An unseen woman’s ragged screams had just split the air inside Anna’s apartment. She hesitated imperceptibly before jumping to her feet. Without a single thought for her own safety, the tall brunette threw the front door open and peered outside.
The harsh July sun beat down on the pavement and reflected off the neighbor’s wind chimes. Sun spots obscured Anna’s vision, and she lifted her hand to her eyes in a bid to wipe away the visual disturbances.
Her sight started to clear just as the disorienting and terrifying screams returned. A middle-aged woman with ratty hair, disheveled clothing, and bare feet reached toward her from about one-hundred feet away. Anna’s gaze fell first to the woman’s bloody feet. Then she spotted a black pickup truck and its elderly male driver. His long, gray hair threatened to fly free of his head as he sprung out of the newly parked vehicle.
The woman rapidly advanced upon Anna’s doorstep before stopping unexpectedly. Her body shook with the force of her recent exertions, and she appeared poised to scream yet again.
“What’s wrong? Do you need help? I can call the police,” Anna said in a jumbled mess.
The woman’s eyes darted from Anna to the front door. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I need help! Please, let me in!”
All of Anna’s instincts screamed as she patted her pockets in search of her phone. Dammit, she thought. Her phone was nestled safely inside the apartment.
A quick scan of the environment showed Anna that the mysterious man hadn’t come any closer. In fact, he stood calmly by the side of the truck and appeared to be watching them with interest. Anna made eye contact with him, and it sent a shiver down her spine.
Something isn’t right.
“Look, I’m going to call the police for you, okay?”
“But I already called them. They’re on their way,” the woman pouted.
“I’m going to call again, just to make sure. Stay there.” Anna motioned for the woman to remain at her current position, approximately twenty feet away.
A strange smile flitted across the woman’s lips, and it accentuated the wrinkles around her mouth. She took one step forward, then another.
“Please stay there,” Anna said as sweat trickled down her back and her mind exploded with anxiety.
“This is public property, ma’am,” the woman responded while taking two more steps. “I have a right to be here.”
Anna’s sense of unease officially ballooned into an overwhelming tide of panic. Unsure what to do, she risked turning her back on the woman long enough to re-enter her apartment. That was the plan, anyway. With one firm pull, followed by three successive tugs, she was met by the sickening realization that her screen door had somehow jammed shut.
Stay calm, stay calm. Don’t show fear.
Anna glanced over her shoulder and found the woman a mere five feet away, her face transformed by the lupine features of an alpha animal on the prowl. The man stood a few feet closer, too, and his hard stare belied his attempt at casual indifference.
It’s now or never.
One last, victorious tug broke the door free of its humidity-induced prison. She tumbled gracelessly through the entrance and slammed the door in the woman’s face.
Each lock clicked into place as Anna placed her back to the door and slid to her knees. Her breathing raged out of control; hyperventilation had become a foregone conclusion, so she steered into the skid and allowed it to happen.
A few minutes later, she composed herself enough to grab her phone. As her fingers danced across the keypad, she slowly pulled apart two slats in the mini blinds. No one was there, nor was there any sign of the black truck.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
Detective Stan Brodsky stood uncomfortably in his suit. Although it was eight o’clock in the evening, the heat index still hovered around one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. He’d already had a long, arduous day of dealing with an unusual-and still unsolved-murder, not to mention the steady stream of overwrought residents who apparently believed 911 was their personal hotline for airing grievances.
The woman sitting in front of him hadn’t deviated from her story during three retellings. He could also sense her fear; it had been more than an hour since the alleged incident, but the tension in the air was still palpable. Although he and his partner, Detective Samuel Jones, hadn’t found any corroborating evidence, they also had no reason not to believe her story, especially in light of recent local events.
“Okay, ma’am, we’re going to file a report, and we’ll have a cruiser ride through here a few times a day for the next week or so. It sounds like they were attempting a burglary, so be sure to lock your house and car doors. And let us know if you see them again,” Brodsky said while handing Anna an off-white business card.
She looked at it thoughtfully, as if it alone could somehow protect her. “Are you sure it’s safe to be here, officer? Should I go to a hotel or something instead?”
“Detective. And you should definitely do what makes you feel comfortable, ma’am. But in my experience, perps like this don’t often return to the scene of their failed attempt. You’re on guard now, and they know it. They also know you probably called the police. No, it’s much easier for them to go elsewhere.”
Unfortunately, he thought. He didn’t want anything to happen to her, of course. He just wished for once criminals would make his life less complicated. After all, if they kept trying to commit crimes in the same places, his job would be a breeze. He could issue as many platitudes as needed to make people like Anna feel better, especially because the burglars she’d encountered would almost certainly skip town and slip through the cracks. Again.
“Okay,” she responded.
He could practically see the cogs spinning in her brain. It was clear she wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight. He decided to take one last stab at calming her down.
“You did the right thing, ma’am. You’ve got good instincts. I tell you what, if you think you hear or see something out of the ordinary, call us. Anytime, day or night. Dispatch will patch you through to the closest officer if I’m not on duty.”
“Oh, but I don’t want to trouble you for nothing…”
“It’s no trouble, ma’am. Seriously. This is what we’re here for.”
“Thanks,” she said shyly as the officers started making their way toward the door.
“He’s right, ma’am,” Jones said while exiting the house. “Always listen to your instincts. Have a good night.”
The two detectives waited until they were back in their unmarked car to share their true feelings.
“Do you really think it was a burglar?” Jones asked.
“Probably,” Brodsky replied.
“Then why did dispatch patch the call through to homicide?”
“Aside from the department being ridiculously understaffed right now?” Brodsky pushed his hair back from his forehead. “I’d say they thought this might be connected to the killer from earlier. And maybe they’re right.”