by Kathleen Delaney
This story was previously published in a magazine that no longer exists.
She awoke abruptly, the familiar waves washing over her, making every nerve ending come alive, leaving her bathed in sweat. She waited, eyes closed, for the tide to crest, then as it finally ebbed, she reached for the glass of water she always set on her bedside table.
It wasn’t there. Her eyes flew open, her hand searching frantically over an unfamiliar table. Where was she? She let her breath out in a long sigh. A motel room, Santa Barbara. On her way north to visit her daughter.
She pushed back the bedcovers and, not bothering to feel for her slippers, crossed the room to pull open the heavy night drapes. Fog lazily moved in and out between the cars below, making circles under the parking lot lights, deepening shadows, and dulling the metallic shine of the cars. Her own elderly gold Lincoln Town car, its color almost undetectable, was directly below her window. Phillip had loved that car, though she had never liked it. So big and hard to park. She’d never driven it much, until now.
A man opened the door of the downstairs room just opposite hers, allowing light to pool on the small doorstep. He unlocked the door of a car parked in front of the room and put suitcases on the seat. She watched him walk around the car, pull open the trunk leaving the lid up, look up and down the parking lot, and return to his room.
Idly, she kept watching. That room belonged to the young couple she’d seen as she returned from the dinner she hadn’t wanted, at the restaurant her brother-in-law, Charles, insisted she couldn’t miss. “It would be a sin to spend any time in Santa Barbara and not go there, Charlotte,” he’d said. So, she’d tried it. She supposed it was good.
She’d noticed the young couple because of their fresh, happy look. The girl tossed back her hair and smiled up at the man as they’d entered their room. She teased him the way young girls did, the way Charlotte had always wanted to do but had never been able, even with Philip.
They were getting an early start. She turned, ready to return to her bed when a flash of light made her pause and glance down again. The man was carrying something large, awkward. Something wrapped in a blanket. The thick fog distorted images under the yellow lights, but she could see him stagger as he pushed his burden into the trunk.
It can’t be, she thought. I’m being silly. Phillip would tell me that. She glanced back into her room, almost expecting to hear the flat, practical voice she’d lived with for so many years.
When she looked down again, the trunk lid was closed. The man stepped back, surveyed the lot, then slowly examined each silent window. His eyes slipped over all of them until he came to hers. Their eyes locked as he stared straight at her. She froze, her hand on the black drape, but finally she made her hand let go. It fell over the window letting in a sliver of light, just enough for her to see across the room. The door. Was the dead bolt fastened? She stumbled across the room, fumbling with the dead bolt, yes, fastened. The chain. In place. Just as Phillip had always instructed. She backed up, collapsing onto the bed.
She waited, listening. Footsteps? Yes. No mistaking the metallic ring of the staircase, the soft brushing sound along the corridor. The door handle moved and the chain rattled gently as the door shook. She remembered the tiny pistol locked away in her large suitcase, still in the trunk of her car. A gift from Charles who had insisted, even though she hated guns and had never fired one. No matter, she couldn’t reach the suitcase. She couldn’t move off the bed, couldn’t make her eyes quit staring at the lock. Call someone. Her cell was on her bedside table. Her hand crept toward it, held it. It dropped in her lap. Who should she call? She didn’t know anyone in this town. Besides, she didn’t think she could dial a number. She wasn’t sure she could breathe.
A shoe scraped against the staircase again. Then silence.
After what seemed a long while an engine started. She took a deep breath, only letting it out as she heard a car pull away. The night was again silent. She crept to her window and stared down. The couple’s car had gone.
A sliver of light in her eyes woke her. She was huddled in one corner of the bed, sitting up, blankets pulled up around her. A horrible dream, she thought, it had to have been a dream. Cautiously, she inched across the room and pulled back the drapes. Sunlight poured onto the empty parking space.
Should she report what she had seen? She thought about it as she put her toothbrush back in her cosmetic bag. Only, to whom? What would she say?
The middle-aged clerk barely looked at her as he took her charge card.
“That young couple across from me left early.”
The clerk gave her no response.
“Do you open your office that early?”
She pushed her key in the car door only to find it was unlocked. How could she! Phillip had repeatedly told her–never mind, no harm done. She placed her night bag on the back seat and climbed in, reaching for the map. The Auto Club had marked her route in yellow. Each town where she would stay was circled. The map was gone! She knew she had left it on the seat. She searched the glove compartment, under and behind the seat, the map storage on the door. It was gone.
“Don’t panic. I mustn’t panic.”
Almost against her will she walked across the parking lot and stood in front of the now empty room. It told her nothing. Her eye caught a shiny object lying close to the door. An attractive lipstick case with the initials JM picked out in colored stones. Something a woman would treasure and look for if missing. Something that might fall out of a pocket if–terror built. She could feel it creep from her stomach into her lungs. What should she do?
She saw the sneering face of the clerk peering from the office window. It wouldn’t do any good to tell him. The police. She’d show them the lipstick and tell them what she had seen last night. She carefully picked up the case with her handkerchief. Now she had to find the station.
