by Lew Stowe
This story originally appeared in the ezine Crime and Suspense and was a Derringer finalist.
The ugly man holding the little black automatic sneered at me and made a quick motion. It was dark under the trees, but he seemed to be indicating that I could either dig or get shot. Lousy choices. Sure, he was going to shoot me anyway, but I wasn’t in a hurry for that to happen. So I started digging.
* * *
I’d never been so scared before, but I was also struggling with self-disgust. This had been my first serious test–and I had screwed it up. Some defender of womankind I was. The enemy had conquered me without so much as a struggle.
My name is Michael. Like the archangel Michael, legendary defender of the faithful. That’s sort of what I always wanted to be: a warrior for truth, protector of feminine virtue. Yeah, I know how silly that is. Not much feminine virtue around these days. And if there were, I wouldn’t be a likely candidate for defending it. I’m really kind of nerdy, and very skinny, and a little shy and socially awkward. Not much of a warrior at all.
But I try hard. The women I choose for my . . . anonymous services are usually goddess types, lovely and unreachable and unapproachable, at least for me. I worship them pure and chaste from afar and provide whatever assistance I can, as anonymously as I can. None have ever even noticed me, much less known my name. I definitely don’t consider myself a stalker. All I am is a goofy romantic who’s just doing his best to make a small difference.
As when I caught a man prying open a window on an apartment where my lady was sleeping. I whipped out my cell phone and called 911. My breathing was so erratic, I had trouble blurting the address, but I managed. The police nabbed him.
Another time, a lowlife accosted a woman I was . . . watching, and she screamed. He took off running. I tried to casually block his passage. Instead, I stumbled and fell, and he jumped over me and got away. So did I.
How do I select my ladies? Simple. I keep looking until I find one that creates the spark. Almost invariably she’s tall and lithe and confident–unmarried–and so lovely it makes me dizzy. I don’t expect anything from them. All I want is their safety and happiness and to bask in their glow from a distance. I’m never jealous. When they find love, I know my job is finished and it’s time to move on.
Yes, it’s painful to give them up. But inevitable. I’ve learned to live with it. I’ve gotten pretty good at sneaking around at night. I don’t need much sleep, so I spend most of the nighttime guarding my goddess of the moment. I’ve learned what kind of clothes to wear, how to blend into shadows, melt against trees, move silently through the dark landscape. And I acquired a dog to help me look innocent: a fat Bassett Hound named Sleepy. True to his name, Sleepy can sleep anywhere, any time. If I have to enter fenced areas, or crawl through underbrush, I just park Sleepy under a bush someplace where he curls up and saws logs and waits for me.
And that has been my life. I’m resigned to never having a close relationship with a woman. For me, pure and chaste from afar is more than enough.
* * *
Until recently. When I saw her, my heart flopped over a couple of times. Not a goddess, not the usual type at all, just a small, very pretty, sandy-haired waif with such an air of aching loneliness and vulnerability that I wanted to go to her and take her in my arms. Of course, I didn’t. We were at an open-air café where I go often for lunch. She was reading a book. I had to really work at it to keep from staring.
When she got up, so did I. At the cash register, I noticed she had an ID card dangling from her purse. I had only to twist my neck slightly to read the name: Bethany Merrill. Nice name. I followed her to the Citadel Life Insurance building on Main Street where she entered.
By evening, I knew where she lived, and by 8:00 p.m.I was walking Sleepy along the sidewalk toward her house. I was hyperventilating, and my legs were rubbery.
An old Dodge Caravan was parked along the curb. I paused and leaned against it to get control of myself. Sleepy whined. Moving on, I finally stood in front of her house.
Not bad. A cozy white bungalow from the fifties, wide eaves with pairs of flood lights evenly spaced all the way around, nice-sized yard, lots of shrubs. There was a street on one side, a wooded vacant lot on the other that merged into a larger wooded area toward the rear of the property. Bethany’s place.
