Two girls died. Word spread across the whole campus. Don’t go out alone, only with friends. Don’t trust strange guys.
Jane works the late shift at the campus library. That means leaving alone. In the dark.
Not her favorite thing, but she needs the job.
Jane geared up for battle before she left the safety of the library walls. She had her backpack secure over both shoulders. She kept her hands in her sweatshirt pouch with her keys sticking out between the fingers of her left hand and her small bottle of pepper spray in her left. Around her neck, she wore a whistle on a string. With two girls already dead this month, she didn’t plan on taking any chances.
“You alright gonna out all by your lonesome?”
She took a breath and looked back at the janitor standing beside her cart. Wanda was a tall woman with very wide hips and a beehive of red hair. Each night it was the same. Wanda came in as she closed up to clean the building.
“I’m fine.” Jane smiled. “Anybody mess with me, they’ll be sorry.”
Wanda clucked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t argue. “You be careful, girl. You don’t know some of these guys. They’re sneaky, they are.”
“I know, Wanda. Good night.”
“Good night to yourself.”
Jane pushed out through the doors. Cold October air stung her face. Decaying leaves gathered around the walls. Light posts lit up the square, but a fine chilling drizzle was falling. Not quite cold enough to turn to snow but cold enough. Jane hunched her shoulders and headed out into the mess.
Away from the building the wind blew the freezing mist into her face. Jane huffed and tried breathing through her nose. It was colder than she’d thought. If it got much colder, maybe they’d see an early snow. Too early for snow in Olympia, she thought. But that’s climate change for you. All sorts of crazy weather.
She made it across the square and headed up towards the Loop. A little old woman stood beneath the street light huddled in a yellow parka with bright green flowers. Jane couldn’t see her face, but she saw the breath curling out of the hood. Beside her was one of those wire carts on wheels. It held the old lady’s bag, one of those big black bags that clasped at the top. But if she was waiting for a bus she was going to have a long wait. The last bus left the Loop for downtown a half-hour before Jane closed up the library. She started to walk past, but the thought of the old lady standing out there in the freezing weather made her hesitate and stop. She turned around.
“Yes?” The old lady said, her voice quavering or maybe shaking from the cold.
“Are you waiting for the bus?”
“Oh yes. I think it should be along soon. I hope so.”
Jane shook her head. “Ma’am, the last bus came a little more than a half-hour ago.”
“Oh. Oh, dear. It did?”
“Yes. The last bus leaves just after eleven-thirty.”
“Oh, dear. I fell asleep in the library. I didn’t know it was that late. What am I going to do?”
Jane tried to remember if she’d seen her in the library. It had been quiet, but she could have been in the stacks and missed the old woman. “Is there anyone you could call? Someone that could come get you?”
“No, no one.” The old woman shuffled around and grabbed her cart. She turned back towards the square. “Is the library closed?”
“Yes. We closed before eleven. You should have been able to catch the bus.” The old woman hadn’t been any of the usual stragglers when she’d closed up. She stayed after closing to finish up some work.
“I tried to find some coffee. It’s so cold tonight.”
Jane felt the cold. The wind-blown drizzle was soaking her, and it was icy cold. “You don’t have anyone that can come get you?”
“No, I don’t know. What time is it?”
“Oh. Oh, dear. That’s late. I didn’t know.”
Jane shook her head. She had to get home, but she couldn’t leave this old woman out here to freeze. People did that. She wondered if the old woman even had a place to go. She could be homeless.
“Where do you live?”
“The Boardwalk apartments.”
“That’s downtown right? Near the Pier?”
“Yes, dear. That’s right.”
That wasn’t too bad. She had to go near there on her way home anyway. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Jane said firmly. “Come on, my car is this way.”
“Okay dear. That’s nice.”
The old woman grabbed her cart and started shuffling towards Jane. She moved as slow as a banana slug.
“Wait,” Jane said. “Why don’t you wait here? I’ll run down, get the car and come around to pick you up.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.”
“Sure.” Jane took off at an easy jog. The sooner she got this done, got home and into bed the better she’d feel. At least she could say that she’d done her good deed for the day. In the future, she was going to make sure if the old lady came back to the library that she got out to catch her bus.
The car wasn’t far from the loop. She glanced around as she approached the car, one of the few left in the lot and didn’t see anyone suspicious hanging around. She walked like she was headed towards one of the other cars then at the last minute swerved, went to her car and quickly unlocked the doors. She tossed her backpack into the passenger seat, slid in, locked up and started the car. It only took a few seconds to get out of the lot and head up around to where the old lady waited. She stopped and unlocked the doors.
The old lady shuffled to the back door and opened it, letting in a gust of cold and rain. She struggled to get her cart into the back and then slid in after it. The door shut with a thunk.
“You all set?”
“Yes dear, thank you.”
Jane nodded and pulled out. She got the heater going before they left the Loop. Her headlights cut through the icy drizzle and by the time they reached the parkway the interior of the little car was feeling a lot warmer. She looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that the old lady still had her hood up. Jane couldn’t see her face.
“How are you doing? Is it warming up back there?”
“Yes dear, thank you.”
The words sounded exactly the same as the last thing the old lady had said. As if it was a recording. Jane shivered. Now you’re just freaking yourself out, she thought. She looked in the rear-view mirror again. The old woman sat so still she could be nothing but a mannequin back there. Jane couldn’t even hear her breath.
“Cold night. Do you think it will snow?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Snow? Do you think?”
“Maybe. It’s cold.”
