The hooded figure scaled the chain-link fence and dropped onto the gravel lot of the used car dealership beyond. And Abbie watched.
It was thirteen minutes, almost to the second, since Abbie had passed yet another WELCOME TO sign for a town she’d never previously visited. Six minutes since Abbie had parked her car and stepped into the cool night air.
The figure landed, and Abbie watched her rise.
Her. Because Abbie was reasonably sure she was watching a woman. She couldn’t have explained why she believed this. But her intuition was rarely wrong. She trusted herself.
Man or woman, the figure scaled the fence with nimbleness and speed but without grace. They stumbled upon landing, their palm skidding into the gravel and dirt. Abbie couldn’t see their face as they rose but guessed the figure was not embarrassed. After all, they had no idea they were being observed.
Upon rising, the figure looked left and right, then did a twirl, surveying their surroundings. Abbie sunk further into the shadows, out of sight.
Quickly, the figure satisfied herself she was alone and turned her back to the chain-link fence. A second or two later, she moved away from the road and further into the lot.
Abbie didn’t hesitate. The moment she deemed the figure to be far enough away, she left her hiding spot—beneath the shadow of a small group of trees—and crossed the road to the chain-link fence. A couple of seconds later, she was over.
It wasn’t a competition, but Abbie was pleased to note she scaled the fence with speed, nimbleness, and grace. If there had been judges nearby, Abbie would have secured all tens. Or maybe all tens but one—a nine. There was always a difficult judge who simply refused to give the top score. Nothing to do with Abbie. This imaginary man or woman would not bring her down.
The lot was the size of a premier league football pitch but circular. Dead centre was the dealership building. If Abbie had scaled the fence during the day, a pack of salespeople would already have left the building and would be approaching the newcomer. Not to admonish her for eschewing the front gate, but to offer her the deal of a lifetime. With dollar signs in their eyes and waggling contracts in their fists, they would come, and Abbie would try to remain non-violent.
This late, the building would be empty. The salespeople were at home. The cars they would tomorrow attempt to sell formed concentric circles around the central hub, like Saturn’s rings. Seven in total, like in hell. Each ring represented a different price bracket: the sporty numbers, perfect for a midlife crisis, closest to the building; the rust buckets, ideal for first-time buyers, nearest the fence.
As Abbie dropped into the lot, the figure she had followed passed the penultimate price bracket, heading for Saturn.
Saturn—the lot’s central hub—was a two-story building about the size of a six-bedroom house. Except, instead of brick walls, it had glass, and instead of a tiled roof, it had more glass. Iron beams held the whole structure together. It was the perfect example of the kind of modern architecture that was becoming more and more common in commercial buildings.
Abbie thought it was disgusting.
Not here to critique the building’s aesthetic, Abbie focused on the job at hand. By now, the figure was at the entrance. She was dropping to her knees.
Abbie was still by the rust belt. Moving between the lines, she followed the path already trodden by the figure, trailing her towards the building.
A place like this, all modern and glass, Abbie would have expected an electronic lock, opened via key card or maybe even retinal or fingerprint scanner. From the figure’s position, on her knees in the centre of double doors, it was clear they were dealing with a lock and key system—how old fashioned.
Abbie was halfway between the chain-link fence and the hub when the figure rose and opened the doors. Slowing a little, Abbie tensed. Would the figure hear her feet crunch through the gravel?
That wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Abbie had followed the figure because past experience told her, when entering a new town, searching for the life she was supposed to save, her best bet was to follow the trouble that inevitably presented itself soon after her arrival. Because she didn’t know what this figure was up to, Abbie relished a meeting where she could ask the question.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to follow unnoticed a little longer.
Abbie stopped twenty metres from her quarry. The figure held the door open for maybe three seconds without moving. Abbie expected her to look back, but she didn’t. She slid inside and let the door fall closed behind her.
Abbie remained stationary for a three count, then strolled the last twenty feet to the doors through which the figure had disappeared.
They were transparent, but the moon reflected off the glass, and all was dark on the other side. Thus, Abbie couldn’t see how far the figure had progressed after entering, nor into what kind of space Abbie would be walking.
One of a nervous disposition might have used these shortfalls as excuses to walk away. It was possible the figure had heard Abbie scale the fence and follow her tracks through the gravel. To lull Abbie into a false sense of security, she could have proceeded as though nothing was wrong. Knowing Abbie was not far behind, the figure might have her shoulder pressed to the wall on the other side of the doors, waiting for Abbie to enter. Once Abbie had taken two or three paces, the figure would strike, plunging a knife into Abbie’s back or putting a bullet through her skull.
For several years, Abbie had lived a life short on happiness and personal fulfilment. She found satisfaction in saving lives, but even her successes were tinged with sadness and guilt. For every life she saved, at least one she failed, and several more she ended. Abbie tried not to kill except in defence of herself or others. The people she killed were always guilty of numerous despicable crimes. That made stopping their hearts easier. It did not make it easy. Nor did it stop those murders taking their toll on Abbie’s already fractured soul.
