Chapter 1: Click here.
Chapter 2: Click here.
Chapter 3 (Part 1): A familiar cheesy tune split the quiet morning air, blasting Sabrina into consciousness and leaving her little choice but to grope around for her cell phone, which doubled as an alarm clock. Generally, she loved her ringtone. Hence the reason why she chose it in the first place. But when it started playing at some wretched hour of the morning – also known as six o’clock sharp – she was less than pleased.
Swiping at the screen, she set it to snooze and crankily collapsed back onto her pillows, rubbing at her eyes. It was with great difficulty that she coerced her inner toddler into submission, but she somehow did it in less time than it took for the alarm to go off again. And then she was up and stumbling headlong into the new day.
By the time Sabrina was through her morning routine, it was somehow quarter to seven. She hastily ate a pack of instant oatmeal, prepared her lunch, gulped down her vitamins and got her teeth brushed all in time to head out the door a whole minute ahead of schedule. Before the clock had quite struck eight, she was at her desk in the big, bare, boring room she shared with five people she had nothing in common with.
She didn’t fit in there. At all. It was obvious while her coworkers went about their childish chatter as usual. Sabrina tuned them out like she always did whenever they discussed immature topics, which meant that she ignored them most of the time. They were all a decent decade or more older than her, yet they acted as if they’d never left middle school.
Sabrina barely heard more than a hum while she checked her email, scanning the inbox for any sign that Alex might want to talk to her again. It had been months since they’d broken up, and she was down to just the tiniest strand of hope. Really, it was more of a bad habit than anything else at that point. But she couldn’t work up any lasting enthusiasm over anyone else. And she still wanted a better explanation than, “I just need time to think.”
Everything had been going so well for the thirteen months beforehand, so she’d been shocked and confused when, within a short week’s time, he’d gone from loving boyfriend, to brooding and distant, to gone altogether. Overall, she blamed Alex for his odd behavior and subsequent disappearance; but every once in a while, she couldn’t help but wonder if it had been her. Had she said something? Or could she have done something different?
Sabrina didn’t cry at the thought. She barely blinked when the day’s emails proved to be no different than usual, with the exception of a fawning correspondence from Eugene. She was pretty well past that hysterical first stage, rarely even tearing up over Alex anymore. It’s just that she wouldn’t have objected too much if he did decide to come waltzing back into her life.
She signed out of her email and set her mind to accomplishing the single task she’d been given for the entire day. It only lasted so long, of course; and as the minutes turned to hours with painstaking slowness, interspersed with three over-the-top text messages from Eugene, Sabrina realized she was getting used to it all. Her coworkers’ ignorant comments and her own lack of inspiration were becoming as depressingly familiar as the commute to and from work.
That recognition stuck with her throughout the day, no matter how hard she tried to shake it. So it was with infinite relief that she exited the building beneath an obliviously cheerful, blue sky. Her engine started with a soothing rumble, and she turned on the radio as soon as she pulled out of the smallish parking lot.
Blasting her music as loud as her poor little car could manage, she did the speed limit only because of the traffic congesting the basic two-lane road. That changed as soon as she made the left turn onto Route 222, where she stepped on the gas, reveling in every second that took her further away from the dismal little office with its depressing realizations.
The scenery didn’t change much as the odometer on her dashboard ticked ever upwards. There was still plenty of farmland with scattered stands of trees every which way she looked. But the feel of it was somehow different, and she felt her shoulders relax with each passing mile. It was amazing how such a short distance could mean a world of change.
After living in Lancaster for as long as she had, Sabrina knew most of the places cops liked to hide along the highway. She kept her eyes on the road and her fellow drivers for the most part; but every so often, when she was passing particular ramps, she would take particular notice of her surroundings. Such precautions were necessary when she was hitting eighty-five miles per hour in a sixty-five zone.
That’s why she first noticed the swanky sedan behind her. For one small but disconcerting instant, she thought it was a police vehicle.
Shiny black, its silver trim was clean enough to bounce the sun right at her when she glanced in the rear-view mirror. After determining she wasn’t in any immediate risk of getting a ticket, Sabrina wouldn’t have thought twice about the car if it had just continued on its merry course. Cadillacs weren’t something she often did a double-take for.
Yet there was something off about it. It didn’t tail her, but when she switched lanes to get around the law-abiding semi up ahead, it followed.
No big deal really, or at least it wasn’t that first time. It was a popular enough road during peak hours. So while she took some note of the car’s movements, she didn’t find it over-the-top suspicious right away. Nonetheless, Sabrina noticed how it matched her speed when she revved up to ninety miles per hour. And it copied her again when she turned back into the right lane to head toward Route 30. Nor could she disregard the way it didn’t take any of the next three heavily traveled courses it could have, staying right behind her instead.
That’s when Sabrina felt the first pangs of real uncertainty. With the traffic packed much more closely, she snuck a suspicious glance in her rear-view mirror. Tilting it to get a better perspective, she took in the details of the driver’s face and instantly didn’t like what she saw.
The man looked like he had just stepped out of some bad Mafia movie with his short, light brown hair, darker sunglasses, and black suit jacket and tie. The color stood out in stark detail against his crisp white oxford, and his expressionless mouth didn’t make him look any less foreboding. From what she could see, he looked a lot like the man she had seen the other night at the grocery store.