Jane felt better just hearing the old woman say something else. It had just been one of those weird things. Nothing to freak out about. It still seemed strange to her that she hadn’t seen the old woman in the library. Or didn’t remember seeing her. She didn’t look like a typical student, but they did get all sorts of people in the library.
She slowed and turned on Kaiser headed towards Harrison. There were few street lights and with the tall evergreens on either side and the constant drizzle her visibility decreased. Jane leaned forward as if it would help her see better. By doing so, she saw something odd. A dull glow up in the dark overhead. At first she thought it was the Moon behind the clouds. But then it moved. It drifted across her view to the other side of the roadway. The light grew brighter until she could see a cone of light cutting down through the drizzle. A helicopter?
Gravel crunched under her tires. Jane looked down and saw trees coming towards her as the car bounced. She jerked the wheel to try and get back on the road. There was a bounce, and then the car spun out of control across the road. The old lady grabbed the back of the passenger seat to steady herself. Jane tried to correct for the spin, and the car steadied. She braked and brought the car to a halt facing the wrong way on Kaiser. Her breath came in short gasps.
“Oh dear. Oh dear.”
Jane glanced back at her passenger. The old lady released the seat. She wore knitted gloves but her hand looked large, and she’d really squeezed the seat hard. She pulled her hand back and folded them on her lap.
“Are you okay?”
Did her tone sound mocking? Jane wondered. She felt in her sweatshirt pouch for the mace. “I’m sorry. I thought I saw something and, well, it doesn’t matter. I should have been watching the road.”
Jane shivered. There was no mistaking the mocking in those words now. And malice.
That’s not an old woman at all, Jane thought. It was a terrifying, horrible thought but as she glanced in the rear-view mirror, she knew she wasn’t mistaken.
The shape in the back seat sat too tall. ‘Her’ grip on the passenger seat when they spun out had been too strong. Jane didn’t know what to do. It had to be a man. But what if she was wrong? This could all be her own paranoia.
“We’re okay. So let’s get going.” Jane surreptitiously dropped the mace in her lap as she pulled her hand out to start the car. She felt tingles along her neck and kept expecting him to do something.
The car started. Her passenger sat still in the back. The wipers thwacked back and forth to clear the windshield. Jane carefully brought the car around in a U-turn and headed on down the road. She kept glancing at the rear-view mirror, but he appeared content to ride along. For now. If this was the same creep responsible for those other deaths she knew this calm wouldn’t last. Sooner or later he’d strike, and she had to be ready.
Outside she watched for the light she’d seen but didn’t see anything.
She felt her shoulder blades tensing in anticipation of him doing something. But every time she checked the mirror he wasn’t doing anything. Sitting back there with his face hidden by the slicker. She couldn’t see him at all. Everything she could see screamed old lady, but at the same time, it was all wrong. The scenery on either side of the road became a blur. They raced down the road. She was speeding, Jane realized. Her foot had started pushing down the pedal as if that would get her away from the man sitting in the back seat.
Light flared in the rear-view mirror. It cut through the wind-blown drizzle to light up the road like a spotlight. She saw it move towards the car. Her passenger twisted around to look out the back window. Jane still didn’t get a look at his face.
“Oh dear,” he said, hardly even making an effort to sound like an old lady now. “What the hell?”
Not very lady-like, Jane thought. She slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a skidding stop. It caught her passenger off-guard, and he fell against the passenger seat.
The car stopped. Jane hit the release on her seat belt. The guy was leaning forward when she opened her door and tumbled out onto the wet road. Jane kicked and scrambled away from the car. She got up onto her feet and reached into her pouch for the mace canister. It wasn’t there.
It hit her then that she’d taken it out and had it on her lap. It was in the car. She backed away from the car and put the other lane between her and it. The light swept forward along the road towards the car. Jane shielded her eyes with one hand and tried to see the helicopter. She couldn’t hear any sound of rotors. When the light hit the car, it brightened until she had to squint against the light. Then it vanished and left her with only the car headlights against the dark.
He didn’t get out of the car. Jane clutched the keys between her fingers and eased closer to the car. She couldn’t see him in the back seat anymore. She walked a little closer and still didn’t see him. She got to open driver’s side door and saw the mace sitting on the seat. She snatched it up and jumped back. No sign of him. Her keys had a mini-maglight. She turned it on and checked the car. He wasn’t there, but the cart with his bag was still in the back. She got in, started the car and left as fast as she dared.
She started feeling safe when she got home. With the garage light on, she pulled the cart out of the back seat and opened the bag. An anatomy book was inside along with a collection of sharp knives. Jane gasped and dropped the bag. It hit the concrete floor with a clang. She remembered checking that book out to a guy tonight. Sean, something. Her hands shook when she called the police.
Officer Smith’s thin face looked at Jane intently. She handed Jane a cup of coffee. Jane inhaled the rich scent.
“You recognized him?”
“No. I recognized the book in the bag with the, uh, knives and stuff. The anatomy book. I’d checked it out to him at the library.”
The policewoman typed on her computer then looked up again. “So you didn’t see him leave the car?”
Jane shook her head. “No. I mean the light from the helicopter was too bright. He must have thought it was the police and took off. There’s a lot of trees on that stretch of Kaiser.”
Officer Smith’s fingers tapped on her keyboard. “Are you sure it was a helicopter?”
“What else could it have been?”
“I don’t know, but the weather was too bad for helicopters.”
Jane shivered. “I’m sorry. The light came from above, and after it had gone out, he wasn’t in the car. I didn’t see anything else.”
This story is the 95th short story release, written in September 2009.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, On a Dare.