The policeman was heavyset, bald, and bored. He treated her patiently, the same kind of patience Phillip had always used.
“We’ll look into it, of course. Thank you for bringing it to our attention,” he’d said. He slipped the lipstick into a plastic bag and finished filling out a form.
“What about the map? He knows where I’m going, and he saw me. He knows my car.” She could hear her voice tremble. So could the policeman.
“You said your room was dark, right?” His voice was still patient. “He couldn’t have seen you, has no idea who you are, and even if he did, we don’t know anything actually happened, now do we? You probably just left your map someplace.”
He obviously thought her an idiot woman and was waiting for her to leave.
“Yes,” she whispered. “You’re right.” She crept outside. They weren’t going to do a thing. They didn’t believe her, thought she was a hysterical woman like Phillip had, like Charles did.
“What should I do?” She clutched the steering wheel with her hands, trying to fight back tears. “Food, coffee. That will give me time to think.”
Her sister had told her where to eat breakfast. “They have the best cinnamon rolls, you’ll love them,” she’d said. “It’s just down the street from your motel.”
She sat at a small table beside a large window where she could look out onto the busy street and sip the coffee that came with a menu. No cinnamon rolls, she thought defiantly. But when the waitress came she found herself ordering a dish of fruit and cinnamon rolls. She couldn’t disappoint her sister.
Should she start for Monterey, her next planned stop, or should she head inland, where she wasn’t sure of the route. She picked at the roll. How else did one get to Oregon? Charles and her sister had made all the arrangements for her, getting her hotel reservations, making a list of things she should see, telling her when to call them during her travels and all the while saying, rather meanly she thought, did she really think she should drive, wouldn’t she be better off flying?
She pulled an envelope from her purse that contained a small flip-over map, her hotel reservations, and pages of instructions. She knew that she hadn’t lost her large map. She didn’t want to think about where it might be and who might be reading it.
A man sat down at the table next to hers, laughing with the waitress, asking for coffee. She glanced up, absorbed in her thoughts, and froze. Blond longish hair covered the back of his neck, tan muscled arms showed under a blue polo shirt. He wore dark lens sunglasses. Last night he hadn’t been wearing the glasses.
Quickly she looked down at her roll, tore off a piece, put it back on the plate. She tried to pick up the coffee with trembling hands, but she shook so much she set it back on the table.
“Calm, be calm. Maybe it’s not him. You only saw him for a moment.”
“S’matter, Stan.” The waitress set a full coffee mug in front of the man. “You and Sandy have another fight?”
“Sorta. She kept at me half the night. Can’t get it through her head. A traveling salesman travels.”
She listened intently, ignoring life-long dictums about eavesdropping. A fight. She dropped a grape, untasted, back into her cup of fruit. Oh, God. He’d admitted to a fight.
“You two can’t go on like this.” The waitress cocked one hip and put her hand on it. She stared down at the man. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to do something.”
Don’t look. She searched the table for something, anything to hold over her face. The menu. The waitress had left the menu. She grabbed it and held it up, hoping it covered her face. Take a deep breath. She dropped it down, peeking at him over the top of it. Look out the window. Anything. Just don’t look at him. Oh, please God, let my hands quit shaking.
A white car was parked in front of the café. It hadn’t been parked there earlier. The car last night was white.
“I’m going to be sick.” She pushed away the cloyingly sweet roll. Slowly, she made herself collect her papers, shoving them inside her purse. She picked up her check, pushed back her chair, leaving her no choice but to face the man. He had picked up the newspaper, ignoring her.
She must truly be a hysterical woman. She had made a mistake. As she dropped money on the table, he lowered his paper. Sunglasses still in place, he nodded to her, them smiled a very little smile. She gasped, watched his expression change. He frowned, pushed his chair back, and started to stand.
“What’s the matter, lady? You got a problem with me?” He sank back down in his chair and glared at her. “Stupid old broad. You look like you seen a ghost–-or a murderer.” He laughed.
She fled. She was in tears when she slammed her car door shut and locked it.
“Think. I have to think.” Her hand clenched and unclenched. She couldn’t call the police. They already thought she was crazy. Charles? She couldn’t. She found she was gnawing at her cuticle. She could almost hear the voice patiently telling her, “Stop that, Charlotte.”
“Shut up, Phillip,” she said loudly, savagely. “Just shut up.”
She pulled a pencil out of her purse and drove slowly behind the white car parked close against the building. “I’ll head up the coast, exactly as planned. If he follows, I’ll have something to take to the police.” She paused long enough to jot down the tag number, 2ATT486, and the make, Honda Accord, then she headed north on State St., her next stop Morro Bay.
She had no idea there were so many white cars. All the way up 101 and into San Luis Obispo she saw them. At first, she panicked each time one passed her, but gradually she relaxed. None had a license tag that started with 2ATT.
She had planned to have lunch in Morro Bay, then follow the winding coast road into Monterey. “It’s a beautiful drive, but slow,” warned her sister. “Allow plenty of time.”
