The Friday Cage
Am I paranoid to think someone is following me? And if they are following me, why would they be so obvious about it? A 1971 burgundy Lincoln Continental sticks out, even on a busy avenue in Washington, DC.
She could see it in the rearview. The knocking engine and the blue smoke from the tailpipe—it was the same sound, the same acrid smell of burning oil she had noticed in front of her house that morning, and the morning before.
As they waited for the light at Wisconsin and Calvert, Claire studied the driver’s reflection in her mirror. He was a big man, tall and fat, with light brown hair and enormously broad shoulders. Was that why he drove the old Lincoln? Because he wouldn’t fit into a smaller car?
He was stuffing what looked like the last bite of a sandwich into his mouth, licking his fingers greedily, like a dog devouring its treasure before anyone could snatch it away. The pale January sun flashed in his blue eyes and lit the golden stubble on his fat cheeks. Eyes that close together, Claire thought, in a face as broad as his, made him look crude and thuggish, like an enforcer or a goon.
The impatient honking of the cars behind told her that the light had changed. She hit the gas.
Is he following me just for fun, she wondered. A stalker, or a perv? Or did someone hire him?
She looked again in the rearview. He was tearing the Subway wrapper from a new sandwich, stuffing it into his mouth as fast as he could get the paper off.
Peter wouldn’t hire anyone to follow her. If he wanted to know what she was up to, he would call, as he had done so many times in the weeks since she’d left. She didn’t answer, and she didn’t listen to the messages. The sound of his voice would cut too deep, and she would resent his wounded tone because she knew she had caused it. It was easier to delete the messages unheard than to acknowledge her guilt. After four weeks, the calls stopped. He’d given up.
She turned her eyes back to the road just in time to avoid rear-ending a taxi.
Maybe it was the cop, she thought. Maybe the cop assigned the goon to follow me. But wouldn’t a cop just send another cop? I mean, a professional? Someone who knows how to be discreet?
Cops usually keep a low profile, don’t they? Unless they want to pressure you. When they think you’ve done something wrong, they want you to know they’re watching. But what have I done wrong?
She glanced in the sideview and thought back to her interview with the police detective. He was neither professional nor discreet, showing up at her door, giving her the look, and then peppering her with questions about the circumstances of Gavin’s death without first telling her that her friend had died. She had to glean that bit of information from his questions, and when she did, it was a shock the detective did nothing to soften.
The thought of that encounter still angered her, even now, six days later. First of all, a man doesn’t look at a woman that way when he’s coming to talk about her friend’s death. Though she did nothing to encourage it, she received that look from men old and young. The look that lingered a little too long, that took in the chestnut brown hair and eyes, the fair skin, the splash of pale freckles across the bridge of the nose, the look that approved of the face that was objectively pretty even as it coldly discouraged familiarity.
The detective had shown up on the doorstep of her grandmother’s house on Oregon Avenue as she was getting ready for work. Backlit by the sun rising through the bare trees of Rock Creek Park, he was a dark silhouette in a cloud of steaming breath.
“Can I help you?” Claire asked.
She wore a simple grey pants suit, her bare feet washed in the flood of cold from the open door. Without shoes, she was five foot six, a deficiency she corrected with heels that brought her closer to eye-level with the men at work.
The detective was a big man. Six two or six three. Over two hundred pounds, probably in his early thirties, with close-cropped reddish-blond hair, a red pock-marked face, and small ears that stuck out like clay pinched from the sides of a child’s sculpture. He wore civilian clothes, black sweater and slacks, with the black jacket of the Prince George’s County Police department. On his belt was a golden badge but no gun.
He hesitated a second, giving her the familiar, unwelcome look that first registers attraction and then searches for a sign of reciprocated interest.
“Mizz,” she corrected.
“Did you receive a call from Gavin Corley last night?”
“Excuse me,” she said coldly. “You are?”
“Darrell Gatlin. PG County Police.” He peered over her shoulder into the living room strewn with packing boxes, books, papers, photos, and old vinyl LPs—remnants of the life she was dismantling now that she had moved her grandmother into assisted living.
His curiosity was intrusive, a desire he was going to satisfy regardless of her wish for privacy. She pulled the door against her shoulder to prevent him looking in.
