Damn. He's there again. I catch him out of the corner of my eye as I turn down the produce aisle. I move over to the wall of vegetables, so I can observe him in the glass above the trays of produce. My own reflection is so blurred, I'm too close, but he's about six meters away, and I can see him fine. He's been following me, showing up here and there, never approaching me, but never far off for a couple of weeks now.
He's maybe fifty. A white man. Casually dressed. Nothing about him reads like a pervert, or worse, a cop.
I quickly replay my last job through my head, seeing if I had made any mistakes-
3 AM. No bars nearby, no traffic on the street. I'm at the jewelry store's back door, which opens onto an alley. I look around again, seeing no one. The building next door is a business, no apartments, so empty at this late hour.
I begin drilling the lock with my small electric drill. Pretty soon I'm in, I've studied this door, and this brand and model of lock, doing my research for this job. I also know the layout of the store. No alarm is likely to sound, as two days before I visited the store, just walked past the counter and staff, into this back room, and looked around. I was planning on saying I was looking for a toilet if asked, but no one noticed me. While there, I rewired the alarm into a loop, so it wouldn't be triggered, when the back door opened. That took all of about two minutes. I doubt the store management had found my work.
Mostly, stores like this don't use silent alarms. They want noise. They want to scare the thief off before she can take anything. I listened. Nothing.
I super glued a key opening from a similar lock into place, stepped inside, and closed the door. I didn't want any cop car, coming down the alley, to see my work on the door.
My eyes adjusted to the dimness. What I wanted was in the safe, an old combination safe not updated since the original generation, decades ago, started this store. Their grandchildren now ran several, mostly in the malls. While the store part of this place was fancy, this backroom, combination office, storage room, break room, and general utility space, hadn't been modernized. I turned right, walked over to the manager's office, and let myself in. I quickly went through his desk drawers, pretty much knowing I would find what I wanted. Finding it would be quicker, and easier than the tense, sweaty process of opening the safe by listening for the combination. I'm really not so good at that. But thanks to human nature, I didn't need to be, people always kept that stuff written down. And there it was, on a post-it note stuck to the side of his desk drawer.
I crossed the room, hiding my tiny flashlight. Yes, there was a video camera pointed at the safe. But the store didn't leave any lights on for the camera. The only light was an exit sign above the back door, and it was half out. They could have been cited for that. Even if there had been a camera, an alarm tripped by electric eye, I wasn't too worried. Most of the time, I don't set those off for some reason. That's an advantage, in my line of work.
I dialed in the numbers on the note, and the safe failed to open. Ah, crafty, this manager. I reversed the numbers, dialed them in again, and the safe opened. I emptied the best jewelry, and the small bit of cash, into the hidden inner pockets I'd sewn into my jacket, shut the safe, and left the building. Once outside, I threw my ball cap into a dumpster, let my hair down, put on another cap, stripped off my vinyl gloves, and tossed them into another dumpster. I once had the very tense experience of robbing a store when three cars of cops pulled up. There had been a fight in a bar two door down. I was just finishing up. So I did all I could do, I just walked casually through the crowd of cops, and not a one even acted as if he saw me.
Keeping off the main streets, I tried, and failed to get the only cab I saw to notice me, so I walked until I caught an early bus back to the east side of town, then went to a diner, and sat a while. Then I went to where I hide my earnings, and then home. Never have anything stolen, on the premises, just in case. Besides, there are thieves around. I'd been in and out of the store in a little under an hour. I couldn't think of any mistakes I'd made. Since I'd opened the safe with the combination, the cops would be looking at the staff, thinking the door drilling was just to throw them off. The cops would be thinking insurance scam.
In the past three weeks, I'd only fenced two items, nice ones, but with two different fences I'd worked with for years. That's a big mistake many make, fencing everything at once. The cops notice, and the fences give you less for the lot. It had been a very good night, for me, I wouldn't have to do much of anything for a few months, even if I saved most of it. This was much bigger than my usual scores.
I'm no international cat burglar. I never steal priceless objects. Why would I? If they're priceless, I can't sell them. Better to steal what's valuable, but not so much so, that the store's insurance can't cover it, or that it becomes a big deal. Stay below the radar, I say. It's worked so far, for me. That way no one looks too hard to solve the theft, and catch the thief. Cops are lazy by nature.
