James had to admit it… he was being followed. As to why and by who he had no idea. He was just a twenty year old nobody attending community college who hadn’t broken any laws or slept with anyone’s wife. But since noticing the white sedan behind him around dusk he had back tracked, driven circles around blocks, blown through orange lights, and generally bent enough driving laws through erratic maneuvers to convince himself that he, Mr. Nobody, was in fact being followed. It was full night by now and much too dark with the overcast skies filtering out any moonlight but those headlights remained behind him.
Not being able to shake his relentless pursuer, James considered returning to his apartment. If either of his two roommates were there then… well, what could they do? And why would he lead this guy right to his home? It was then that he saw the full parking lot of a local high school, packed for a basketball game, probably a basketball game. Lots don’t fill up like this for plays or band performances. “Elementary,” he thought, allowing himself a brief tension relieving smile. Not sure of what he would be able to do about his pursuer but at least there’d be safety in a large crowd. He raced through a deep orange light, leaving his stalker momentarily held in check, and turned in to the parking lot, heading towards the front doors, one eye on his rear view mirror. There! An empty spot in the third row, vacated by someone who received a sick child call from the baby sitter and left the event early. James saw the white car just pulling into the parking lot and he cut his engine, turned off his lights. Briefly considering and rejecting hunkering down in his car, James instead hurried for the front door, hunched low and finding cover behind a small group of adult smokers outside the door, surely breaking some law meant to protect the children.
Inside he found the ticket stand was unmanned so he followed the sounds of the crowd and squeaking shoes to the gymnasium. Basketball it was and well into the third quarter, according to the scoreboard. He quickly made for the far side of the court, wishing he had a hat or something to obscure his face. Fortunately the gym was packed so he might be able to hide in the crowd.
Positioned on the wall farthest away from the door he had entered James tried to blend in with the hooting attendees while keeping a vigilant eye on the door. Although he had no idea of what his pursuer looked like it wasn’t long before someone entered and started scanning the auditorium. James quickly stepped back toward the corner, putting the packed bleachers between himself and the man. He hadn’t been spotted but likewise James hadn’t gotten a clear view of the man’s face, catching only curly dark hair and a closely cut beard, average height and build, no older than thirty.
James suddenly felt very vulnerable. And trapped. There were no hallways or doors in this corner of the gym. Just painted cinderblock. All that guy had to do was to walk over here and blammo, game over. Ditto for if he tried to walk across the gym for an exit, drawing attention to himself. What a stupid move, he berated himself, literally backing himself into a corner. Looking around he noticed that the bleachers were the kind that pull out from the wall. Could he possibly hide underneath? The opening was covered by a kind of blue and gold vinyl tarp, what he assumed to be the school colors, that was attached in some way to the wall and the bleachers themselves. He took a few steps over to where the tarp met the wall for a closer look. Velcro. This far back you couldn’t see the game so the closest people were ten feet away with their eyes courtward. He quickly pulled a corner of the tarp away, the trademark Velcro sound lost in the sea of noise, and entered into the darkness, reattaching the Velcro as best he could behind him.
The contrast of the bright lights of the gym and the darkness under the bleachers, plus the muffled quiet made possible by the tarp, made it seem almost like he was underwater. His eyes soon adjusted and he could make out knives of light from where the tarp failed to meet the floor and the accordion scaffolding that stretched out along the entire length of the bleachers. Inspiration struck and he carefully worked his way to the other side, working slowly to avoid bumping into the greasy supports. He knelt down to peel away a bit of the tarp so he could check for a nearby door or if the coast was clear of people enough that he wouldn’t draw attention to himself in leaving. There was a pair of shoes, presumable attached to legs, directly in front of him. He froze at what he heard next. The words were difficult to make out through the ebb and flow of the crowd noise but he most clearly heard “What do you mean, ‘He got away?’”
“He got a lucky break and ditched me by coming into this building.”
There were two guys following him?
“I walked through the entire gym, scanned all the crowd. He isn’t here. Maybe he’s in the school somewhere but it seems pretty well locked up. I dunno.”
“Is his car still outside?”
“Dunno. I’ve been in here. Why aren’t you outside watching his car?”
“I thought you might need help with…” and here the crowd erupted as the home team scored. “…losing control… afraid he might know…”
“…want to keep looking for him? I can stay here while you go search the lot for his car.”
“Let’s call it off. It’s blown for tonight anyway. I’ll call Bill.”
The feet walked away and took James’ energy with them. He started to shake and shifted from kneeling, sitting back against the wall and pulling his knees to his chest, feeling drained now that the immediate threat was gone. Why were two guys following him? He was just a regular guy, a sophomore at the local college with a part time job at a pizza place and no enemies. If it weren’t for what he just heard he might have been able to convince himself that he was just being paranoid, that he had imagined being followed and overreacted. But there was no denying that now.
