The Stalker

by Sharon Maria Bidwell

He ran, arms pumping, feet pounding, slapping against the pavement. I watched, under cover, in shadows. He slipped, went down, putting out his hands to save himself from falling. A moan escaped him, a sound of fear I recognised only too well.

He stumbled, gazed back over his shoulder. I knew he couldnít see me, so he stopped, listened, but even if I had made a sound, I doubted he could hear me above the noise of his own ragged breathing. He began to move, jog, glancing around, turning in tight circles, straining his eyes and ears all the while. I calmly followed.

I donít know what had made me choose this one. After all, there had been the female. The parking lot had been deserted so I had known she would be waiting for the bus and sure enough, there she was, highlighted in a soft glow of illumination. I made a noise so that she would be aware of me, and she started, and then pretended ignorance. She got up from her seat at the bus stop, paced, made gestures of impatience, when I knew they were really expressions of concern. She was frightened, cursing herself for staying out this late, for travelling home alone. I knew there couldnít be many minutes before she spied her transport but even so, they could be a few very interesting minutes.

Then I saw him.

It could have been his walk, his stance, or his swagger. The way he moved said he was young and fit, unafraid of the world. I wanted to see fear in his youthful, arrogant eyes. I followed.

And here we are now. He believes heís being followed and yet heís not sure Ė the calm, rational part of his mind telling him that heís being ridiculous. Heís strong, healthy Ö male. He believes in his ability to defend himself, unless heís outnumbered. He believes no one has a reason to be chasing him in this manner.

Oh, but I do. I have my very own reason.

Fear, terror, panic, dread, consternation, alarm; call it what you will. It is my incentive, the only motivation I need, require.

Find the motive and you find the killer. How often have I heard that? How many times has the detective in a murder mystery quoted those words? Well, I wonder what Sherlock Holmes would have thought of me.

Oh, donít get me wrong; I havenít killed anyone Ö yet.

Now thereís a fancy. Will I ever take this game to its next level? Will I ever inflict injury? Will I ever snuff out a life? I admit itís not within the realms of pure fantasy, could be a real possibility Ė if this part of the game ever ceases to amuse. But I hope not.

Not that I care for the life taken, itís just that I find all that side of it rather Ö messy. Okay, I admit itís rather delicate of me, downright sensitive even, but we all have our little idiosyncrasies, and to be honest Iím not terribly keen on blood. If I wanted to kill someone, I would have to resort to strangulation and Iím not sure I have the strength for that Ė and thereís always the chance they could prove to be stronger, turn on me, I suppose. It would all be very risky.

Ah Ö but isnít the risk the thing I hear you ask. Well, actually, no.

Iím not some sad character in need of a psychiatrist, hiding out in bushes enjoying the fear of discovery. I hope Iím never found out. Think of the publicity. My wife would never understand. No, itís the fear is the thing. I feed off their anxiety like a vampire feeds off its victimís blood. And itís not as if Iím really doing them any harm. If anything, Iím doing them a service.

I get the old heart pumping, the adrenaline flowing. I make them more aware of the dangers. I bet itís a long while before that girl at the bus stop takes such another chance. I might have even unwittingly saved her life. She should be thanking me.

As for the young man, he's relaxed again, calmed down. There is even a slight smile on his face. No doubt, he is laughing at what he believes to be his own imagination, his own foolishness. The real foolishness is in not trusting your instincts.

I like this neighbourhood, could hardly believe my luck when we moved here. Industrial enough to be modern, yet green enough to be suburban: town and country. We moved because of my job, though I was uncertain at first. I thought this area too bland, too banal, too anal-retentiveÖ

Ö!

I couldnít control myself there. My own sense of humour kills me. I nearly laughed aloud and had to stop, cover my mouth, hold my breath, and let him carry on, risk the chance of him getting away from me, less he should hear my mirth. Now I have control of myself, I hurry to catch up.

I was saying I thought I should hate living here. I never imagined I would have so much fun.

The houses are comparable, set out in rows, blocks; many of them look similar if not the same. The roads cross, link, gardens and back-alleys abound. And there are the woods, the trees, and bushes in abundance. It couldnít be more perfect for my needs.

