Chapter Nine: The Trap
I am being followed, I realized, with a blend of certitude and astonishment, like a soldier discovering that gangrene has taken hold of his leg.
Rayne woke me close to midnight and talked to me like a child to get me off the couch and into bed where I immediately fell asleep again. In the morning she was awake before me and already brushing her teeth with that concerned and distracted look in her eyes.
I said, “What did you guys do last night?”
Instead of answering the question she removed the toothbrush and spoke through the foam, sounding like she was missing her tongue, “Sari’s coming over soon.”
I sat up, “She is? Why?”
Rayne spit in the sink and said from the bowl, “She wants to talk to your neighbor.”
That had me scampering out of bed, pulling on sweatpants, “My neighbor? Why?”
“You told her he had connections to the ambulance driver.”
Inwardly I cursed the strong beer for giving me loose lips and the desire to gossip. I was in a minor panic about this. I like to keep to myself and respect other people’s privacy. Not only was Sari intending on shattering this understood do-not-disturb truce, but she was revealing that I betrayed his confidence.
“What does she want to talk to him about?”
“She’s curious about these suicides, people going crazy. Turns out there was another one last night while we were eating at the Hairpin.”
Rayne was pulling on her jeans with her fingers through the belt loops, wriggling her butt. “Apparently. Some young guy. Climbed up a cell tower and jumped off.”
“Shit. That’s fucked up. Why is Sari so interested in suicides?”
She shrugged, “Morbid curiosity I suppose. We once went to New York and she brought us to all the bars where poets drank themselves to death. You know, Dylan Thomas types.”
I finished getting dressed in silence, trying to make something of what she just said.
“So what does Sari do for a living anyway?”
“Some kind of marine bio-chemist or something.”
“Where’s she work?”
“Well she was working up the coast from here. That Marine Institute. Not anymore though.”
I took Rayne’s place brushing my teeth in the bathroom. When I came out she was standing looking at her phone, her brow all scrunched and quizzical, “Sari’s asking if we have any beer.”
“What does she need beer for? She’s living at a brewery.”
“I don’t know. Do you have any?”
“I think I have some down in the fridge.”
She continued texting while I went down the stairs.
“I’ll see what I have.”
I found four cans of Miller Lite in the back of the fridge. I was about to call up to Rayne when I heard voices out front, the female very recognizable. I peeked out the front door and there was Sari talking to my neighbor John, the two of them standing in the same places he and I had the day before. How bizarre.
Rayne came in the room, “She said she’s outside…”
I opened the door. Sari and John looked at us. She said, “Good morning guys.”
I waved back with little enthusiasm.
Sari asked, “Got any beer in there, Cliff?”
“Sure. How many?”
“One for me and….John, how ‘bout a beer?”
“Sure. It’s kind of early but what the hell, I’m retired.”
I turned to go back to the kitchen and mumbled as I passed Rayne, “It’s eight o’clock in the goddamn morning.”
We met them outside and I handed them the beers. Sari popped open hers and took a big swig and smiled. John did the same, looked like he hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.
“John and I were talking about that woman who drove her car into the water. He says he doesn’t know her name but knows an EMT that knows all about what goes on in Fowl’s Point.”
They both looked at me. I said nothing and I played it cool. It seemed Sari was being tactful enough to not reveal me as her source. The beer bribe was something she had figured out by herself. She probably smelled beer on his breath just like I had.
John was getting there, but wasn’t sold yet. “Not sure he knows the names of people though.”
“Probably not,” said Sari, “He just has to pick people up and bring them to the hospital.”
Sari was texting while she talked. Rayne reacted to her phone then went inside, returning with the last two beers. John and Sari popped them open and drank. She tried to be smooth but I could tell it was hard for her to drink another can of beer with the sun still low and rising.
Sari was smiling more than seemed normal for her. Then she looked down at her beer and lowered her voice to a modest, confessional tone, “You see John, I’m a psychologist and there’s this thing called suicide clusters. It’s when multiple people in a certain area kill themselves in a short period of time.”
John saw where this was going and got uncomfortable with the gravity of the topic. He shifted his weight and looked around to all of us for sympathy.
Sari continued, “Normally it’s adolescents, or certain groups like soldiers. But these local suicides we’ve been seeing here don’t fit normal patterns. I’m trying to see what connection there might be between these people. I have to get some more data and see if we have a problem locally. Might have to contact the Center for Disease Control.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, latching on to something familiar and comforting, “that place in The Walking Dead.”
“Exactly, but this is a very real and dangerous phenomenon and there’s no time to waste. Any information I could get could save lives. Do you think you and your friend could step up and help out here?”
John chugged the rest of his beer, reflexively crushed the empty a bit, and nodded affirmatively, “Give me a few minutes.”
“Oh, and John? Mention as little as possible to your friend anything about who I am and what it’s about. We can’t risk a panic in cluster situations.”
When John was inside Rayne looked at Sari with suppressed laughter, “A psychologist? And a psychologist that drinks beer at eight in the morning?”
