I hate running errands. I put them off and put them off, and then one morning the cat's got no food, there are zero stamps on the roll, and I realize I own no underwear minus holes. I understand some people like to shop for clothes, do it for pure pleasure and entertainment, but I count it as one more damned errand. When the tasks mount up and I can't put it off any longer, I make a list and set forth to Harvard Square. There are less pricey areas, granted, but the Square has its own post office and lies within spitting distance of my house.
I waited in line at the post office till my feet felt like they'd grow roots. I bought panties on sale at the Gap, mourned the passing of Sage's, where they'd always carried tons of my cat's favorite Fancy Feast, bought a few cans of an off-price substitute at the CVS instead. The wind tangled my hair, which helped me recall a shampoo shortage and led to cart-filling thoughts of toothpaste, soap, and lip balm.
I first noticed him as I was waiting, along with thirty-five other assorted students, panhandlers, and shoppers, for the scramble light at the intersection of Brattle and Mass Ave. His gaze lingered a moment too long and I wondered briefly whether I'd met him at a party or exchanged small talk with the man at a bar. He wasn't especially noticeable, a middle-aged light-skinned black man in a well-cut tweed jacket and charcoal slacks. Didn't hold a candle fashion-wise to the young guy on his left wearing buckskin fringe. Still, I had the feeling I'd seen him before, and I thought it might have been behind me in line at the post office, or across the room at one of the writing tables, scribbling on the back of an envelope. When the traffic light changed, the herd charged across the street and dispersed, some heading for the subway, some the shops, some disappearing through the gates to Harvard Yard. I stopped at the Out of Town News Stand and gazed at the covers of foreign magazines. So did the black man.
The next time I saw him, he was standing outside the Cambridge Savings Bank while I was considering a bite to eat at Finagle a Bagel. He'd added a tan raincoat and a battered hat to his attire, and if I had to describe what he was doing, I'd have to say he was doing zip, simply loitering, which made him stand out from the crush of hurrying pedestrians. When I edged past, he fell into step thirty paces behind me.
Now, Cambridge is a crowded city, and Harvard Square is its hub. Teenagers cruise the streets, parading their finery, hoping someone will admire their most recent tattoo or pierced body part, but this guy hadn't been a teen in twenty years easy. I crossed Mass Ave again, turned right, then left on Church Street. I hurried past the movie theater and the Globe Corner Bookstore, hung a quick left on Palmer, a glorified alley, slowed down, and kept watch in the plate-glass windows of the Coop, purveyor of all things Harvard. Sure enough, he came hurtling around the corner, hurrying to catch up. I tried to get a better glimpse of his face, but it was obscured under the brim of the hat. I feigned interest in the fine-art posters displayed in the front window, then sauntered on.
I'd just finished working a case in which I'd managed to frustrate a bunch of survivalists-cum-terrorists. The Feebies, no less, had warned me to be on the lookout for revenge-crazed Looney Tunes. But the group allegedly out for my blood was the sort that wouldn't associate with black people, much less admit them as prized members and give them the choice assignment of taking out the half-Jewish bitch who'd foiled their finest scheme.
I used to be a cop, across the river in Boston. I worked Major Crimes and I worked Homicide, and there are no doubt former and future felons who hold a grudge. But I was pretty sure most of them would do a better job of shadowing. Truly, this guy was not good at his work. If he was an accomplished felon, I was queen of the junior prom.
He stayed too close, and then he stayed too far. He didn't know the basics, like walking on the opposite side of the street. He didn't use a shiner, a small mirror, so when he wanted to check where I was, he had to turn, risk a full stare, and look straight at me. He was strictly an amateur, but he was bird-dog stubborn and extremely patient while I visited Tower Records and sorted through stacks of bargain CDs.