“Did Gavin call you last night?” he asked.
“What business is that of yours?”
The expression she wore in this encounter was one she had cultivated during her years in the corporate office in New York, when she was often the only woman in the room, usually the youngest, and always the least powerful. Her business face showed an unmistakable edge of hardness that quietly told the men who needed to be told exactly where her boundary was, and that they would always be on the other side of it. After so many years of putting on that face, she had become the person it projected.
Still, there were some, like this one, who just wouldn’t get it. They kept searching for a way in, for an indication of interest or some weakness to exploit.
“You’re the last person he called before he died,” the detective said.
He didn’t register her shock because he wasn’t looking at her face. His eyes went first to her hand, checking for a ring, then to her thighs, which no longer filled out the pants she had bought just last fall. Stress and anxiety had prevented her from eating in the six weeks since she’d left New York. At her normal weight of one-thirty-five, Peter could still see in those pants the curve of her muscle. If this cop saw something he liked in the slacks that now hung loosely on her, it was a projection of his own desire.
Three weeks ago, when her weight dropped to one-eighteen, she stopped weighing herself. She was several pounds below that now. What kind of man is attracted to a woman who isn’t well? Fixers, she thought. Caretakers who want to heal you. And stalkers. Creeps looking for someone they think they can dominate.
She took him for the latter.
“I’m sorry, did you say Gavin is dead?” Dismay and anger stirred in her voice.
“You didn’t know?” He sounded almost annoyed, as if death were a technicality, a distraction from some more important point.
What kind of response was that, Claire wondered. What kind of detective starts hurling questions without first informing you… without offering condolences… Her eyes were already narrowing. The crease between them was beginning to show, the one her friends knew to look out for.
“He passed away last night. In an accident.”
Passed away? Is that the term police departments train their detectives to use?
She glared at him as her heart sped. Her blood pressure was rising quickly.
“This is how you tell me? This is how you tell me my friend is dead? Who are you? How did you even find me? This is my grandmother’s house. How did you know I’d be here?”
“Miss Chastain.” The conciliatory tone meant to soothe her sounded condescending.
“What did Gavin say to you?”
“Fuck off.” She shut the door in his face.
She read about the crash later that day on the Washington Post website. One Dead in Single Car Accident. Gavin’s Chevy Equinox had run off a wooded road in Prince George’s County, flipping down an embankment before coming to rest upside down. An early-morning commuter had spotted the car around 5 a.m.
At work that afternoon, she rehearsed in her mind how she would have described the detective to Peter, if Peter were still around to talk to. First was the issue of professionalism, or lack thereof. Can a police detective show basic courtesy? Or is it beneath them to try?
Second, how could that cop have expected her to know at 7:30 a.m. that Gavin was dead when he’d only been found two hours earlier?
And third… Third…
This was what chilled her now as she approached the entrance to the garage on 18th Street. A quick glance in the sideview showed that after two miles and half a dozen turns, the fat goon in the old Lincoln was still behind her.
Third, how did the cop know Gavin had called her? Even if he had Gavin’s phone, he couldn’t have unlocked it to look at the call history because Gavin, the ultraparanoid computer security expert, used a six-digit passcode.
The Lincoln didn’t follow her into the underground lot. She checked her mirrors as she descended to the second level, checked them again as she pulled into her spot. She cut the engine and sat quietly for a moment, listening for the knocking of the old Continental. When she was satisfied there was no one else around, she got out.
On the solitary walk from her parking spot to the elevators, a chilling image flashed in her mind—that rude cop pressing Gavin’s dead finger against the phone, scrolling through the call history, finding her name.
She pressed four inside the elevator, watched the doors slide shut, and wondered again what had led the detective to look for the owner of a New York phone number, area code 646, in a house on Oregon Avenue.
If they know he called, she wondered, do they also know what he said? And if they know what he said, why haven’t they been back to follow up?
She had deleted the message, but she remembered it verbatim. His last words to her:
“I’m pretty sure I screwed this up, so I’m passing the torch to you. If worse comes to worst, I know you’ll see this through. Love ya, babe. Sorry for the trouble.”