Are you being watched?

       If you enjoyed that last little ride,                                                                          try this next dramatic heart-wrencher on for size!

“Don’t Look…

          You’re Being Followed”

 

By Stephen James

Who is the real protagonist? Good question! I hope you struggle to figure out your own answer to which way the finger is pointing, before being caught by its unexpected swerve…

Actress Irma Snodgrass had become a popular soap opera starlet back in 1967. Her chosen stage name, Crystal Chevalier had shone a brilliant light, improving her odds of landing roles, allowing Irma to take leaps over the opposition; painstakingly languishing on the casting-couch. She was a fine-looking woman, part and parcel necessities for the rapidly blossoming hour-long brand of afternoon bored housewife’s viewing. Misses Snodgrass had still not quite forgiven her new husband Archibald for handing her the awkward moniker. Hence the invention of her pseudonym. Archibald was a scriptwriter for the same network, but Crystal refused to admit that this had the scantiest influence in her ability to land the much-sought-after role. In her limited vision ─ it had been all her own doing. They had a child together in 1969, naming her Valerie Marie after Irma’s favourite actress Valerie Marie Winterstorm. Archie went along with it, though not appreciating the wishy-washy body of work Miss Winterstorm produced, caring more about the child’s welfare than her name. A television production-set child of the 70’s, Valerie soon learned how to cope with completing her year one school lessons and parent-tutored manners at the network’s studio.

The small family lived in a humble three bedroom bungalow in middle-class Los Angeles. A suburb called Sachiko. Raven-haired Crystal’s role developed into becoming the main protagonist; Private Investigator Zelma Hardachre, and with its importance in the show, her ego inflated to scale. Her salary grew also, and Ms Chevalier (as she liked to be addressed) did some commercials as well.

When youngster Valerie was fast-approaching her sixth birthday, the sad news about her father’s passing in a car accident, when en route to a film set at Las Vegas, found its way to her heart. Concerned for her child’s well-being, Crystal avoided subjecting her timid daughter to the rigours of a gala Hollywood funeral. The girl was looked after by her uncle Quentin for the afternoon, while her mother attended. During the devastating aftermath, for several months, Quentin Snodgrass became a rock of Gibraltar for the grieving pair of girls, whose affinity gradually knitted tighter. The home’s memory too strenuous, they moved to an upmarket dwelling closer to the centre of town. Crystal even asked for the Private-eye Zelma Hardachre’s character’s role to be down-written somewhat, in order to spend more time with her only daughter. This was greatly appreciated by the budding girl.

In an obscure twist of events, as Valerie grew up, her years spent guided by a single parent and fighting for survival in the cut-throat city, seemed to dilute her timorous nature. Valerie’s mother attempted several relationships but nothing seemed too serious, now nearly forty ─ as a woman in her prime, the business of her shooting schedule took precedence above all else. Her figure was lustrous. Her diet was impossible. Her temper became shortened. Her time spent learning her lines lengthened, but devoted Crystal Chevalier persevered best as she could.

Valerie was suddenly seventeen and beginning to notice the stares of men. Her inherited gene pool’s allure began encroaching faster than a blizzard. She was pretty. Stunning curves and a trim mid-section had transformed her previously-stick-like body. Crystal did not favour this but was powerless to prevent it. Fast-forgotten by her were the credentials that she’d applied to open the studio’s doors in the first place. The rules were strict and Valerie Marie abided by them. A good child she was…

Studios are supportive of soap operas ─ they even sustain the longevity of their stars. But it cannot last forever, and the evolving viewing audience’s desire for an influx of fresh new blood saw the shrinkage, demise and eventual cancellation of waning protagonist Zelma Hardachre. Crystal was fired from the show. She did not want to plummet back down to the depths of being Irma Snodgrass once again, but the women of the 80’s with their big hair, small waistlines and breast augmentation were blazing an ultra-competitive trail, too fast for her to chase. She resented her male producer, calling him a chauvinist. She was angry at the screenwriters for not making her character sexy enough to tread water with the new meat. She became autocratic in her disciplinary attitude towards Valerie.

Day after day. Night after night. The stern voice of unemployed Irma rang in her daughter’s ears. “No men! You simply cannot trust any of them!”

“But Mum,” she would plead… “I just want to go out on a date, please!”

“You are far too young and vulnerable,” came repeatedly back. “You are still only a schoolgirl, for God’s sakes! As I have told you so many times in the past, you cannot trust men. They are only after one thing. And once they’ve got it, they’ll cast you aside like an unwanted worn-out pair of shoes!”

At times the discussions bore unpleasant heat.

“Yes, okay mum, you’re the boss!” she would reconcile. Valerie respected her mother’s advice, knowing it would not be forever. Soon, when she was a bit older her chance would arise. “But I can’t help wondering what it would be like to have a boyfriend of my own.”

“Finish your grades first, girl. Then we’ll see.” It was always the same type of conversation.

In the 1980’s there were no smart phones or social media; therefore, her friends all had to be met personally. The few boys who hung around her group were stringently grilled by her mother. They were wary of the consequences of overstepping the line with her.