Iíve just purposely stepped on a twig. The sharp crack was loud and clear on the cool night air. He is startled. I make no sound. Now he is grinning, shaking his head convinced he has an overworked imagination. If only he knew.

This started by accident. My car was out of action for a couple of days, and I know I could have used my wifeís or had a loaner, but it was nice weather and I had been meaning to get some exercise. So, I decided that Thursday and Friday I would walk to and from work. On the Friday, I frightened a young woman by chance.

Donít know how it happened really. Jittery thing she was, almost asking to be stalked the way she jumped at the mere sound of my footsteps. I had cut through an alley that runs between the houses and come out on her all of a sudden. Though I honestly think the sound of my steps had already frightened her before then. I donít think she realised from what direction I was coming. I donít think she was even aware that the shortcut between the houses existed. Not surprising, really, considering how jumpy she was.

It haunted me all week, the look in her eyes, the noises she made. The wide-eyed frightened alarmed look in those baby-blues Ö oh, and a gasp, a small sharp intake of breath, a whimper on its heels. Then she had stood there, staring at me, frightened like a rabbit, or a cat caught in a carís headlights.

Damn it! Where is he? Iíve lost him. It never does me any good, reminiscing like that. Oh well, thereís always tomorrow.

#

Oh my goodness Ö itís her! Itís the girl from the bus stop! I donít believe my luck. Now I can continue what I was distracted from. Iíve been so annoyed the last few nights, to think that I gave up on her to follow that teenager, only to lose him like that. My own fault, I know.

She didnít learn her lesson. She must live locally. Sheís just left a friendís house by the look of things, is making her way home. Why didnít you call someone? Why didnít you get a cab, you silly girl!

I was hidden in the shadows, waiting, hoping, wondering who would happen into my path tonight, and then she just stepped out of a nearby house, waving goodbye to someone, and a moment later she walked right by me, so close the scent of her perfume lingers on my clothes. I watched her for a moment, not moving, not breathing, unable to believe my good fortune, just watching the way she walks, sways, taking in the long, slim line of her legs in that so, so short skirt.

Sheís wearing a pink ribbed jumper; it displays an interesting outline, one that her arms folded across her chest hardly disguises at all. Her handbag is swinging from her forearm.

Not that I care for these delectable attributes, not in the real sense. Itís her fear I want.

Iíve moved, closer, tracking, away from the path if needs be, but I still follow in her general direction, overtaking her. Donít worry, little girl. I wonít hurt you. Just nudge you. I donít mean you any harm. Itís her own fault really; after all, she didnít take heed of my first lesson.

Sheís heard me. Sheís glancing around. Oh, the look in those eyes is precious. Now her step quickens. Sheís pretending not to notice, pretending thereís no reason to be alarmed. Why do people do that? Do they think that if they close their minds to the reality things will not come to pass?

This is a perfect spot. Halfway along the road, Iím ahead of her. I can hear her coming. Iíll be close to her when she passes once more. I think Iíll let her take a dozen steps to my left and then Iíll cough, give her a real fright. Of course, she might well run to the nearest house and raise the alarm, and if she does Iíll have to call it a night, let her go. But if she continues on, Iíll have to see how far I can take this. I just have to know.

I can hear my own heart.

I can hear the wind causing a disturbance in the trees.

I can hear her footsteps, the click of her heels.

I can smell that perfume, that heady, floral scent.

Sheís walked on. I am taking a breath, holding it, preparing to let it out in a cough.

I hear someone else cough nearby.

Can someone see me? Have they discovered me? Do they know my intentions? Should I step out, perhaps walk up the road, nonchalant, like nothing is wrong? But I have already dithered; they must know Iím confused. Does that speak of guilt? Intention?

Was it my imagination?

There doesnít seem to be anyone around and the young woman has walked on, gone. She turned the corner a moment ago. Perhaps there was someone else. Could he have also been on her trail?

What do I do? Do I go home, ignore it? What if he kills her? What if I read in the paper tomorrow that sheís been horribly killed and I know I did nothing to stop it?

Wait! The other day I was thinking of doing something along those very same lines. I said I didnít care about the life taken. Was I just talking bull?