I've been a professional thief for years now. I was out on my own very young, didn't finish high school, had no papers. Tough to get work that way. I hadn't the looks or nerve to be a hooker, I'm no where near tough enough to mug, and I'm too clumsy to pickpocket. I sure don't want to sell drugs. So, I became a thief, mostly out of desperation, I began shoplifting when I was first on my own, at fourteen, lost and hungry. It worked well for me. In all those years, I've only been caught once, and that was just bad luck. I think it's because I'm so drab, no one notices me.
People just don't look at me. I'm not remarkable, I'm way too average. I'm early thirties, average height, not fat, not thin. Shoulder length brown hair. Not ugly, not pretty. I'm the type you see a million times, and never notice.
So why is this man following me?
I bought less groceries than I had planned, paid for them (Because I live by breaking some laws, I keep the others- I am a specific type of crook, and I stick to what I'm good at.) and left the store. I knew the man was still following me.
I walked down the street towards home. People around here are rude, they'll bump right into you on the pavement, just like they don't see you, and they never apologize.
I got myself into a knot of people, then ducked into an alley. I waited, and the man passed by. I walked behind him, as he searched the people ahead of him. "How do you like me turning the tables" I asked, in my head. Then he stopped, having lost me. I walked up behind him.
"Why are you following me? Do I need to call the police?" I asked.
He was a bit startled, but recovered quickly. "Ms. Calligan, there you are. No, don't call the police.
I don't think you will anyway. May I turn around?" He knew my name. That bothered me.
"I'm not holding a gun on you. Do what you want, but don't try to touch me."
He turned, and smiled. "Can I have a few minutes of your time? I'd really like to talk to you."
I didn't know what to do. I couldn't have this man following me. I just couldn't. And he worried me. He knew my last name. What was his deal? Was he a cop? He didn't seem to be. Cops are arrogant, they don't ask politely. I figured better to know what he was up to than not.
"So why didn't you just walk up to me and ask, maybe back in the store?"
His smile wavered. "Ahh, well, I'd rather discuss this more, uh..."
"There's a coffee place over there." I said, pointing down the street. "We can talk there." I wanted to keep this in semi-public, but quiet, just in case he had something unpleasant to tell me.
"Sure, that's fine." He said, following me down the street and into the coffee place. We placed an order, and took seats towards the back, where I could see the door in case he had buddies. I also knew where the back door was in this place. He might, too, though.
"Why are you following me?" I asked.
He looked uncomfortable. "I, uh, well, don't usually do this. I mean, follow women. In my line of work, well, I don't really get into this kind of situation. I'm not a sex offender, or anything like that."
"Sure". I thought. "Like you'd tell me if you were."
He reached into the big messenger bag he carried, and fished around a bit. As I tensed to run, he dug out a card, and handed it to me.
"I met you by accident." He said. "You don't remember me, I'm sure. You probably never noticed me. You were on trial for shoplifting. I, well I was charged with trespassing. I was in the same courtroom."
I was nineteen then, and still into the small stuff, boosting things from stores. That was my first, and only time caught.
"You were found guilty, because you had the items on you when the store manager stopped you, leaving the store. But, here's what made me notice you. Although the store had cameras everywhere, you weren't on any of them. No one remembered seeing you. If the store manager hadn't bumped into you on your way out of the store, you would have gotten away with it."
"If you're thinking of doing something like blackmailing me, it won't work. Have you been following me since then?" I felt a pit of ice in my stomach.
He looked almost as disturbed by that idea as I felt.
"No, oh, no, of course not. Still, it stuck with me, and I remembered your name. I did some research because, well..." He lamely pointed at his card.
I looked at it. Ed Chase. Parapsychologist. What?
"You're a... uh..."
He gave a sheepish grin. "Most people call me a ghost hunter."
Ok, so he was nuts.
"Ok, Mr. Chase, well, happy hunting, but that has nothing to do with me. I don't want to be seeing you again." I began to get up from the table.
"Please, please wait- Hear me out." He began to reach out for me, and stopped.
I stopped too. I had to make him stop following me, and he was right, I wasn't calling the cops.