Such an existence did not mean Abbie craved death, but did help reduce the fear of taking actions which might hasten its arrival. Made it easier to step into situations others, people with something to lose, might consider too risky or dangerous. There was also, and this was something she always struggled to admit, a niggling feeling in the back of her mind that death might return Abbie to her little sister, Violet, lost so many years ago. On the other hand, it would leave no one to visit her older brother, Paul, in prison. Not that she had done that recently. Had to be better—something for the to-do list.
Not now, though. Abbie reached forward and grabbed the handle. She was unarmed. If danger awaited her beyond the glass, inside, Abbie would have to act fast to survive. She was alarmed to realise she was hesitating due to higher than usual levels of fear.
Maybe this was to be expected. For years, Abbie’s life had been empty except for her missions and Ben, the mysterious representative of the organisation that paid Abbie’s bills and put food on her table, thus freeing her up to save lives. She had been alone and alone was how the organisation liked her.
To them, loneliness equalled efficiency.
But, recently, Abbie’s situation had changed.
Ninety minutes ago, at midnight, Abbie had awoken from a dream in which she had watched a young girl, maybe seven or eight, screaming, crying, dying. Abbie didn’t know the girl. Didn’t know her name or anything about her. Only what she looked like. Slim, with black hair and bright blue eyes. Until she got in her car and started to drive, Abbie hadn’t even known where the girl lived.
On more than fifty previous occasions, Abbie had woken at midnight following similar prophetic dreams. Always she rose, showered, and departed her home or hotel room in the direction of the stranger Abbie now knew to be in mortal peril.
Today had been different. Previously, Abbie had always woken alone. Today, Bobby slept beside her.
It was not the first time Bobby had shared her bed. Things were different now. Abbie had something to lose.
So she hesitated, her hand trembling on the door. For that, she hated herself. Maybe her life now contained more happiness, more fulfilment, but she had promised this wouldn’t change how she went about her duty.
A young, innocent child was in grave danger. Abbie couldn’t afford to let up.
Against that nagging fear in the back of her mind, in defiance of the sweat on her palms and brow, Abbie opened the left of the double doors and stepped inside.
Where no one tried to kill her. At least not right away.
Immediately on entering, Abbie turned left, turned right, looked ahead. Once she’d cleared the space visually, she closed her eyes—listened.
And heard footsteps, halfway between this floor and the one above. Moving up.
The dealership’s ground floor comprised a small waiting area, a coffee-making station and six comfortable booths where pushy salespeople would attempt to shift “valuable” extras to their unwitting customers. In the far corner was an office—more glass. Abbie saw a desk, a bookshelf, a bag on the floor. A couple of plant pots, probably for show. This was not the big cheese’s office. More likely a medium-sized cheese—the sales floor manager rather than the dealership owner, who would have an office upstairs.
Where Abbie’s quarry now headed.
Just through the double doors, Abbie waited, trying to decipher any sound which might indicate the figure was not alone in the building.
Once Abbie followed the woman, made her way upstairs, the ease with which she could escape a dangerous situation would diminish. That would be okay. That had to be okay.
Before Abbie had left home, Bobby had said, Stay safe. Come back to me.
What a dick. Obviously, those words were going to rattle her whenever she stepped into a dangerous scenario. Those words could end up as shackles around her wrists when the going got tough. They probably wouldn’t lead to Abbie’s death.
They might cause someone else’s.
Stepping across the ground floor of the dealership, towards the door which concealed the staircase, Abbie tried to shake those words free. Tried to shake her anger at Bobby free, too. She had taken a significant risk telling him the truth about her life. He had struggled to believe it. Personal experience helped. Still, this was the first time she’d been called to action since they started dating. It was always going to be tough.
Stay safe. Come back to me.
Silently, Abbie groaned. Dick, dick, dick.
She yanked open the stairwell door. Too harsh, too loud. She paused before stepping through. Still, she could hear the footsteps above. Faint now. It was unlikely the figure would hear Abbie because the figure wasn’t straining to hear anyone. She should have been, but the way she had acted since scaling the fence told Abbie she was not.
Abbie stepped through the door onto the small square of carpet that preceded the bottom step. Keeping three fingers on the door, she eased it closed. No sound.
No light, either. The wall here wasn’t glass, nor was the door. Moonlight had spilt onto the bottom floor, lighting the way, but other than the glow which crept beneath the door Abbie had just passed, there was nothing here to guide her.
For several seconds, Abbie allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark. While holding the bottom door open, she had noted the way ahead. Ten to twelve steps, straight up, leading to another wooden door devoid of glass. Meaning no one would see her rise, even if they came to the top door’s other side. Unless they decided to open it.
That was possible but unlikely. Anyway, it wouldn’t matter. Abbie would hear approaching footsteps. She’d have time to prepare and the element of surprise. The figure would have the high ground if they opened the door. But, so long as Abbie made it to the top step before that happened, she could grab and hurl the door opener down the stairs. Probably before they had time to register Abbie’s presence.
Abbie hoped it wouldn’t come to that. She would rather cast a stranger down a flight of stairs then risk a bullet or knife to the face but didn’t fancy either scenario. Better to take the stairs as fast as she could, and hope she reached and passed the higher door before the figure finished whatever she was doing above and made her way back.
