a short story 

by Michael Prescott

Update, July 2013: This story is now part of my ebook collection Steel Trap and Other Stories, available in Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords editons. 


Abby Sinclair was on the job. She steered her undercover car, a battered Hyundai, through a puzzle of streets under a moonless sky, staying well behind the Ford pickup she’d been following for the past four miles. The Ford’s broken taillight made the vehicle easy to spot, which was why she’d busted it in the first place.

Behind the wheel of the pickup was Tom Shade, her quarry for the evening. A man with a grievance, or so she’d been told. Not that it was hard to believe. In her line of work, it seemed everyone had a grievance against somebody.

She was a private security consultant specializing in protection against stalkers. Her techniques were a tad unorthodox. Rather than react defensively by putting up a wall of protection around the target, she would act preemptively, working undercover to meet the stalker, gain his trust, infiltrate his life – and assess his threat level. If she rated him a serious threat, she could neutralize him. Not in any violent Charles Bronson sort of way. Typically, she would arrange for the guy to have a run-in with the law that would result in his incarceration. Her own involvement was never suspected by the authorities, and her name – her real name – was never known.

For tonight’s purposes she was Abby Grant, and she had fake ID in her purse to prove it. Also nestled in her purse was a Smith .38, her firearm of choice, along with a file of Rohypnol date-rape capsules, a set of pick locks, a couple of electronic eavesdropping devices, and other tools of her trade. She thought she had an Elmer Fudd Pez dispenser in there, too, and maybe some after-dinner mints.

The truck led her through the outskirts of Santa Angela, California, then out to the highway. She’d arrived in Santa Angela only that afternoon, after a three-hour drive through the Mojave Desert, and she’d already seen most of what the town had to offer. It was a bleak, scorched outpost, a few blocks of a faded downtown surrounded by acres of look-alike housing developments and crisscrossing highways studded with strip malls. Having grown up near Phoenix, she understood the charms of desert life – the big sky and the great silence, the blooms of cactus flowers, the haze of mountains behind a shimmer of noonday heat – but this town wasn’t her kind of place. She lived at a faster pace, and she didn’t slow down at nightfall. Santa Angela’s night life seemed to consist solely of a drive-in movie and a couple of biker bars.

Or maybe not, she thought as another nightspot rose into view, a squat, warehouselike building identified by a looming neon sign as the Bowlarama. Above the roof, neon tenpins were knocked down by an animated bowling ball, only to be magically reset and knocked down again.

The Ford eased off the highway into the parking lot of the bowling alley. Abby motored past, not wanting to enter directly behind Tom Shade. At the next traffic light she doubled back and pulled in, depositing her car not too far from the Ford.

Shade was already inside. She went up to his truck and tried the doors. Locked. But a side window was ajar, allowing her to reach inside with a gizmo from her purse and unlock the door. Quickly she searched the interior. The search was illegal, of course, but a lot of what she did was illegal. She didn’t worry about niceties.

In the glove compartment she found a .44 Magnum Ruger Super Redhawk – a big-game weapon, and a whole lot of handgun for a man to be driving around with. The revolver was fully loaded, and there was a speed loader for backup.

She examined the .44. The serial number had been burned off with acid. The piece was unregistered, a black-market item.

Digging deeper in the glove compartment, she came across a small spiral-bound notebook, each page neatly marked with a different day of the week. On every day a set of movements was recorded in obsessive detail.

11:43 a.m. Left office on foot. Walked alone to Gianni’s Deli. Ordered lunch, ate at window.

12:37 p.m. Finished lunch and returned to office, stopping at bank ATM.

And so on, for the past week.

She flipped to the last page that had any writing on it. Monday, it read. A large black X was carefully incised below.

Tomorrow was Monday.

It looked as if she’d arrived just in time.

She replaced the items, relocked the truck, and headed toward the Bowlarama, passing a pay phone outside the entrance. She hoped the phone was working. She might need it before long.

The bowling alley smelled of mildew and beer. She saw Tom Shade on lane four, bowling alone. He’d brought his own ball and his own shoes; she saw the carrying cases on the floor by the ball return. A regular, apparently.

She stopped at the counter and rented a pair of remarkably ugly blue and-red shoes with her shoe size, seven, stenciled on the heels. She wondered if people with big feet were self-conscious about that, and if so, did they avoid bowling alleys? It was one of those mysteries.