Shifting the mirror’s angle with a growing amount of concern, she could see his passengers, two of whom were wearing carbon-copy clothing. There was a fourth occupant as well, but what he looked like, she had no clue since he was largely out of her sight. All she could make out was one shoulder, and that was covered in what looked like a black jacket too.
Sabrina told herself she was being paranoid. That the driver couldn’t be the man from the other day, and even if he was, so what? But she couldn’t fight off the strange little shiver that ran down her spine twice in rapid succession, and she started really hoping the Cadillac would take any of the upcoming exits.
When it didn’t, and the roadway cleared up in front of her, she hit the gas pedal. Hard.
The other vehicle matched her speed perfectly, never getting too close but never allowing too much space between them either. So by the time Sabrina reached her off-ramp, she was on high alert.
As far as she could tell, there was no good reason for a car like that to be in her particular neighborhood. She didn’t live in the slums by any means, but her apartment was very close to one of the area’s larger universities. That meant the surrounding communities were mostly populated by college students with their Mustangs and assorted parental hand-me-downs. Not Mafia cars.
Sabrina told herself the men behind her were just visiting someone. That she was being ridiculous freaking out.
They were rational words that did nothing for her nerves.
If it had been dark out, she wouldn’t have pulled into her parking lot at all; she would have kept on driving around until she lost the Cadillac But since it was still sunny and bright, she forced herself to take the risk. Nobody attacked people in broad daylight anyway. Not on sleepy Central Pennsylvania backroads lined with perfectly mundane rows of trees and houses like the ones around her.
Telling herself that and convincing herself of it were two very different tasks, however. And even after she parked and the other car drove right past her building, she still didn’t feel safe. Filled with a disturbing amount of unease, Sabrina stepped out of the car only to nearly lose her footing when her phone rang inside her purse. It took a mere second for her to realize what the sudden noise was, and then another to identify the caller. But she still felt jittery when she answered.
“Hey, Za.” Deanda’s voice was soothing in how normal it came across. “I’m thinking we need a movie night.”
“Isn’t that what we did yesterday?” Sabrina balanced the phone between her shoulder and ear so she could unlock the front door.
“Yeah, well, someone at work was telling me about this one horror flick.”
Sabrina cut her off with a sheepish, self-deprecating laugh. “No thank you. I think I’ve already freaked myself out enough for one day.”
“What did your coworkers do now?” Deanda pressed with some disgust in her voice. She had heard too many stories about them already.
“Oh no, it wasn’t them,” Sabrina assured, finally disengaging the lock and pulling the door open. “I just got all paranoid and thought this car was following me. Completely stupid, I know, but I’d say I’m more than jumpy enough without watching stuff that goes bump in the night.”
There was a pause on the other end. Then Deanda asked in a rather odd voice, “Someone followed you?”
“No, it was just this Cadillac that was behind me all the way from 222 to the apartment.” Sabrina shut the door behind her, bolting it for good measure. “It freaked me out a little, but they went on to one of the back buildings, I think.
“Did you get a look at whoever was in the car?” Again that overly casual tone that implied too much interest while pretending to have none.
Making her way up into the living area, Sabrina’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “It was some guys in business suits.”
“How many?” Deanda pressed.
“Four.” Sabrina dumped her purse on the couch.
“Were they all wearing sunglasses?”
“Yeah.” Deanda was officially scaring her, a fact she didn’t bother to keep secret. “How’d you know that?”
“Just do me a favor, okay? Make sure the doors and windows are locked. Whatever you do, don’t go outside. I’ll be home in a few.” She sounded like a parent trying to keep a toddler still in the face of a rattlesnake.
Even without that tone, Deanda’s questions weren’t normal. Asking what her alleged tails looked like could have stemmed from mild curiosity, but there was no good reason to wonder whether they had sunglasses on or not. And the command to lock up was pushing the situation into uncomfortable territory. When Sabrina tried to point all that out, Deanda only repeated her warning to secure any entrances, then made her promise to call if anything else happened.
That odd reaction seemed sufficient proof that the paranoia Sabrina had been feeling was actually justified. Recognizing that sent her into a panic, her mind racing to try to figure out what in the world could be going on.
Was Deanda mixed up in some kind of legal affair? Was the state representative she worked for in some kind of trouble? Were the guys outside assassins or something?
Once Sabrina let her mind loose, it picked up speed, going from understandable speculation to sheer insanity in a minute flat. Every improbable possibility from the mob to aliens made a guest appearance in her head.
With those thoughts to spur her on, Sabrina secured the two windows in the living room, checked the downstairs door again, and even stopped to eye the vents distrustfully. They weren’t very large, but could she rule out the possibility that someone or something could get through?
She tried to tell herself she was being absurd.
Considering how she had done that in the first place to no avail, it didn’t work very well the second go-around either.
Her cell rang again while she was pacing back and forth, and back and forth again, across the living room. Sabrina had already been standing ramrod straight, but if possible, her body stiffened even further when she checked to see who was calling.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on this time?” She asked into the phone, using a perfectly calm voice. Because really, she knew there was a good explanation for everything. There had to be.
“I’m outside,” Deanda replied instead. “Grab your purse and let’s go. We’re hitting up the mall.”
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