It was lunchtime when she arrived at the scheduled small café. She looked carefully up and down the pier before she took her seat at the table overlooking the bay. Lunch was delicious, and she left feeling relaxed, almost confident. Then she saw it. A white car parked directly behind hers. Its license number shown up at her like a beacon. 2ATT486.
“It can’t be.” She felt numb, helpless. Tears formed, her throat closed, and her fingers threatened to lose their hold on her car keys.
“Well, well, we meet again.” There was a sneer in the man’s voice. A hand touched her on the arm. “Quite a coincidence. Why do you keep looking at me like that?”
She looked at sunglasses, a blue polo shirt, strong brown arms. “No, no. Go away. Leave me alone. I won’t say anything. I won’t.”
“Lady, I want to know–.”
She pulled away, trying to leave.
“Oh, no, you don’t. You’re not running away. Not until…”
She felt his hand grasp her arm. His fingers lightened. He wouldn’t want a scene, not on this busy tourist filled street. If she could only… She felt the smack through her own body as her purse connected with his face. She heard him yelp. Fumbling only slightly she thrust her key into the car door lock, turned it. She jerked open the door and fell inside, hitting the inside locks. The ignition. The key went in on the first try. She roared the engine, turning the wheel hard. She almost hit him as she sped away. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. He stood in the middle of the street, staring after her.
By the time she got to the outskirts of Cambria the trembling overtook her. She pulled over on the shoulder, waiting for it to subside. There was no longer any doubt. He was following her. He planned to kill her as he had that lovely young girl. He had her map and she had written the name and address of the motel on the cover. He knew where she was staying in Monterey.
“I’m not going up Highway 1.” Saying it aloud gave her confidence. She stared at a sign announcing the exit to highway 46. She turned on it and headed for Highway 101. It would be faster and, most importantly, it wasn’t marked on her map. She’d cross over to Monterey when she got close to Salinas. For the first time she wished she knew how to use the GPS on her phone, but she had her little map and it looked easy. She looked at it one more time, laid it on the seat, and concentrated on the road. She needed to be in a locked room, with a phone so she could reach help. But what help? Once again, she thought about her pistol, still locked in the trunk. “Later.” With new resolve she picked up speed.
Dusk turned to dark. She sat on the motel bed in Monterey, turning the gun over and over, running her fingers over the safety lock, reassuring herself that she had loaded it correctly. She hadn’t wanted to come here but hadn’t known where else to go. Would he try to kill her? Maybe. She hadn’t seen any sign of him on the drive north. But he knew she’d seen him last night. He knew where she was and simple things, like parking her car at the end of the motel lot and walking back to her room, wouldn’t keep him away. Could she shoot him when he came? Maybe. She didn’t know what else to do. The Monterey police had been even less interested than in Santa Barbara. She could almost hear them saying, “just another crazy woman.” But she wasn’t. He was out there. He was going to kill her. She didn’t know how to stop him. Unless she used the gun.
Sighing, she pushed aside the drapes and investigated the parking lot from her dark room. A car moved slowly, pausing from time to time. Someone looking for their room? She stiffened. No. This car was white. The license plate was hidden, but she knew. She let the drape drop and slowly walked back to the bed. There was no longer any doubt. He wasn’t going to let her go.
She picked up the pistol. The cold of it, the strength of the metal, seemed to seep into her very being. She could feel her hand steady, her heart beat more slowly, her jagged breaths smoothed.
“I don’t have a choice. No, that’s not right. I can sit here and let him kill me, or I can kill him first. I won’t sit here like an animal waiting for slaughter. I won’t. No one will blame me when they find out what he did to that lovely girl. His wife! He wants to do the same to me.”
She felt panic rise, trying to once more take over, but she pushed it away. “I won’t die, not like this.” Somehow, saying it out loud made her resolve real and reasonable. She picked up her jacket, slipped the gun into her handbag, and locked the motel room. The parking lot was empty. Most people were at dinner. She started her car, determined she would find the man before he found her.
Slowly she toured the town, looking for the white car with the telltale license plate. She felt calm, detached, as though she was looking down at herself from a far away place. She watched herself stop, stare at the white car parked outside a popular restaurant. She watched herself go inside, shake her head at the head waiter, search the tables until she saw the man, then return to her car to wait. It seemed a long time before he came out, but she knew if she didn’t finish what she intended to do, he would find her that night, and she would die.
She followed him back to a motel, dear God, only a block from hers. He headed for the bar. She slipped inside, taking a table in the darkest corner. She watched him joke with the bartender, paying no attention to the three huge TV’s blaring in the corners.
Finally, he was ready to leave. She left first, hiding in the darkest shadows outside the doorway, holding the gun in both hands, trembling, blinking rapidly, knowing it had to be now, while he was so close. She watched him pause in the doorway of the bar, saw him weave a little. She raised the gun and fired, once, twice, then again, saw him fall as if in slow motion.
She felt herself sag against the doorframe, felt the door of the bar push open against her body, heard the blare of the TV newscaster in the sudden shocked silence.
“Thanks to a tip from a traveler with insomnia, Santa Barbara police have arrested a man in conjunction with the murder of a young prostitute, whose body was found in the trunk of his white Ford Taurus …”
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