Tonight the Bowlarama was mostly empty – no leagues, no legions of kids – just a few dating couples and a handful of senior citizens. There was more action by the foosball tables than on the lanes, and even more activity at the bar, where a football game was displayed on a decent-sized TV below a Budweiser sign.

Having a wide choice of lanes, she naturally picked lane three, which placed her next to Tom Shade. Unobtrusively she studied him. He was a tall, lean, stoop-shouldered man pushing fifty, with gray hair and hollow eyes. He played well but without emotion. He registered no reaction when the pins fell. Each time, he retrieved his ball from the ball return, then stepped back onto the boards and executed another play, over and over, his movements as mechanical as the action of the pinsetter at the end of the lane. He was a man going through the motions. Abby had seen many men like him, lost men, men who’d given up. She knew they were often the most dangerous men, because they had absolutely nothing left to lose.

He did bowl a lot of strikes, though. It occurred to her that a bowler’s notation for a strike was an X – like the X that marked Monday in Shade’s notebook. She had a fair idea of what kind of strike he had planned for tomorrow.

Abby wasn’t much for bowling. She had a certain distrust of any sport in which Richard Nixon had achieved a perfect score. But she was athletic enough to keep the ball out of the gutter and rack up a respectable tally of splits and spares. After faking a bad frame she asked Shade for help with her form. She thought he might make some kind of quip about that – Your form doesn’t need any help, maybe, pronounced with a wolfish smirk. But he barely seemed to register her appearance. He gave her a few tips on her stance and the timing of the ball’s release, but his mind was elsewhere.

Keeping him talking wasn’t easy at first, but Abby had a great deal of experience with taciturn men. She knew that if he could be drawn out, he would bare his soul. For the next half hour she made nice with him until they gave up on bowling and settled down for some social drinking and conversation. From the bar she fetched a beer for him and a scotch on the rocks for herself. The advantage of scotch was that it could be sipped slowly, allowing the ice to melt and dilute the alcohol, so that only a small quantity of liquor was actually imbibed. She needed to stay sharp, but she knew Tom Shade wouldn’t want to drink alone.

He still didn’t open up until she told him she was a new arrival to Santa Angela, thinking of making it her home to escape L.A.’s urban hell. “Life in small towns is so much better,” she said. “People are friendly here. They look out for each other.”

It was the right button to press. A funny look came over Tom Shade, and he stared into the blurry depths of his beer bottle before answering.

“Small towns aren’t all they’re made out to be. And people here can treat you just as badly as people anywhere else.”

She knew she had him then. He would tell his story with minimal urging. She sat on the plastic couch, kicking her ugly blue-and-red shoes together, and listened.

“The thing is,” Tom Shade said, “I had a life once.” He took a long pull on the bottle and stared toward lane five, where the alley mechanic was adjusting the pinsetter. “A wife, a little boy, a business. I ran a drug store downtown. Had a prime location on the corner of Alvarado and Third, across from the coffee shop. Lots of foot traffic. People would come in for a bottle of shampoo or today’s paper, and before you knew it, they’d bought toothpaste, deodorant, a magazine, maybe a paperback book. It’s the impulse buys where you really rack up your money. That, and prescriptions, of course. I kept my prices reasonable, honored all the insurance plans, made sure the druggist took his time with the customers. Full service – that’s what we aimed for. A full-service establishment. And then one day Frank Norton walked in.”

She’d known the conversation would get around to Frank Norton eventually. He was her client, the man who’d driven to L.A. and hired her after a brief, edgy poolside meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Unnamed business connections of his had recommended her services and given him her phone number. All he’d told her was that Tom Shade had been seen spying on him, and that there was bad blood between them.

“Norton’s a developer, a big man in town,” Shade said, “and he wanted my property. He’d already bought the building next door, but he wanted the corner lot, too, so he could put up a new mixed use complex, as he called it. Retail space on the ground floor, residential units above. And I have to say he offered me a fair price. But I wasn’t selling. If I moved, I’d lose half my customers and probably end up in some strip mall out on the highway.

“I told Frank no. Before he left, he told me I should reconsider. He looks at me – he’s got these bright blue eyes, hawk eyes, sharp – he looks at me and he tells me I’m making a mistake. Says I shouldn’t be so stubborn. Says, ‘Sometimes you just have to walk away.’ And he’s smiling. Like he’s in on a joke that I don’t get. As it out turns out, he was. At the time, though, I thought that was the end of it.”