Sari kept a very serious face, “It worked. He’s going to come out with exactly what we need.”
I had been watching in a state of awed fascination. Sari had zeroed in on him as the nosy neighbor I mentioned, got him to admit what he had admitted to me, noticed his alcohol dependency, then plied him with it. Now she had him running errands for her. The big question was why she was doing this. I knew it wasn’t because she was a psychologist out to prevent a suicide contagion.
I only asked her, “Do you watch The Walking Dead?”
“No, I don’t even know what it is.”
We waited about five minutes during which Sari furtively poured out the contents of the beer can into the grass. “Thanks for the beer, Cliff.”
John’s door opened and he came out reading a piece of paper. He was smiling in a satisfied way, “Bingo, my boy got what he could.”
She took the paper, surveyed it, then put it in the same hand that held her beer so she could shake his, “John, I don’t know how to thank you enough for what you’ve done. This could literally be a lifesaver.”
He made a buzzed man’s aw shucks gesture and was clearly expecting to hang out and talk some more, but Sari said we had to go. We filed into my place without delay.
Inside she spied on John through an exposed sliver in the curtain, “Okay, he went in. Cliff, do you mind driving?”
“I don’t have a car.”
“You don’t have a car?”
A tickled Rayne said in a voice loaded with sarcasm, “He rides his bike all the way down here.”
Sari just looked at me. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“Okay, we’ll have to walk up the street and get mine.”
The girls got ready and soon we were bee-lining up the street. John attempted no contact, but must have seen us go.
Next to the Hairpin Sari clicked her keyfob and a black BMW chirped in response. We got in, Sari driving, Rayne next to her, and me in the back. She made a u-turn and took off up Chandler.
Sari handed me the paper John had given her, “Take a look Cliff, this is what we got.”
John’s print was extremely neat:
Aimee Braun- 31 Irving Dr. Reedwood Estates
Joshua Tanner- buried in Jenkintown. No address. Fowl’s: 14? Abattoir.
Todd A. Blaine - from Vineland NJ. Body at Calvary Gen.
“Is the first one local?” Sari asked. She had pulled up to Route 11 and was waiting at the stop sign.
“Yep, that’s the big development up 196.”
“I’m sorry, I’m still not familiar with the area. Which way should I turn?”
Sari pulled out and we were going over the bridge.
I said, “Are you actually going to this woman’s house?”
“Sure, why not? Just drive by, see what’s up.”
“Why exactly are we doing this?”
“Aren’t you curious Cliff? A suicide cluster? Two within twenty-four hours?” She caught my eye in her rearview, “Do you have something more exciting to do today? Moby Dick maybe?”
Rayne giggled at that.
“No, but….turn left at the light.”
We passed the Fowl’s Point Shopping Plaza on the right. Sari saw the Starbucks and said, “We’ll get coffees on the way back. Sound good?”
I said nothing in response, only told her to make the next left. We waited in the turning lane for the arrow to let us glide in that very incongruous development. The entrance to the development had a portion of fake stone wall with cursive letters on it: Reedwood Estates. Around it was just enough of a fake wrought iron fence to hint at a gated community, its true spiritual calling. We drove along leisurely looking at the street signs until we found Irving Drive. It was a circle the entrance of which had a No Outlet sign. Sari turned down it. “It will be on your side,” she said to Rayne.
“There it is.”
The Braun’s was indistinguishable from all the others. All the same vanilla siding, same bushes lining the same sidewalks. They were all huge, McMansions with a dozen windows, black shutters, and each house built as if modelled after old homes that had smaller additions attached to their sides, like one section could fit inside the next. The side section was really a two or three car garage with its own fake windows.
Sari pulled up front. There were no signs that anybody was there, but every house seemed that way. She put the car in park and said, “I’m going to take a peek. Be right back.”
“No, Sari, don’t…”
The door slammed on my protests. She was booking down the driveway.
“What is she doing?”
Rayne didn’t answer my question, seemed used to Sari’s exploits, sat quietly watching Sari looking in the garage door windows.
“What if somebody sees her? They might call the cops.” I looked around. The neighboring homes could just as well have been vacant. I looked out the back window and crawling around the curve was the Red Malibu.
“Shit! Rayne, it’s that car.”
She turned and looked.
“It’s the car that followed us Saturday night. The blond guy.”
“Yeah….no. What the hell is he doing?”
The car stopped at a distance as if it knew I had seen it. When I looked for Sari I couldn’t find her. “Where’d she go?”
“Around back. Who is that guy?”
“I don’t know, but he’s obviously following us.”
I felt trapped, cornered and vulnerable in the back seat, preyed upon.
Rayne was texting or calling Sari. “She’s not answering.”
I was watching the Malibu. I could see the outline of the driver’s head, unmoving, unconcerned. He probably thought we hadn’t seen him. That got me thinking differently.
“Maybe we should just let him follow us. Lead him someplace where we can confront him.”
Rayne was watching the red car too, “Confront him? We don’t even know who he is.” She turned, “Here comes Sari.”
Sari was walking down the driveway at a calm pace. She got in the car and said, “Thanks for waiting.”