With soft but quick feet, Abbie rose. One hand on the wall, the other leading the way, she counted ten steps, then stopped. Now she extended her hand as far as it would go until the tip of her middle finger brushed the wood of the door she sought.
She took another step, folding her arm as she went, keeping her finger on the door. Then another. The final step led right into the door. She would have to move up and step into the corridor with the same swing of her leg.
By this point, Abbie could no longer hear footsteps. Her quarry had either stopped moving or was far enough away and behind enough doors that the sound of her feet traipsing around the upper floor could no longer reach Abbie.
Some combination of the two was most likely. Abbie didn’t believe this floor would be as open-plan as the one below. She expected at least an employee bathroom and a couple of offices. Possibly a canteen as well. After all, even salespeople had to eat.
Why was the figure here? Not an employee who had forgotten something in the staff room. Even if she didn’t have a key, what was important enough to warrant breaking into your place of employment at one-thirty in the morning, but not so important you hadn’t noticed its absence earlier in the evening?
No, the woman didn’t work here. But she was looking for something. Probably something in one of the offices which would put a door betweent her and where Abbie was about to come out. She would not see Abbie enter the upstairs landing.
Balance of probability. It was better to work on certainty. Sometimes, that wasn’t possible.
Abbie stepped up, pushed the door, and entered the upper floor.
Where she was greeted with nothing and no one. Where she found herself facing exactly what she had expected. A small open area leading into a corridor, with two doors off either side and one door at the end. There was also a water cooler, right beside her. Abbie was thirsty but didn’t take a cup, nor pour herself a drink.
That could wait.
The door at the end of the corridor was ajar. Only slightly. Just enough to be noticeable. The other four were closed. When the workers left the dealership for the day, they’d have shut every door behind them. That was what people did. The reason to do so was to help contain a fire if one started in any particular room, but most people didn’t know this. They wouldn’t have been able to tell you why they closed all the doors when they left a building. They might not even have been aware they were doing it.
But people did, which meant Abbie’s new friend was in the furthermost room.
With silent steps, Abbie made her way up the hall. She glanced at each of the closed doors as she passed, listened briefly for anyone moving behind them. No one. And none burst open once she’d walked by.
When Abbie passed the third and fourth door, she heard something and stopped. A low sound. It took a few seconds to place.
But not the natural inhaling and exhaling you might expect from a person going about their usual business. Nor was this the breathing of someone caught in a state of nervous excitement. The breaths were hitched and sharp. They signalled whoever was drawing them in, puffing them out, had lost control.
These were the shallow breaths of a person slipping into the clutches of panic.
That was interesting. Unexpected. It made Abbie pause, but not for long. Two seconds and she was moving again.
The final door opened inwards. The handle was on the left, the breathing came from the right. The crack left by the ajar door revealed to Abbie a mostly blank space to the room’s left. A window set into the wall would look over the front of the lot, where Abbie and the figure had so recently broken in.
Reaching forward, Abbie took the handle.
The rhythm of the breathing didn’t change, and the breather wasn’t moving. Which indicated the figure had no idea what to do next. The fact that trying to take controlled breaths hadn’t occurred suggested this person was already deep in the panic jar.
Abbie had a few ideas about what might cause such panic. But why guess when the answers lay so close at hand?
Breathing like that could be faked, but it was difficult—the work of a master actor.
Abbie never ruled anything out but doubted the breather was putting on a show. Why bother? If she knew Abbie was following, why not leave the door ajar and wait on the other side? If Abbie stepped through, the figure would have the upper hand. The drama provided no advantage.
Thus, whoever was on the door’s other side was no threat. Not in this state.
Abbie made up her mind. She had to go in. Her dream had led her to this town, and upon arriving, the figure was the first person she’d seen. Abbie was supposed to be here.
Taking the handle, Abbie pushed the door, stepped into the room, turned towards the panicked breather.
Abbie was alert. The first sign of a gun, and she’d toss herself back into the hall. For a knife, she’d jump the other way. Keep in the room and try to disorientate her master actor enemy.
As it happened, Abbie did see a knife, but it signalled no danger.
The hooded figure wasn’t holding the blade; it was beside her knee. Its once gleaming surface was coated in blood. Blood also surrounded the edge and was pooling on the carpet. Ruining the carpet.
That was okay. It was old, tatty. It needed replacing anyway.
The carpet, not the knife.
The figure was on her knees, her head bowed. Maybe the breathing could be faked, but the pale skin and trembling hands could not. Panic was becoming shock. Like one of the Ice Queen’s statues, the woman was frozen to the spot.
Possibly, she had known Abbie was coming. Maybe she was a clumsy villain, in which case she might have planned to stab Abbie with the blade but instead stabbed herself. The blood might have been hers.
This was possible, but the chances were beyond slim. The figure’s dark clothes were intact, and the woman seemed unharmed.
Much more likely, then, that the knife had been used to kill the rotund man who lay on the carpet; his eyes wide with horror, his throat split into a grotesque grin.
Yes, that felt like the better theory.