Abby knew it wasn’t the end. If it had been, Frank Norton wouldn’t have requested her services, and Tom Shade wouldn’t have been following him, studying his routine, making notes on places and times.

Or buying an unregistered .44 Magnum with extra ammo. A gun he intended to use tomorrow, probably when Norton left his office at lunch hour and walked down the street to the deli. He would be most vulnerable then.

But Shade would never pull the trigger. Abby already had enough to put him away. The gun, the surveillance notes. And his own words on tape. Among the assorted detritus in her handbag was a microcassette recorder, which she’d switched on when Shade wasn’t looking.

“A little time goes by,” Shade was saying. “One morning I get a call from a friend, who asks me, ‘Is it true, what’s in the paper?’ I run down and get the paper – buy it in my own store where we’ve got a stack of them on display, the Santa Angela Herald-Star, where I’ve advertised for twenty years. There on the front page it says that when I was nineteen I was arrested on a drug charge.”

“Was it true?” Abby asked, echoing the nameless friend’s question.

“Yeah. When I was in college, I got hold of some amphetamines. I used to take them when I pulled all-nighters. Some other students wanted in on the action. I sold a few pills here and there. The RA found out and ratted on me to the campus police, and then the real police got involved. I ended up with a conviction for dealing illegal substances, two hundred hours of community service, and a one year probation. Now, after all these years, someone had brought it back to haunt me.”

“Someone,” Abby murmured.

Shade didn’t seem to hear. He was wrapped up in the story now, reliving it, as he must have relived it a thousand times. “I went over to the newspaper office and yelled at Charlie Vasquez. He’s the editor, and I’d thought he was a friend. I told him I’d deserved at least a heads-up and a chance to respond. Charlie claimed he hadn’t been able to track me down. Which was crap. This town’s not that big. Anybody could have found me.

“Of course, I knew what really happened. It was Frank Norton. He placed a hell of a lot more advertising in theHerald-Star than I ever did. He must’ve hired a private detective to dig up dirt, then pressured Charlie to blindside me with the story. He knew once word got around that Tom Shade had a secret past involving drugs, it would be only a short leap to wondering if this is the man who ought to be selling drugs to you and your family. In a big city, a story like this wouldn’t even make a ripple, but small towns are different.” He fixed her with a knowing stare. “You’ll find out, if you stay here long. In a small town, everybody knows everything that’s going on.”

“There’s no escape,” Abby said.

“That’s right. No escape.” He tipped the bottle to his lips again. “No escape,” he repeated, speaking to himself.

She didn’t want him drifting away. “You must have fought back,” she prompted.

“I tried. Really, I thought I could just ride it out – but I hadn’t counted on the whispering campaign. People started hearing there was other stuff, worse stuff, which the paper hadn’t printed. Some folks thought it was more drug problems. Others thought it was embezzlement or who-knows-what. Nobody knew the facts because there were no facts, just innuendo. Norton and his friends were playing Telephone, see. They whispered things in people’s ears and then let the stories get more complicated with every retelling, until there were a hundred rumors, all different.

“And so the foot traffic in my store started to peter out. A business like mine operates on a tight margin. When you start to lose your customer base, you have to cut back on inventory – but when you start cutting back, the people who do come in can’t find the item they want, so they go out to the CVS Pharmacy on the highway and never come back. And finally the shelves are bare, and the bell over the door never rings.”

Abby nodded. She’d been in stores like that, places so empty and forlorn that she felt she had to buy something, anything, if only out of pity.

“After six months, I let my druggist go and closed down the prescription counter. My shelves were nearly bare. I’d come to the end. To the end in more ways than one.”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked over the rumble of another ball traveling down one of the lanes.

He hesitated, looking ashamed. “Watching it fail, watching everything go down the tubes with nothing I could do about it … well, it made me a little crazy. And I – I took it out on the family. I started yelling, carrying on. I broke one of Danny’s toys, and he ran off crying to his room. I never hit him, never hit the wife, but once I came close. I hauled off and nearly slapped her, but caught myself just in time. She saw it, though. She saw what I was about to do, and she never trusted me after that. She was afraid of me, and Danny was, too. One day I came home, and the closets had been emptied out. My wife had taken Danny and gone to New Mexico to stay with her mother and file for divorce.”