At last came 1990. For Valerie, now twenty-one, beautiful in her own right and working as a receptionist with a legal firm, living at home still, to repress her mum’s loneliness was a part of life. She was patient but could now come and go as she pleased. One day at the mall, dressed nicely as usual, she noticed a man following at a distance. Well, she’d figured he was, because each time she went into one shop he would float past but reappear moments later. This pursuer was not making eye-contact with her, and was too far behind for her to make out any clear features. All Valerie could tell was that the man was quite solidly built with dark-brown hair and expensive-looking sunglasses covering his eyes. His clothes were blueish. Whenever she moved, he moved. Whenever she stopped, he stopped. She began feeling extremely apprehensive. She increased her stride in an effort to shake him off. He allowed this to happen, then in a second his image once more hovered in her peripheral vision.  It persisted for over twenty minutes. Her heart began to pound harder and harder. Her mother was right. She felt like a piece of prime-cut beef being hounded by a very determined dog. Valerie, not one to panic, decided to seek the assistance of a security guard…

“Pardon me sir?” she inquired quietly, pointing to her wrist as if inquiring about the time and being careful not to face the stalker. The last thing she needed was to aggravate him. “Please play along with me and show me your watch. You see, there is a man following me. He has been lurking behind me for ages. It is spooking me out. What should I do?”

“A man following, you say?” said the uniformed guard, complying with her smartly-disguised request. He raised his voice for effect, just in case. “Nearly four-thirty-five, miss!”

Valerie nodded a thank you. “Well. What should I do? Can you do something about him?”

“Until he makes a move to harass or grab you, I can’t really do anything, miss. There’s no law against being in the mall. If I approach or detain him for questioning, he could have me up for harassment. Stupid, isn’t it? Let’s at least bluff him. Which man is it miss?”

They both peered round slowly. The skulking stranger was gone. Both sets of eyes did a quick scan of the busy mall but he had vanished. Valerie felt the weight of a huge encumbrance lift from her shoulders. Her bulging plastic shopping-bag seemed to weigh less now.

The guard smiled dismissingly. “You might have just been imagining it, miss.”

“No I wasn’t!” she rasped back. “I tell you he was no more than thirty yards behind me. A deep blue shirt and jeans. He has dark-brown hair. Oh, and he was wearing reflective Ray-bans too!”

The burly African-American guard’s communication radio started beeping. “Excuse me miss. I have to get this. Just give me a few minutes, will you?”

“Humph…” grunted Valerie, taking another look, but the coast was clearer than a politician’s conscience. She took-off, shaking her frustrated head, mindful of her five o’clock dental appointment near home. “Thanks for nothing, anyway.”

The main entrance was in view, so she made a beeline. On her own once more and with a pair of four-inch Prada heels scuffling underneath her tight-fitting, open-necked, Versace business dress, the upset girl couldn’t wait to get to her car. With each short step, her frightened little heart was increasing in pace. She could hear her own breathing. Perhaps her mother’s excessive warning over-kills had made her mind play tricks on her? The big glass double doors loomed. Not far to go now!

“Get a grip on yourself!” she vented, under her heavy breathing…

Other shoppers were staring at the fleet-footed twenty-one-year-old, dodging and weaving her way through the hoards. The plastic bag of shopping was banging against her hip. Her handbag, with its thin leather strap was continuously bouncing on her bottom. Her mind was filled with three stern words… Trust no one!

At last the entrance arrived, and as luck would have it the automatic doors were held apart by pedestrian traffic. Valerie kept her pace up, turning right into the underground carpark. Pursuing a trim figure, she’d always made a habit of parking at the furthest space away as possible. Today she wished she hadn’t. She kept scurrying along, praying that one of the white Prada’s wouldn’t break or come adrift. The focused girl could now see her car in the distance ─ like an island to a drowning swimmer at sea. Her shoes echoed on the hard concrete ceiling. The massive columns seemed to be hiding something. Her fear mounted as she suddenly realised how few people were down here. Her car felt like it was getting further away. Valerie was running out of breath. Slowing down.

Then she saw him…

She froze mid-stride. A stab of fear shot through her chest. The man, still wearing his dark glasses appeared from behind a parked van. Its sliding door was open. She caught a brief glimpse of a cage-like mesh separating the driver’s section. His eyes looked right through her. His cheek bore a long jagged scar. His hands were large. He said nothing. Valerie screamed but nothing came out. Terror dragged her eyes sideways. She went to take a step behind a FWD, catching her handbag’s strap on its wing-mirror. It snapped. Her bag fell open to the dirty concrete. Her precious mace spray now entirely useless. Do I retrieve it?

“I know where you parked. I followed you in,” his gravel-voice uttered ─ face breaking into a strange one-sided smile ─ finger pointing at her car. “I knew you’d come out this way.”

Valerie’s entire body was shaking uncontrollably. Her heart felt the harrowing ordeal of rape fast approaching. What an introduction to the world of sex, her mother hadn’t prepared her for this!

“What do you want?” she asked with a mouse’s voice. “Why are you following me?” Her stomach was ice.

“You are pretty aren’t you? No need to be scared.”

“I don’t know you, and I don’t want to know you! Back off! I’ll scream if you come anywhere near me!” Valerie removed one of her shoes, holding the stiletto in his direction. He laughed at it.

The man raised his sunglasses. His eyes were darker than his hair but the same brown colour. He reached down for her bag. She hated being trapped like this. Where are all the shoppers? She knew all her identification was in that bag. If he got it, she was doomed. What the hell game was this?

The intimidating man picked up her belongings, tucked them back inside and walked over to the van’s open sliding door. “It is you. I knew it! I just had to see how you’d look, all grown up!  Come… I’ve brought you a present.” The scar shrank up the man’s cheek as a smile broke. “You probably don’t remember me. I left when you were six. Your mum… Well, let’s just say, my brother Quentin was taking care of her long before we pretended I got killed. It was easier that way.”

“Daddy… is that really you?”

“I just had to be sure it was you.” He reached into the van and pulled out a giant fuzzy pink donkey. “Sorry I took Wonky Donkey, but she was all I had to remember you by, honey!”

Valerie Marie dropped her shoe and burst into tears…

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