"I suspect you don't show up often on cameras. Those automatic doors, and sensors don't see you... People don't often notice you, they bump into you-" He blurted quickly.
I sat back down. "Yeah, well, I'm just one of those people you don't notice." I said. "But I'm no ghost. I'm not haunting some place, in the dark. I don't go boo! I'm sitting in front of you, drinking coffee" The mug almost slipped from my hand. I'm clumsy, sometimes. Well, often. I'm a klutz. "Besides, ghosts don't exist. And, I do."
Chase looked unhappy. "Yes. But... I'm not saying you're a ghost. Or if you are, well, you're not typical, that's for sure. That's why I have researched you. You're here, alive? But you can't be." He reached back into the messenger bag, and I tensed again. I'm sort of paranoid like that. He pulled out some papers. He slid one across to me. I glanced down at it, keeping my attention on him.
It was a photocopy of a newspaper story.
"Body of Missing Girl Found."
"The body of Lisa Calligan, a local girl missing since January 12th, was found in a ditch on Bellingham road, last Tuesday, by road repair crews."
"Police are investigating, citing the cause of death as strangulation."
I felt weak, and had to grab for the table. Chase's eyes went wide and he looked miserable.
I felt physically sick, dizzy, as if I was falling down a hole. Usually, I remember little or nothing from when I was young.
But now, I remembered.....remembered that day, walking to the school bus stop. The man, his car, how he pulled up in front of me, and jumped out, chasing me down, and grabbing me. I fought, but he was stronger. I was only fourteen. I remember him trying to rape me, I remember kicking him, my arms flung back, grabbing for the door handle. I opened the door and tumbled out into a ditch. He drove off.
I glared at Chase, trying not to cry. "This is bull shit." I said. "This is fake. Yes, I was abducted by a pervert when I was fourteen. But I escaped, I'm sitting right here, alive in front of you, god damn it. I'm not a ghost, you lunatic. " I got up from the table, holding back tears.
"You need to stay the hell away from me. Stop following me. I don't let strange men anywhere near me. You should understand that. If I see you again, I will have something done. I won't call the cops, I'll do worse. I know people who would hurt you, damn it. LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE!"
I ran from the coffee shop. I wish I could tell you I gave him an icy stare and walked away, proud. But, I didn't. I let that nut case get to me, put me in tears. I got out on the street, and looked around. Another man bumped into me, walked past as if he didn't even see me.
"Asshole" I shouted at him, but he never turned around.
Before this, my life before age fourteen had been very vague, I had barely remembered it. Now I remembered the attack, all the terror, and pain came flooding back. I felt a huge sense of emptiness and loss settle on me.
I began to walk home. I didn't need Ed Chase, "Ghost Hunter" in my life, and I sure didn't need his craziness. I was a loner. I didn't get close to people. Truth was, I didn't know people who would hurt him. Or anyone, really. I had no friends, no romance. In my life, that just doesn't work. I didn't like people near me, especially not his sort.
So what, if I didn't get noticed much, if cameras didn't often see me, or those stupid electric doors? It happens. But I'm alive, no ghost. I'm here, walking down this street, scared and angry.
I had a vivid memory of the abduction, so strong it stopped me, getting me bumped into again, as people behind me walked right into me. Damn! Again, I remembered the man, his hot breath as he tried to push me down under him in the car seat. I remember kicking, reaching for the car door handle. Funny, I don't ever remember grabbing that handle. I really don't remember anything much, for days after that. I remember just being here, on the street, people bumping into me. I knew my name was Lisa Calligan, because that's what was written into the collar of my coat. I didn't remember where I came from, where I belonged, and no one came looking for me. But, that happens. People have a trauma, and they block it out of their memory. I saw it on TV. It happens all the time.
But I must have escaped. I'm here. I'm alive. That creep couldn't have killed me.
So, I did the best I could. I found out no one paid any attention to me, so I became a thief. I was good at it, and I survived. That's what's important, I'm a survivor, and proud of it. The world doesn't seem to have much of a place for me, so I make my own way. You may not approve of how I do it. Too bad! I am here, and I mean to keep being.
I looked at the reflections in the big store window, to see if Chase was following me. I didn't see his reflection, at all anywhere. Mine neither.