Abby nodded slowly. The family violence didn’t surprise her. And in their meeting, Frank Norton had told her that Shade was in the middle of a divorce. Abby had thought of it as a precipitating stressor. She hadn’t guessed that Norton himself was the real stressor, the subterranean disturbance that had dislodged all the pieces of Tom Shade’s life.

“Once they were gone,” Shade said, his voice dropping slightly, “there was no fight left in me, and nothing left to fight for. I called up Norton and asked if he was still interested in purchasing my property. He said that because of the falloff in my business, he couldn’t offer me the price that had been on the table before. I would have to settle for less, a lot less. You get that? Because of the falloff in my business …” He chuckled, a sad, helpless sound. “I thought I could get someone else to buy the property at a more reasonable price, but everyone knew Norton had his eye on it, and no one wanted to cross him. I guess that was smart on their part. Turns out Frank Norton’s not a man you want to cross.

“So I sold it to him. Signing over the deed felt like signing a suicide note.”

He paused. Abby let the silence settle between them, a silence heavy with regrets and bitterness.

“Store’s gone now,” Shade said after a moment, “along with the stores next to it, all ripped down so Norton can put up his mixed-use complex, hailed by the mayor and the town council as the first step in the revitalization of Alvarado Street – not that it needed to be revitalized, since the only business that was failing was mine. The new buildings aren’t even up yet, but Norton’s already renting them out for a pretty penny. And me, I’m getting by on the money from the sale, which isn’t much and is nearly gone, but … well, I won’t be needing it much longer.”

She knew the reason, but asked anyway. “Why won’t you be needing it, Tom?”

He didn’t answer. He gazed off into some great distance, a man with a thousand-yard stare. “You know, it’s funny. I never thought about revenge. I was angry, sure, but taking matters into my own hands is something that just didn’t occur to me. Until one day when I was out by the lake, sitting in one of the benches, just watching the ducks float by, and I felt someone behind me, standing there. I look up, and it’s Frank. He’s seen me sitting there all alone like a bum on a park bench. And he smiles at me. He says, ‘I told you, Tom. Sometimes you just have to walk away.’ Nothing else. Just those words and that smile.

“That’s when I learned to hate him. That’s when I started thinking about a price that has to be paid. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth …” He looked away, his lip trembling. “You know how it goes.”

“Life for life,” Abby said, completing the quotation.

He nodded. His voice was slow and thick. “Life for life. Frank didn’t pay very much for my property, but soon … soon he’ll pay a great deal.”

It was all she needed, as close to an explicit confession as she was going to get, and she had it on tape.

A few minutes later she excused herself to use the ladies’ room. When she was sure he wasn’t watching, she returned her rental shoes and left the bowling alley.

The next step was obvious. Place a call from the pay phone to the local police. Provide an anonymous tip that would prompt a search of Tom Shade’s truck. In it they would find the black-market handgun, the incriminating notes. And the tape, which she would leave in the glove compartment.

With this evidence in their custody, they would have no trouble breaking Shade. He was a man who wanted to tell his story. He would admit to everything, and he would be sent away to prison or to a psychiatric hospital. Either way he would be locked within walls for a long time.

A few feet outside the entrance, Abby stopped. She looked up at the desert sky rich with stars. Those stars would still shine, but Tom Shade wouldn’t see them, not for many years. He had lost everything else. Now he would lose even the sky.

And Frank Norton would open his mixed-use complex and make money and never think of the man he’d destroyed. Or maybe he would think of him sometimes – and smile.

Yes. That was one way the story could turn out. But there was another option.

She started walking again. She passed the pay phone without stopping. She passed Tom Shade’s pickup truck. Her car keys were in her hand, and she opened the door of her Hyundai and slid behind the wheel and revved the engine.

Just once, she glanced back at the Bowlarama with its neon tenpins forever falling down. Strike, strike, strike … Regular as clockwork. Predictable as the tides.

Abby thought about what was in Tom Shade’s glove box, and what he would do tomorrow at lunch hour.

And she knew Frank Norton had been right.

Sometimes you just have to walk away.

She drove out of the parking lot and found the on-ramp to Interstate-10, westbound, which would take her back to the city.

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