The gent also looked prosperous. If I'd sent him away and he'd come out of jail dressing the way he did, he owed me thanks. My grandmother, my mother's mother, would have cautioned me to quit judging by appearances. 'Fun oybn puts, fun unten shmuts,' she'd have warned in Yiddish. 'Finery on top, filth underneath,' meaning the guy could be some kind of stylish hitman, unswayed by the Hollywood idea of what a modern hood ought to wear. I considered strolling over to a beat cop, informing him that the elegant black man was tailing me, but I knew too many Cambridge cops to relish the horselaugh that would follow. Plus, I take pride in handling my own problems. My shadow didn't seem like much of a threat so far, but I wasn't about to lead him home or walk solo down some dark alley where he'd feel free to pull a gun if such were his intent. I could have lost him easily, could have hailed a cab or jumped a bus. Instead, I marched him around the Square while considering my options, then entered the Coop at the Mass Ave door, quickly stepped to the right into an open elevator car, and pressed the button for the third floor.
As the doors narrowed, I saw my man rush inside and take note of the departing elevator. I figured he'd wait for the next trip, and wait a while, too, since there was only the single car. I had plenty of time to turn left twice and secrete myself in an alcove, surrounded by books on medicine and near a handy fire extinguisher. Hidden from view, I stuffed my parcels into my backpack, turned my reversible jacket inside out, blue to gray, and yanked a knitted cap over my red hair. It took him four minutes to elbow his way off the elevator and start tracking me down.
I stayed behind him, veering from extreme left to far right, shielded by high bookcases, feeling like a crafty fox who'd turned the table on the hounds. The guy was tenacious, I'll give him that. He didn't approach the information desk or ask any Coop shoppers if they'd seen me. Instead, he walked briskly to the back of the store, glanced down the curving staircase, decided I hadn't taken it, and charged across the third-floor pedestrian bridge, passing the rest rooms and the phones and rushing into the connected Palmer Street Coop. There, he checked out the aisles of the textbook department, then worked his way down the floors of the Palmer Street building, ignoring dorm funishings, greeting cards, Harvard insignia bears and chairs, sweatshirts and baby booties.
He took the seven steps down into the Brattle Street building, exited, and did a brief survey of pedestrian traffic before stopping to consult a Rastafarian street musician who commanded a view of the door. I observed the interaction from behind a circular rack of crimson insignia bathrobes. The guitar player shook his head slowly, dreadlocks wriggling like snakes, and accepted a cash donation. The black man re-entered the Coop, passing within ten feet of my hiding place.
Tall, slim, maybe 180 pounds, regular features. He still wore the hat, so I couldn't check his hairline. Late thirties, early forties, a worried frown on a clean-shaven face. I still thought I might have seen him before today's post-office encounter, but I didn't know where, couldn't tag a name to the face or fathom a reason behind his dogged pursuit.
I followed him back up the stairs, across Palmer Street, and into the Mass Ave building again, where he took the elevator to the third floor and started working his way down through the huge bookstore, philosophy to periodicals to fiction.
He'd reached nonfiction before I grew impatient and approached. When he saw me, a look of relief washed over his face, crinkling the corners of his dark eyes. When he realized I was heading straight toward him, the relief was replaced by panic. He grabbed a book off a pile and buried his nose in it. He was holding The New Joy of Sex upside down.
Maybe if he'd picked another book, or if a crease of anxiety hadn't furrowed his brow, or if he hadn't been quite so good-looking, I'd have shoved him against a wall, demanded ID, and threatened him with the cops. As it was, I made do with a firm hand on his arm.
" Store Security," I said. "Come along - "
"You are not." His low voice was indignant.
"Gotcha. How do you know?"
He pursed his lips and thought about fleeing. He was my height, maybe an inch shorter. Six feet, narrow frame. With the shoes he had on, I didn't think he could outrun me. I watched his eyes as he considered his options. He closed them briefly, reopened them, and then pressed his lips together until they almost disappeared. His shoulders slumped, but he didn't appear defeated. The expression that crossed his face seemed more like resolve than despair.
"Miss Carlyle," he said. "May I buy you a drink?"
Copyright © 2004 by Linda Appelblatt Barnes