THE COTTAGE WINDOW
Illustration by Lawrence Tate
Before she left the church Abby repackaged her rolled blanket and garden tools to look exactly as they had before when they were hiding the mapstick. As she walked back through the churchyard she glanced across the street and saw a familiar stalker on a bench in front of the Middletown Standard office. Stopping near the shed – but still in view of the street – she unpacked her bundle and then stored the rakes and spade and hoe with the other tools, and threw the blanket and clothesline on a shelf. With a growing feeling of anxiety she walked over to the door. Her key turned smoothly, just as before. The lock showed no signs of tampering. Inside everything appeared completely normal. She checked her books, her clothes, her plans for the garden, the cabinets. Nothing seemed suspicious.
‘What a surprise!’ she thought. ‘Maybe I’ve been a bit paranoid, overdoing this whole thing.’ She glanced out the kitchen window and the stalker was still sitting quietly as before. ‘Is that really one of the same men? I can’t be sure. They’re all in their 30s, dark sport jacket even on hot days, slacks. Could he just be waiting for somebody, and I’m making all this up? But there’s a few of them and they are all in similar uniform, sort of like a stock broker or financial advisor, but I’m sure they don’t work for Bentley next door.’
Abby began inspecting the cottage for any sign of intruders. She still couldn’t quite believe her intuition had been so far off base. The lock on the kitchen window was closed, looking just as before. She checked the two other windows on the other walls. Nothing appeared unusual. She even checked the tiny bathroom window that was too small for a normal man to climb through. Still nothing. Finally she entered the little room at the back that extended toward the churchyard wall. It too was locked. But she noticed a faint smudge on the windowsill. It had probably been there before. There was no reason for it to catch the eye. But to make sure she checked the floor around the window and saw a faint, thin brown line, only visible because it was dark against the pale plywood floor. She touched it and found a trace of dirt on her finger. She rubbed it, and felt a hint of moisture. It was definitely not dust. Her heart began to beat faster, and she was transformed into a bloodhound on the scent. She crawled along the floor and found one more faint line, curved like the side of a shoe. ‘Of course! It rain last night! There’s no way this was here before.’
Abby checked the lock on the window again, and this time she saw a barely visible scratch, an incredibly thin line of white on the dark metal of the switch of the lock. ‘But what good would that do anyone? Pressure there would only push the lock closed.’ She opened the lock and saw a similar minute scratch on the other side. Her eye was caught by a slight irregularity in the glass an inch or two away. There seemed to be an almost microscopic hole coming through the glass at a tight angle toward the lock. From straight ahead you would never notice it at all. She immediately looked in the same spot on the other side of the lock, and found an identical irregularity in the glass. Rubbing it with her finger, she could just barely feel it, and ran to a bowl of odds and ends in the kitchen cabinet. Returning with a safety pin, she probed the tiny holes. The pin could not enter them, but the holes were there.
‘Something made those scratches,’ she thought. ‘Someone opened and closed the lock. So much for being paranoid. I’m not being paranoid enough! What else did they do in here?’
Abby began searching the house again for anything strange, with her heart beating faster. The familiar signs of panic spread through her body. ‘This isn’t local people doing this,’ she thought. ‘This is done by strangers, hired professionals, expensive trained investigators!’ She glanced up at the benches in front of the office across the street, and once again saw a stalker there, pretending to read a newspaper. ‘It’s so obvious.’
Her life felt out of control.