He just stood there.
His body rigid, like the trunk of a giant redwood tree, despite the needle-sharp rain ripping horizontally across the avenue. He was unmoved by the angry rolling winds which pelted him with wet leaves and debris from the gutters. His eyes were fixed and he never seemed to never blink; at least that’s how it appeared from a distance. He just stood there with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat staring across the street. But from my vantage point, I was unable to see his target. Watching him was mesmerizing, nearly hypnotic, but also a bit terrifying. He was the most focused individual that I had ever seen in my life. And for the life of me, I couldn’t tear my gaze away from studying him.
I shifted in my hiding place to get a better look at his face. A granite-hard look in his eyes meant something more than just a man caught daydreaming; something much more. I thought for a moment that he might be the victim of a broken heart. Maybe he was watching his former lover with another suitor and it was making his blood boil. Maybe she was scantily dressed or otherwise engaged in something physical and it had a paralyzing effect on him. But my theory didn’t pass the smell test. He was too composed, too “professional” in his mannerisms. I kept my distance, continually trying to analyze the frightening staring man. I felt like I was almost there, but couldn’t quite put the final piece in place.
Steel jawline, long and rigid, unbreakable like heavy rebar or girder steel. His face was stiff and frozen in place, like a mask of some unknown origin. He was cleanly shaven with high cheekbones and pursed lips. His wide-brimmed hat was starting to sag from the weight of the rain, but he failed to notice. From my vantage point, it was an amazing sight. This man seemed to have every single pore, every hair, every inch of skin, and every breath under his complete control. His eyes appeared to be recording his field of vision, slowly scanning and never losing focus. He looked emotionless; not like he was suppressing his feelings, but like he never had them in the first place. Then it dawned on me. This man wore the look of murder; and he wore it unlike anyone else.
My senses compelled me to get smaller; to make sure I was completely hidden from view. I wanted to learn more about this villain, but fear kept me hunkered down, peering through a small opening in the bushes. All at once, he pivoted to his right and began walking briskly toward the intersection to the north. His quick but methodical steps immediately putting distance between himself and his former point of observation. I waited, peering over the hedge until he was several blocks away before sprinting from my protected position.
My goal was to reach the very spot he was standing only minutes ago. I was caught in this moment of intrigue for some unknown reason, but I had to see it through. I’d hope to stand where he stood and catch a sight of what or who he was watching. My thoughts ran wild on his identity. He might be a government agent on a mission to “silence” a rival, or perhaps a syndicate gun for hire, or god forbid, something darker. My guess is that he was someone with a history that was impossible to discover. Someone whose real name is never spoken and who rarely stays in one place for too long. Someone who slips quietly through shadowy alleyways and seems to vanish like a puff of smoke when pursued.
I was about to cross the street, with a few hundred feet to go, when the blare of a car horn brought me back to reality. I reflexively turned, only to see an oncoming Oldsmobile just about twenty feet to my left. A woman was driving, and she just stared straight ahead hammering the horn without slowing down. My entire body shifted into reverse and with two quick back-steps, I was safely perched on the curb. Two cars passed and I was off again, but this time I avoided the daydreams for fear I’d get run over before reaching my mark. A strange and morbid feeling of anticipation fueled my steps. The rain continued to blur my vision; my jacket was starting to soak through, but I was too close to stop now.
A final sprint and I was across the street and heading to the spot the staring man occupied just ten minutes earlier. I arrived and placed my waterlogged shoes squarely where it appeared he was standing and turned to look across the street. To say I was disappointed would have been the understatement of a lifetime. I found myself gazing at a small pastry shop; closed, and in need of a paint job and good cleaning. My narrative trapped between reality and perception. For a moment, I too simply stood and stared across the street. I tried emulating the stone-cold killer I seemingly just conjured up in my head. My eyes strained to identify what he was so focused on. My thoughts raced as I tried to comprehend the last half hour.
“How did I get here,” I spoke aloud, not expecting anyone to answer. I searched my thoughts again and again for a point of understanding. I tried to recall how this foolish game of cat and mouse began. As I searched my thoughts, the incessant rain finally scored a victory and I felt a dampness seeping through my coat. I took one final look at the dilapidated pastry shop, laughed out loud, a headed back in the direction I came from. I walked briskly, hoping to find some shelter and think through the events of the day.
I remember first seeing my imaginary assassin in the commons; a several block area of eclectic shops, trendy eateries, and entertainment venues. It wasn’t raining yet, and I was window shopping to kill some time while waiting for my wife to finish her shift at the bank. I remember admiring a window full of baubles and jewelry when the stoic man brushed past me. It felt intentional and I was a bit irritated, especially since the sidewalk was wide and no one else was around. I turned to say something, but was unable to find my voice. He was already a dozen feet away and getting further away before I regained my composure. His hat was pulled down tight and his collar turned up, even though no rain was falling.
