. The bus was late. Mike and Gerry were having a smoke, and I walked up to join them. Everything was normal for the first bit. Gerry was telling a ribald joke, Mike was laughing and hocking spit between each puff, and both greeted me like always when I walked up to the smoking area.
"You're a bit late," said Gerry. "For a little bit I wondered if Joe the Creep got you." Mike snorted.
"Dude, I hear you guys talk about Joe the Creep all the time," I said. "But you've never bothered to tell me who he is."
Gerry cocked an eyebrow. "Really? I was pretty sure we told you on your first day."
"Nope. But you guys reference him enough. What's up with that?"
Mike smirked and said "Old Joe the Creep, died in the deep. Gerry told me about him. I never met the guy, personally."
So. He was a real person. This was an interesting turn. Up until now he seemed like a story; an in-joke among the staff. I looked at Gerry and said "Well?"
Gerry took a long puff on his smoke and smiled, looking a little abashed. "Coulda sworn I told you, but oh well. Joe was a guy who used to work here back in...I wanna say it was the mid-80's but it could have been the late 70's. He wasn't here all that long, but while he was here, he made an impression. He didn't talk much, or at least, not to other people. He would come in, staring at the floor, mumbling to himself. He took his lunch breaks alone, didn't speak to anyone unless they spoke to him first, didn't seem to even realize others were around. You've worked with guys like that, right? Something's just a little off?"
"Sure," I said.
"Well, Joe, it turns out, actually was a bit of a creep. He kept writing stuff down in a little notebook, and never would let the rest of us see it, but one day he accidentally dropped it while in the elevator. There was a woman who worked here then, her name was Sue, I think, and she saw just a bit of what was in the notebook. It was enough to make her notify HR about him."
I wasn't all that surprised, but I pretended to be. "Oh, really? What was in it?"
"Sue wasn't allowed to talk about it, but boy did HR tear him a new one. He got a one-week suspension, and when he came back, he was even worse than before. Now he would stare at people, hardly even blinking, until they looked at him and then he would look away. He did this to me, once, but I told him if I caught him looking at me like that again, we'd have it out in the parking lot.
"But then the day came when a woman came shrieking out of the file room. Turned out that Joe was in there, hiding behind the cabinets and staring at her. Her eye managed to accidentally land on him, and he hissed at her. Nobody saw that but her, but I never had any trouble believing her, and they did find Joe in the copy room, still behind the cabinets. Needless to say, he was fired on the spot, but he asked if he could go get some of his personal files out of the basement before he left."
"I think I know where this is going," I said.
"Yeah, probably," said Gerry. "Back then, they didn't really think about sending someone down with him. They just had a guard wait at the top of the stairs. I mean, you know there's only one flight of stairs going down there."
"And...don't tell me," I said. "They found him dead."
"Cliched, isn't it?" said Gerry. "Yep. Hanging by his belt. That part I can verify, because when they were carrying out his body, the sheet that was over it slipped a little, and I saw the ligature marks. That was the end of Joe the Creep, or so they say."
"Or so they say?" I mimicked, wiggling my eyebrows. "Don't tell me. Joe the Creep haunts the basement to this very day?"
"Well, that part's the silly part," said Gerry. "See, there was a rumor that he had stashed that notebook down there, and that was what he was going to get. But for some reason he decided to hang himself instead. And, just like any story, it's sorta grown since then. Now there's even a rhyme you're not supposed to say."
I started laughing. This was too much. Sure, all old buildings had legends, but this one was just pure hoakum.
"A rhyme," I said. "Like what?"
"Well, let me see if I remember," said Gerry. "If you go to the top of the stairs, you're supposed to look down into the darkness, without turning the light on, and say,
Joe the Creep
Who died in the deep
I'm coming downstairs
So don't make a peep.
Kid's stuff, really, and I don't even remember who made it up."
"Somebody with a creative mind, I guess," I said. "But hey, don't tell me you never tried the rhyme."