Before Rayne could tell her about the Malibu, I said, “Get moving. I have an idea.”
Sari smiled while putting on her seat belt and putting the car into drive, “An idea? Glad to see you’re getting into the spirit.”
“Just go straight, we’ll come out where we came in. Then…”
Rayne blurted out, “There’s a guy following us.”
Unexcited, Sari looked at her, “What are you talking about?”
I explained, “Red Malibu drove up and parked a few houses down. Same one followed us home a few nights ago. I’ve seen the guy a few times around, thought it was coincidence.”
Sari was looking in her mirror for the car which wasn’t in sight, “What does he look like?”
“Big blond guy, athletic.”
Rayne was watching her for a reaction but she revealed nothing, just kept driving with one eye on the mirror.
I looked at her, “I say we turn the tables on him, hunt the hunter. See if we can figure out why the hell he’s following us.”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“Go where I tell you.”
We came to the development’s entrance and sat at the light. I was turned around looking for the car. “Just wait here and you’ll see him. There’s only one way out.”
We waited only a few more seconds. The light turned green and we did nothing. Then the Malibu came around the bend and stopped. Our light returned to red. “There he is.”
Sari was tilting her head to see through the mirror, “Yes, I see him. Okay Cliff, tell me where to go.”
We went back the way we came, down Route 196 toward town. We passed the shopping center with the Starbucks and approached the big intersection where the road ends at Route 11.
“If possible get stopped by the red light.”
Neither of the girls said anything. They watched the green light approach and just before we got there it turned yellow. Normally we would have easily gone through the light and continued on our way but she braked. I imagined the man in the pickup behind us cursed her timid driving. I could see the Malibu was two cars behind us with more cars lining up behind it.
“This is as good a place as any. Don’t go if the light turns green. I’ll be right back.”
Rayne said, “Wait, Cliff, what are you doing?”
The door shut behind me and I was heading back toward the Malibu, trying to summon an inner savagery to make myself more aggressive. This is just ridiculous, I was telling myself, how dare this person follow us, follow these women.
The man in the pickup watched me go by, knew something was up, started checking his mirrors for the cause of my righteous rage.
The blond guy flinched slightly when he saw me coming. It was the last thing he expected. I made a sign for him to roll down his window, but he looked forward playing dumb as if I were one of those annoying people that ask for change at intersections.
I knocked on his window and he looked forward more purposefully.
I called through the glass, “Come on buddy, I want to know why you’re following us.”
He ignored me, now with a little smirk forming. That pissed me off. I smacked the car roof hard enough that it sunk in and popped back with a metallic bang. Roughing up a man’s car could be what it took. It worked.
He lowered his window, “Hey what the fuck asshole. Get back in your car or I’ll kick your ass.”
What struck me was his obvious accent. Russian it sounded.
Cars started honking behind us. Somebody yelled. The light must have turned green.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me who you are and why you’re following us.”
He jerked his head in the direction from which I came, “Get back in your car asshole.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I get an answer.”
He rolled up his window. Cars were honking, rearranging themselves, getting around the obstruction. The guy in the pickup was leaning out his window looking back at us.
I knew it’s harder than you think to break a car window so I started smacking it hard, really hard like I was trying to kill big bugs. Blondie looked at me and my hand then his door was opening. I stepped back to avoid getting hit by it.
Out stepped this colossus. The guy must have been six foot five. I’m only five eight. I knew he was tall when I’d seen him in the bars but I had no idea. I’m decidedly below average in height so I’m used to most men being taller, but this was something else altogether. Up close I saw how the guy’s neck was the size of my thigh. His chest was as wide as the pillow I slept on. Arms pumped up like basketballs.
It was his intention to let his size scare me away. He took a step toward me pointing his finger at our car, “Get in your car and have a nice day.”
I was not to be bullied. I didn’t retreat, but I didn’t advance either. I planted myself by putting my hands on my hips and looked up into his eyes. He crowded me, looking down, said, “You want that I kick you ass buddy? Is this what you want?”
I pointed a finger up at him without touching him. “Listen to me Vladimir. You don’t go around following people without consequences.” My teacher language was coming to the surface so I turned up the aggression, “What are you, some kind of creep? Following girls around? Jerking off in your Chevy?”
He just smiled at my provocations.
“Why don’t you tell me who you are and why you’re following us?”
He laughed a little and turned to go back to his car.
“Hey fuckface, I’m talking to you.” Without thinking I reached for his arm which was like grabbing a mailbox post. That same arm shook off my grasp and reached for me, grabbing the front of my button-down shirt and crunching it in his fist. I could feel it tighten across my back. He jerked me forward and I went, feeling powerless to not be tossed about like a doll or punched to death like a baby seal.
“Cliff!” It was Rayne and she was coming to my rescue, “Get the fuck off him!”
She was talking to my assailant who looked over to see her running in her sneakers toward us. He let go of me with a little shove that sent me back a step or two. Then he got in his car, backed up to the now vacant space behind him and sped off through the green light and went south on Route 11.