I looked skyward just to get a read on the weather. Dark clouds were forming and it was getting cooler. The air smelled like rain was on the way, so I relaxed and gave the man the benefit of the doubt. He was probably in a hurry to avoid the storm and only bumped me by accident. At least that’s what I thought until I looked his way again. For some reason he had stopped and turned to meet my gaze. He stared at me for what felt like a full minute; almost like a provocateur lighting the fuse of an unseen device. It chilled me to the bone for a moment. I tried to place the man’s face, but he abruptly turned and continued walking.
I checked my watch before following. I had at least an hour before I had to meet my wife. That would be enough time, I hoped, and without further thought I headed in the same direction. After a few steps, the skies above opened up and heavy raindrops started to fall. I turned up my collar and pushed on, now fully committed to discovering the identity of the man. This wasn’t my normal behavior, but for some reason it seemed like a mission I just had to complete. At the end of the block, I turned the corner, hoping I hadn’t lost sight of him.
Oddly enough he hadn’t covered the amount of ground I expected. In fact it looked like he was slowing down, so I relaxed and tried to look the part of a browsing tourist. I kept peering at him without raising suspicion and meandered just enough to keep him in my field of vision. At one point, I thought he saw me, so I ducked under a shop awning to bury my face in the shadows. Peering out, I watched him slowly scan his surroundings in a full circle. His behavior was odd, and I became further entrenched in my efforts to understand him. I was quite certain that he was up to something and decided it was my job to root it out.
The storm intensified, and the walkways cleared quickly. Even the traffic on the streets surrounding the commons seemed devoid of traffic. In my haste, I stepped into a puddle, soaking my shoes and socks. Each step thereafter followed by a a wet squishing sound. Yet, it didn’t matter. In fact nothing mattered except the quest at hand. As I crossed the border street to the commons, I came to an area filled with benches and hedgerows; usually on sunny days it would be filled with young couples, playing children, and men in dark suits eating their lunches. But today, it was a wet mess and deserted. I used the high greenery as a screen to move behind in seclusion, while observing the man.
I was in a safe spot, at least I thought so, when he suddenly stopped and turned. But not toward me. It was at that moment when he began his lengthy observation of the abandoned bakery. As I passed my former hiding spot, I tried once again to put all the pieces in place. I knew I had missed some critical part of the story, but could not glean the details from my memory. I checked my watch again and realized I was now going to be late. I started a mad dash towards the bank where my wife worked, hoping she would be in a good mood. I was already trying to formulate an excuse for being soaked through to the bone; something that she’d certainly have questions about.
I was winded as I turned, once again, into the commons. I passed an ice cream parlor, slowing briefly to inhale the scent of freshly baked waffle cones. Next came the barber shop and then a newly opened art gallery which I hadn’t yet visited. I tried to take a quick look in the window to see what was featured, but everything was a blur. As I neared the corner, I slowed considerably to keep from running into the street. I looked left and then right, and then left again before stepping off the curb. Across the street was a cafe with more windows than walls; almost inviting people to take a look at the cozy interior and hopefully come in for a meal.
The place was nearly empty as the lunch hour was long past and the dinner hour not yet arrived. There was only one person visible from the street view; a woman. She was seated in such a way that I could only see her back and her long dark flowing hair. She wore a red wool coat, similar to the one my wife wore. In fact, her hairstyle was similar to my wife’s hairstyle too. A second mystery perhaps? I laughed out loud to myself while checking my watch again. She was still at work for another ten minutes, or so I thought. That was until the mystery woman turned slightly and I caught just a splinter of her alabaster face.
I came to an abrupt stop and felt a quizzical look flood my face. Thinking that my eyes were somehow deceiving me, I rubbed them with bent fingers. I tried to focus on the woman, who had resumed her earlier seating position. “Hello Jack,” his voice whispered in my ear. I froze, feeling the chills run across my spine and through my very core. I felt something hard press against my back, right near my left kidney. “Did you enjoy my little game of follow the leader,” he whispered. I felt my bowels tighten up and my voice once again abandon me.
“Take a look,” he urged. I lifted my head to look across to the diner window. The woman was indeed my wife, and she was smiling. Not her regular smile, but a smile that was comprised of something sinister and dark. I struggled to comprehend the situation. Struggled to put the faces and names of this bizarre scenario into the right order. Realizing that everything that happened today was staged; everything except the rain. It was a ruse, a trap, a cold and calculating game meant to lure me to this very spot at this very time.
A man emerged from the restaurant kitchen. Not a cook or waiter, but a sophisticated man in a dark suit. He strolled toward my wife with confidence. A single red rose in one hand and a matching diabolical smile on his face. She turned towards him. Almost touching one another, they both stopped and looked towards me with a strange knowing sight that I’ll never forget. It was almost as if they were taunting me. And then they embraced one another, as lovers would, their eyes closing for a passionate kiss. I tried to speak; tried to let the rage out that was starting to form deep within my soul. I wanted to understand; wanted to know why and how and who, but it was in vain. It all came into clarity with the falling of a hammer and a silenced bullet.