Maybe I could watchÖ

Ah! My head is pounding, splitting. I cannot bare this confusion. The temptation to go after her is strong, the desire to watch while someone else kills her utterly dynamic. Wild ideas course through me. Perhaps we could team up, become a partnership. I chase; he destroys. I could partake without getting my hands dirty.

All is silent now. Either it was my imagination or he has gone after her. A few minutes have passed and I cannot see how I can catch up to them, but something within me insists that I try. I simply must know!

#

Sheíll never know. At least that is my hope. I hope we frightened her enough and tomorrow when she reads the papersÖ

Stay in little girl. Donít walk home alone.

I followed, of course; the desire to know the outcome was too much for me. I thought I would have lost her, that she couldnít have had much farther to walk, and yet there she was up ahead in the distance, foolishly turning onto even quieter, less occupied roads. I knew one side of the avenue was cloaked by dense woodland. I couldnít make up my mind if I took delight in her folly or if I were frightened on her behalf. I, at least, had never meant her physical harm, but this other?

Was there another?

Oh yes.

I think I had been aware of his pursuit for sometime, but only vaguely in the back of my mind. No doubt, it was in the same way that my own victims often perceived me: was there someone, or wasnít there?

It crossed my mind that it could be a trap, a lure. Perhaps the girl had reported the fact that she had felt threatened and they sent her out as bait. Did the police really do that or was that only in crime novels? Would my story Ė the fact that I sensed she was being followed, that I went after her in the hopes of protecting her Ė stand up in court? In some ways, it was true, but I hadnít yet made up my mind if to rescue her or simply be witness, if this other should turn out to be some murderous fiend.

It was then I decided I couldnít get caught up in this. Not for the sake of one innocent. Besides, Iím not a fighter, never have been. I had already thought about the terrible risk if one of my victims turned on me. That was why I picked on those most likely to be afraid.

As I came to the turn into the avenue, I looked for her. I could see her; the ugly orange glimmer of street-lamps touched the crisp freshness of her jumper, grimly changing the colour. She glanced back the once and I could see she was frightened, and then she began to run.

I turned away, carried on. There was a small paper shop on the corner three blocks from here. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter of an hour before he would be closing. I could stop and pick up a paper, anything, as an excuse for my diversion. It was roughly in the direction of my home, anyway. An easily explained deviation should anyone believe there was reason to question me.

I would lie low for a while. Stop this for a month. See how it goes. See if there was a true maniac in the area. Test to see if I could break the addiction, because some sane, rational part of my mind knew that if I kept this up for any length of time, I would be caught. Statistically it had to happen. And it was an addiction and that kind of thing Iíve never been proud of. I hated that I had found it so difficult to give up smoking.

So, I turned away and after I had walked the length of one street, I felt happy, almost contented, and safe. Then I realised that he was still following Ö me.

Keep calm, I told myself. Donít panic. Either itís just an innocent man, out for a stroll, or else it is a policeman and he just wants to be sure. Stick to the plan, go to the shop, and get a paper.

No, that wouldnít do. We have papers delivered, they could easily check. Theyíd want to know why I felt the need to suddenly buy another.

I knew! Iíd buy cigarettes, mints, all the paraphernalia, pretend that I had started smoking again, didnít want my wife to know. That would explain why I chose to walk out here, why I was acting so secretly, if they questioned my behaviour.

That was what was going through my mind. But I never made it to the newsagents.

#

Something about the way the other was walking told me I was seriously mistaken on all accounts. I knew that walk. I had practiced it on my own victims, my innocents.

I couldnít help myself. I had stopped, turned around, called out, and asked that foolish question, ďWhoís out there?Ē

There was no answer, of course Ö and no sound. I shook my head, looked puzzled, laughed.

That was when I really knew fear. I was pretending, faking the same way as my own casualties. I was acting as though I was disgusted with my own imagination. I was simulating, play-acting, feigning that nothing was wrong. Only I really did know better. This was my game, after all.

I picked up the pace; I couldnít help myself. I knew I was sending out all the very same signals, but I couldnít help it!

Fear. Itís a peculiar condition. It thrills you at the same time it terrifies. Thatís why we like the horror story, thatís why we like the fairground ride. Isnít that what theyíre always telling you? Well, I didnít like this at all.