At that, Gerry's face got a bit red and he seemed to choke a bit on his smoke. "Well, I..." he began. "Well, not...not really. I started to once, but...well, I don't like to play with stuff like that. Never did the Bloody Mary trick either. I been down in that basement lotsa times, and nothing ever happened, so why play around and invite something like that, right?"
Something felt cold on my neck. Up until that moment, it had all seemed like an amusing story. But Gerry's reaction was real. He believed in Joe the Creep. Believed enough to never test the legend, apparently.
We finished our smokes and went inside. When we got to the security booth, Gerry started packing up his stuff and I realized that we were all three as quiet as the grave. We usually were still laughing and joking at this point. Gerry even stayed quiet when he started heading out, not even saying good night. Mike must have noticed, because a few seconds later, he leapt up and followed him out.
I sat at the station monitors and stared at the various rooms as they flashed by. And I thought: Joe the Creep. How silly. But somehow, the image of being watched through a crack in filing cabinets, of a crazy man hissing as I spot him, stayed with me. Joe the Creep, who died in the deep. Don't close your eyes or he'll kill you in your sleep.
I wasn't helping myself by adding to the rhyme.
Mike came back a few moments later. I wasn't in a laughing mood yet, but he was. He usually was, actually.
"Well," he said. "Let's do our first circuit."
This surprised me, because Mike was never the guy to suggest we get up and do the circuit, and he often sat at the station while I did it alone. This time he was eager to start it.
"What's gotten into you?" I asked.
"Nothing," said Mike, but gave himself away a second later. "Hey, let's start with the basement this time, okay?" Usually the basement was last.
"Oh, for the love of..." I began. "You want to say the stupid rhyme, don't you?"
"No, " he said, grinning again. We were almost to the basement doors. "You're gonna say it."
"I am doing no such thing," I said. "I'm a grown man."
"Yeah, okay," said Mike. "Who'da thought you were a chicken?"
"You're not gonna get me into your little games by name-calling," I said. "What are you, fifteen?"
"Well, listen, man," said Mike. "If you won't say it, I'm gonna say it. But then I'm not going down there, so it's up to you if you want to leave it off the rounds for the night."
I had just about had it with Mike's idiocy, when I realized we were standing in front of the doors already. Mike threw them open and called clearly into the dark:
"Joe the Creep
Who died in the deep
I'm coming downstairs
So don't make a peep!"
He looked back at me with a mocking grin. "All yours," he said.
"Screw you," I replied. I shut the door.
"So you're not checking the basement?" asked Mike "It's part of your job, you know."
"You've skipped out on a majority of your job every night that I've worked with you," I said. "So this one night, you'll forgive me if I skip out on one part of mine."
"I knew you were scared," said Mike. "You believe in the legend, don't you? You're practically shittin' in your drawers at the idea of old Joe the Creep coming for you."
But I wasn't listening. I headed back to the monitor station. Let Mike do the rounds by himself for the rest of his shift, if he was gonna be like that.
Oddly enough, he did. By the time his shift was over, he had done two full circuits of all the floors; all, I noticed, except the basement. He didn't even so much as crack the doors the rest of the night.
Finally, he left, tossing a smirky "Don't let Joe the Creep get you!" over his shoulder before he left. I heard the front doors closing several minutes later.
And I was now completely alone.
It was dark outside. It was dark inside. Outside I heard wind howling. Within the building, nothing but pure silence.
I realized I was holding my breath. Stupid of me. Well, I decided enough was enough. I was no child, to believe such silly stories. It was time to man up and do my job.
I grabbed my flashlight and notebook, and headed up the stairs. I made my circuit of the top floor, the second floor. Nothing out of the ordinary. The ground floor, where I had started. All clear.
The basement doors stood closed, their presence looming in my mind. Time to get it over with.
I opened the doors and immediately flicked on the light switch.