This was all so different. I’d never felt this way before. Where all my goddesses had been somewhat intimidating, Bethany wasn’t. She was sad and lonely and vulnerable. And approachable. I could tell. I had seen her only once, but I knew we needed each other. Forget worshiping from a distance. Not with this one. I badly wanted to be close to her. To touch her. To hold her. The thought made me tremble.
I walked into the vacant lot and sat through the night with my back to a big oak tree. Very secluded back there. Sleepy curled up in a snug spot under a bush and, naturally, went to sleep. I watched the house as Bethany kept repeating in my mind. At about 4:00 a.m., I went home.
* * *
Sleepy and I went back the following night. The Dodge Caravan was there again, but I didn’t have to lean against it this time. It was 8:15 p.m. We went past Bethany’s house and into the vacant lot. I made sure Sleepy was comfortable in the bushes, then moved deeper into the trees than previous until I could see both the side and rear of the house.
I settled down, but kept hearing an odd muffled sound. After a while, I caught a glimpse of movement some thirty feet in front of me. Then the sound again. I crept over to investigate, staying in the shadows as much as possible.
The sound was coming from a hole in the ground. A dark, round hole partially concealed by two large shrubs and just outside the fence that marked the edge of the back yard. The hole looked big enough for a man to crawl into.
As I watched, a man emerged, wriggling out with a bucket full of dirt. He walked about ten feet and dumped it. Then he returned to the hole and disappeared.
I thought about that for a while. The sound was a shovel being pushed into the earth. It was muffled because it was
underground. The man was apparently digging a tunnel–toward Bethany’s house. My throat tightened as I realized this had to be a real-life stalker. He wanted Bethany as badly as I did, though probably for reasons much less honorable than mine.
But why a tunnel? Why go to all that work? Why not just break into the house? Because the flood lights around the house were likely connected to motion detectors. Maybe even sirens. The stalker wanted to get under the eaves, where the motion detectors couldn’t reach him. Then he could take his time about getting inside. Once there, he could take his time about doing whatever he wanted to do to Bethany. So he was digging a tunnel. Sure, it was a lot of work. But Bethany was worth it. In a way, I understood. I would have dug all the way to China for her.
At 3:30, the man tucked away his shovel, covered the hole with an old piece of corrugated aluminum and left. I gave him a few minutes. He didn’t return. On a hunch, I walked out to the street. The Dodge Caravan was gone.
I got into the tunnel with a flashlight and looked around. It was carefully braced and shored so it wouldn’t collapse, but was only about ten feet long out of an estimated forty. The man still had a long way to go. He was nothing, if not dedicated. Or maybe obsessive was the better word. I rolled up my sleeves and worked hard refilling the tunnel with everything I could find: fallen branches, rocks, all the dirt he had removed.
The hole was almost level when I finished. I hid the shovel and the piece of aluminum deep in the woods. Sleepy slept soundly through it all.
I went home, pleased with the night’s work.
* * *
Driving over the next day, it occurred to me that I could just call the police. After all, I had the license number of the Caravan. The man might be dangerous. But I didn’t call. Things were getting too interesting.
I watched the creep laboriously empty the tunnel and pull out everything I had placed in it. It took him much longer to get it out than it had taken me to put it in, especially since he had to leave to get another shovel. You could tell from his body language that he was furious. If it weren’t necessary to be quiet, he’d have been yelling curses to the sky.
He looked exhausted when he left at 3:30. I made absolutely certain he wasn’t going to return before I got busy refilling the hole. This time I capped it off with a couple bags of cement I’d hauled in, mixing it with water from a stagnant little pond in the back.
That cement cap had to weigh at least three hundred pounds, and I figured there was no way the stalker was going to remove it by himself.
“Right, Sleepy?” I said.
Sleepy was just waking up and didn’t reply.
* * *
The next night the Dodge Caravan was again up the street, but the man was nowhere to be found. I sat in the vacant lot and listened, but couldn’t hear a thing. I looked for movement, but only saw leaves rustling in the moonlight. He wasn’t working on his tunnel. Where was he?
Something pressed hard against the back of my neck, and there he was.