“Well, what have we here?”
Disoriented, James looked up to see the kindly face of an old man looking at him, surrounded by light from the recently removed tarp. “Must have snuck a flask in to fall asleep like that…. Got any left?”
He had fallen asleep. He had fallen asleep? Had the clutter of fear and emotions so sapped him that he fell asleep in the muffled quiet under the bleachers? Embarrassed, James crawled out from under the bleachers and stiffly stood up, knocking his head on a support beam, lending even more support to the janitor’s hypothesis.
“Uh, no, uh, just tired, or something.” He absently rubbed his head, blinking at the rows of bright fluorescents at an empty gym occupied only by himself and two custodians. “I’d better go,” he stammered as he went quickly towards the exit.
“Next time bring some to share, kid,” he heard the man chuckle behind him.
He could see through the doors that it was still dark outside so he must have only been asleep for a few hours. Making an excellent target against the light behind him, James scanned the parking lot, finding only his car. It’s a good thing they didn’t decide to wait for him, or maybe they did. He went out into the cool night and quickly stepped beside the door. No other cars were present and there was very little traffic on the road that ran by the school. He nearly tiptoed to his car, as if he was afraid he would wake it, and checked the back seat for ghoulies and jackbooted thugs. Empty. So they were true to their word and called “it” off for the night, whatever that was. His mind raced with crazy thoughts fueled by movies, with him gritting his teeth as he started his car in case it was wired to explode. Driving home was an exercise in paranoia but no one was following him home, his wheels didn’t fall off and he wasn’t surrounded at a red light by a SWAT team.
According to his car clock it was nearly midnight when he pulled up in front of the apartment building three away from his. Things were as uneventful as they could be at this time of night on a Friday at an apartment complex near a college so he made his way through couples whispering together on benches and mixed groups drinking or smoking in front of the buildings. No one paid him any attention, making him feel a bit foolish for imagining himself to a ninja stealthily closing in on his prey, apartment 1704. There were no live hand grenades rigged to blow him to smithereens as he opened the door. Just his apartment.
He entered the front hall, rounded the corner to the kitchenette and his heart stopped. There, in his apartment, sat the dark haired guy who was looking for him at the game, eating pizza. As the jolt of adrenaline faded from his system he realized that it was only Donald, one of his roommates.
“Nice beard, Don.”
“Thanks. Claudia’s been asking me to grow one for weeks so I thought I’d give it a grow.”
“It doesn’t quite look like you, older, maybe.”
“That’s what Rich said.” Rich was the other roommate. All three worked at the pizza place near campus. Rich and Don were both seniors and needed a new roommate about the time James decided that living in the dorms was for kids and removed their “roommate wanted” ad off the pizzeria bulletin board minutes after Rich pierced it with a thumbtack.
“There’s pizza if you want it,” an inside joke. There was always pizza, either one not picked up by a student or “accidentally” made with the wrong ingredients. James realized that he was famished and sat down at the table, taking a slice from the box open in front of him, a supreme with extra black olives if ever he saw one. It was still warm.
Why was he asleep again? Why couldn’t he wake up?
“He came out of it way too early this time.” It was Don speaking. James tried and failed to speak, to move his arms, open his eyes, anything.
“You can say that again. Never even made it to his destination. Bill’s not happy.” That was Rich speaking though James had no idea who Bill was.
“I wish Bill would let us cut him free and start on someone else. Something just isn’t working with this one.”
“We’re the last installation and Bill needs this operation to go forward,” said Rich.
“So we wipe him again? Geez, I hate that part, when he screams. How many times do they think we can wipe a guy before he’s a vegetable? Before he never comes back?”
“You’re not losing your stomach, are you?”
“Of course not, Rich, just that the last time the neighbors called the apartment manager.”
“And he bought our story. Problem solved.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. So how far back this time?”
“Not much. Twelve hours should be enough for him to forget us tracking him down. Let’s cause as little damage as possible so we can start to prep him to try again tomorrow night. I may even double the dose tomorrow if the wipe is clean. That should take care of him coming out to early again. We’d better get started.”
“Tomorrow? Bill must be in a hurry.” A pause. “The poor schmuck won’t even know what he’s doing in that theater until he comes to with a hot gun in his hands.”
If James could open his eyes he would have seen Rich give Don a hard look. Showing compassion for the subject could mean that he was losing his stomach and would have to be handled. Later. “Make sure the door is locked and then get me the kit from my room. It’s time to wipe.”