The basement was a fairly large room, but smaller in floor space than the above-ground floors. A bank of twelve lights for the entire room were spread out over the ceiling, none of them all that powerful. The basement was a dark room at the best of times. Think the level of lighting in an sub-ground bar at night.
The stairs were steep, and they went down surprisingly far. There were stacks of shelves down here that stood anywhere from five feet to fifteen, and the ceiling extended a good ten feet above them. I was pretty far underground.
Joe the Creep, who died in the deep.
I started my circuit. There were twenty rows. From each one, the one next to it was only visible through tiny spaces between stacked boxes of files.
I was mid-way through the third row when I saw something on one of the shelves. Who knows how many times I'd walked past it and never noticed.
It was a small, leather-bound journal. The kind an accountant might keep.
Before I knew what I was doing, I was pulling it down and looking through it. In a scrawling hand, multiple pages were filled with entries. All the ink used was red. As I read them, I realized that if I saw this from a subordinate, my next call would be to the police, not HR.
-Jane Grossman bumped into me coming out of the ladies room and didn't say "excuse me".
A cartoon head of a woman's head was drawn crudely next to it. Dots of red were underneath it, and I realized they were meant to represent dripping blood. Her eyes were angry spirals of red.
-Steve Linden took my parking space today. He didn't even apologize.
A crude figure of a man with a red, leaking hole in his chest.
-Nancy Palermo grabbed a handful of forks for everyone to eat a piece of John's birthday cake, but there wasn't a fork left over for me. I was forced to use my hands like an animal.
He'd underlined that last part, and a photo was drawn of a woman on all fours. A talk balloon above her head read "arf arf".
Page after page of tiny, petty grievances. He never said in words what he wanted to do in retaliation, but the drawings implied enough.
I began to notice a stink in the air. No, not a stink. A fetid stench. It was like someone had let off ten stink bombs right next to me.
The air had grown still, and I heard something in the silence. A schlep that sounded wet and rubbery. I shown my flashlight down the row and saw movement in the row next to mine.
My blood froze, and I struggled to breathe. The figure continued to walk slowly, inexorably down the row. Within a few short minutes it would round the corner and I would be face to face with it.
It turned to look in my direction and my flashlight beam caught it. Barely human features glared back at me. The intense, fevered eyes of madness burned through me.
My feet came unglued from their spot and I bolted down the row at top speed. The thing was barely moving, apparently expecting me to remain frozen in fear. I made it to the steps and locked the door once I had ascended.
I spent the rest of my shift with all the lights on around the monitor desk, wide awake and watching every corner for movement. I was still like that when Lester came and I let him in. My hand was still shaking as I wrote "AC" on all the hour entries on the sheet.
As I was gathering my things and preparing to leave, eager to get home, Gerry came into the office. It wasn't like him to come in before his shift started.
"Hey," I said. "What's up?"
His eyes got large when he looked at my face. "Aw, geez," he said. "Listen man, I...I owe you an apology."
"For what?" I asked.
"Well, when we told you the story of Joe the Creep, you looked a little spooked and Mike...well, Mike came out and asked me if he'd help me pull a joke on you. It seemed harmless enough so I agreed."
"Wait," I said. "This whole thing's been a joke?" I thought of the thing in the row next to me, of the journal that must have been planted for me to find, of the stench of something long dead.
"Not all of it," he said. "But if you heard anything weird last night, someone trying to get in at the back, or something, that was just us. We thought it would be fun to give you a little scare."
"Heard?" I exclaimed. "I didn't just hear you idiots, I saw you! What did you do, rig up some kind of Halloween prop? Let off some stink bombs? That wasn't funny. I've never been so scared in my life!"
"What?" Gerry seemed very confused. "We planned to come in through the back while you were on your rounds and scare you, but there's something wrong with the lock on the back door. We couldn't get it open. We never got in the building once Mike left. I just...felt bad and wanted to apologize."
I quit that job later that day.