I thought I was safe, had made it. He came out from the side of a house, was by me, gone. Momentarily startled, I glanced around, but it was as though he had vanished. I had only a vague image of a large, dark shadow, both at the same time with and without substance. With, because I had felt him bump into me Ė without, because it had happened so quickly. I might well have believed I had imagined it.

I took a few paces, breaking out into a small area of woodland, which stretched at the periphery of the estate for a couple of hundred yards. At the end of that stretch were more houses and at the end of the next road was the shop. I was halfway along when I realised my right arm was hurting. I stopped, touched my right forearm with my left hand. The pain flared. I started, pulled my hand away, and fingered the gape in my sleeve. I felt something thick and warm on my fingers. In the dim light, I held up my hand and saw something dark smeared on my fingertips. I was bleeding Ö the bastard had cut me!

That was when he came at me, naturally. I saw his shape, dark and huge, horrifying. I uttered a strangled cry and my instinct took over from my reason Ė the instinct of a hunted animal, to run. He had planned well; he knew just where to take me. He herded me into his sanctuary.

Asylum. This is a place of madness. This is a place where I hope I lose my mind before I lose my life.

I ran. The ground as I entered the trees, immediately sloped away, surprising me. I lost my footing, fell, rolled down the embankment. I tumbled, my ears full of a soft rustling sound. I came to a halt, winded, doing my best to spit an assortment of leaves and dirt from my mouth. I realised my ears were straining for his pursuit but I was deafened by my thundering heartbeat. When I finally gained control of my senses, all I heard was the hollow sound of a hooting owl.

I raised myself up, preparing for an immediate attack, wondering if he would slash at my face. It didnít happen.

Where was he?

A part of me was still screaming, another part of me was insisting this was a dream, unreal, not happening. My only chance was to keep calm. Panic had brought me down here into this basin, and I had to get out.

Of course, the first thing I tried was to scramble up the slope. If I were younger and fitter, perhaps if Iíd taken that exercise, I might have managed it easily. I would have made it, given time.

It was a slow headway. My hands dug into soft dirt, my feet slipped on both dry and wet leaves, crumbly or muddy ground. Each time I stretched out with my right arm, pain shot through me. I couldnít see much; everything was a dim outline. The height of the trees Ė currently losing their foliage, soft whispers as leaves came to rest on the earth Ė black twisted limbs that reached up towards the moon. But I could see my coat sleeve was growing ever more dark. I tried not to think of the pain or how much blood I was losing.

The rock hit me in the temple just above the left eye. I went down, falling backwards, forfeiting what little progress Iíd made. For moments, as I lay on my back, I fought consciousness. I could hear him now, his quick, sure-footed advance down the hill, then his slow, steady steps as he walked to where I had fallen.

My left eye was already closing, and as his hideous shape loomed over me, the blackness won.

#

He tied me up while I slept. I canít move.

Heís moved me, deeper into the basin, into this hole in the ground. Iíve glanced around and itís as though thereís a kind of hermitís dwelling here. Does he live here? Has he killed others? Why hasnít he been caught? Does that all really matter, right now?

I canít speak. Heís stuffed something in my mouth Ė I have horrible visions of an old, well-worn sock Ė and taped it in place. My tongue is so dry against this bundle and Iím afraid to swallow less I choke and yet, please let me choke, let me strangulate, fade into blackness, pass out.

Heís sitting astride me, his weight making it even more difficult for me to breathe. Heís huge; I wasnít mistaken. His arms ripple with muscles, his shoulders are broad. Iím no match for his brawn. But the worse thing is I canít see his face. I donít know why that would be important to me but itís horrible, the way I know the light of the moon shines down on me and he can see my every expression, whereas he is but a silhouette against the night.

Heís been cutting away my clothes, taking relish in it, showing me the knife, turning the blade so that the light catches its edge. I know when he is finished with the cloth that he wonít stop.

He isnít playing my game; he isnít out just to frighten me. Or maybe he started that way and now he has taken it to the level I was unprepared to go.

I wonder if that young woman will be more careful. I wonder if she will remain safe from this maniac and others like him. I hope so even if there is no way she will ever know I unwittingly saved her life, at least this one night.

Did I mention Iíve never been terribly keen on blood, especially when itís my ownÖ
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