“Stand up,” he whispered. “Not a sound–unless you want your frigging head blown off.”
I stood up. My heart was rattling in my chest like an insane alarm clock.
He pointed me toward the woods. “Let’s take a little walk,” he said. “I’ve got a shovel back there. You can dig yourself a nice big grave. Then you can lie down in it.
Then die in it. Move.”
We started walking.
“You dirty little prick,” he said. “Thought you were being cute, eh? Thought I like working on that hole, eh? I dig it out and you fill it in again. Trying to save the little lady from a fate worth than death, maybe? Well, in a few minutes, you ain’t going to be able to save nothing.”
He gave me an angry nudge with the gun and directed me deeper into the woods.
* * *
So there I was, the world’s most ridiculous romantic, one foot in eternity and knowing I had no one to blame but myself, digging my own grave, but not putting a whole lot of effort into it. Could I make it last the rest of the night? Probably not. In the dim light, the man with the gun looked increasingly unhappy–and impatient. He raised
the automatic and edged closer to me.
Death’s clammy hand was on my shoulder. I braced myself and closed my eyes, hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much. Poor Bethany, I thought. There’d be no one to save her now.
Then all hell broke loose. The man screamed. The gun went off close to my ear, nearly deafening me. Then again, up toward the sky. I heard fierce growling. The man was jumping all around, screaming like a banshee.
Sleepy had his jaws clamped around the man’s left hamstring, hanging on for dear life. The man was trying to get the gun around to shoot him.
There were about a dozen martial arts maneuvers I could have used at that point. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember what they were. So I did something more basic. I swung the shovel around and whacked the man on the head. He groaned, but only fell to his knees. The gun dropped next to my foot, and I pushed it away. I raised the shovel again and brought it down on the back of the man’s neck. He hit the ground.
That’s when Sleepy let go. He just lay there motionless. Afraid he was hurt, I touched his head. I said: “Sleepy?” He opened one eye, then closed it again. He was okay, just tired and ready for a nap after such an exhausting ordeal.
Great dog, Sleepy.
* * *
A horrendous amount of noise had been made, and someone called the police. They came roaring in with sirens blaring and guns drawn. I gave them my story, which wasn’t totally factual, but close enough. I have trouble sleeping, so I walk my dog all over town. A couple nights ago I went into the vacant lot to let Sleepy do his business and noticed the man, who seemed to be up to no good with his tunnel. So I filled it in.
Then I filled it in again, this time with a cement cap. Yes, I should have let the police handle it, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Tonight, the man was waiting for me. I thought he was going to shoot me. But my dog saved me. Great dog, Sleepy.
The man, it turned out, had a record of stalking women and had spent time in prison for sexual assault. So everyone snickered when he indignantly claimed that I was a stalker, too. Can’t imagine where he got that from.
Bethany came out and identified him as someone she had noticed following her around town. After the police hauled him away, she came over to me. I was quivering as she approached.
She smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then she put her arms around my neck, stood on her tiptoes and gave me the
gentlest, most tender kiss I could ever dream of getting. Her lips were soft and sweet. If I live to be a hundred, the memory of that kiss will still be as vivid as the day it happened.
* * *
So did we fall in love and live happily ever after?
Two days after the incident, Bethany showed up on my doorstep. Which was surprising, since I’m not in the telephone book and didn’t recall giving her my address. But delighted to see her, I invited her in. What happened next was not what I expected.
The woman was all over me. Absolutely insatiable. Like trying to make up for a lifetime of repressed sexuality in a few hours. The next evening, she was back again. And the one after that. Sure, it all had a certain appeal, but only at a crude, animalistic level. I’m embarrassed to even think about some of the stuff she wanted to do.
I’ve moved twice since then. Hasn’t helped. Within a few days, she’s back at my door, with that look of aching loneliness, shaking her head sadly as if to say how could you do this to me? You know, I think she’s better at stalking than I am. Certainly has a lot more nerve.
As for me, I just can’t handle it. Pure and chaste from afar was better than this.
I’m beginning to think I should never have filled in that tunnel.