Special Acknowledgement: to Mom
In the dark parking garage at the Towson mall, bottom floor, standing by the elevator at 10:32 PM, a girl checking her phone. Battery nearly dead. The girl petite, slender, cute blouse and shorts. Pretty, with an air of innocence. Eighteen years old, just submitted an enrollment deposit to Washington College. Walking back to her car after a night out with her friends, pushing her eleven o’clock curfew. Looking nervous.
The perfect victim.
This is how all the horror stories on the news begin: the girl about to get robbed, or raped, or worse. The girl knew this. Clutched her purse strap tighter, shifting her weight between her feet, checking her surroundings.
She hadn’t seen anyone except an angry blonde woman. Stormed by with hardly a glance as the girl was walking to the elevator.
The girl looked up and her heart jumped.
The man walking up. Maybe thirty years old, trench coat, jeans. Good-looking. Stopped a few feet beside her, glanced at the glowing UP button. Turned to her, smiled politely. Said: “Evening.”
He had a friendly voice, she would later tell the police.
The girl eyed him. Of course a man shows up now. The horror stories.
Wait. Don’t panic.
She consulted her gut. She’d read The Gift of Fear. A chance to put it to use. She listened. Her gut was quiet, even. . . calm.
The police would later ask her why she felt that way. She would tell them in the moment, logic begged to differ. It would be logical to avoid the man, take the stairs. She would tell them, sheepishly, perhaps the gut feeling was in part because the man kind of resembled a singer she loved, but as she sized him up and assessed his possible threat, she actually felt a little less nervous.
She decided to trust her gut. Replied: “Evening.”
At that moment, the elevator doors opened. Out of nowhere, she remembered the stories of people stepping into elevator shafts— or being pushed— and dying. The man held out his hand to the doors. “Ladies first.”
This is how the horror stories begin, said logic.
But he said it in a way she liked. Genuinely chivalrous. So she checked that the elevator was there, not just the shaft. Walked in. He stepped in behind her.
The doors closed. They stood on opposite sides.
The man asked: “What floor?” He was by the buttons.
The girl answered quietly: “Top.”
“Me too. Funny coincidence, huh?”
The girl fiddled with her ring. Silver, with a little heart. Christmas present from her dad. Wondered, briefly, if he was lying. Didn’t have proof either way.
The man startled her: “Nice ring.”
“Thanks.” The girl put her hand behind her back.
They began the creaky ascent.
Neither said anything.
The girl consulted her gut again. It was nervous. It didn’t like the silence. It whispered: Say something.
Suddenly the elevator stopped. Another patron?
The doors didn’t open.
The man sighed: “Uh-oh, looks like we’re stuck. Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll start up in a minute.”
The girl muttered: “Great.” Her voice strained. Logic said: This is not good. Her gut was unsure. How best to handle this. . . ?
The girl looked at the man. She would later tell the police how sincere he looked: the concern in his eyes, his furrowed brow. Before she could answer, he did: “Stupid me, of course not. No girl would be okay stuck in an elevator with a strange man.” He leaned on the wall.
The girl shrugged, glanced away.
The man looked at her for a second. Told her: “I have a sister, you know. She works with Damsel in Defense. Ever heard of it?” Like he was trying to start a conversation.
She shook her head. “No.”
“They sell self-defense products aimed at women, like pepper spray, stun guns, purses to conceal weapons. Their aim is to help women defend and empower themselves. It’s pretty neat.”
That caught the girl’s interest. “Sounds cool.”
The elevator man went on: “I understand if you’re nervous, what with all the horror stories on the news.” Paused. “I kinda thought you’d take the stairs. I would’ve, for your peace of mind—” He leaned over, rubbed his right knee: “— but this knee gives me problems.” He looked up at her. “I don’t want to rape you or grope you or something gross like that.”
The girl opened her mouth, but he took her words first: “And I know, that’s exactly what I’d say if I was a rapist.” Paused, then asked: “Do I seem like a rapist?”
That question surprised her, not just in itself but in the manner it was asked. Not a teasing, of-course-I’m-not way that an ordinary rapist might adopt, but as if he was really wondering.
The girl looked him over. Tentatively told him what her gut said: “You don’t give off a rapist vibe to me. And you haven’t hinted at any. . . interest in me.”
“I’m not interested. I bet you have a nice boyfriend anyway.”
The girl would tell the police she didn’t say anything, but her blush must have given her away.
He smiled, a quiet smile. Thought for a moment. “Would it make you feel better if I told you I just got back from a date?”
The girl blinked, caught off-guard. She would tell the police she knew she had no proof, but she didn’t have any proof against him, either. So she responded: “How’d it go?”
The elevator man’s face brightened. “Really great! I felt like we got a real connection, and she said the same thing. We were at the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble. You teenagers would probably laugh at that, but we both love it there.”
“That’s sweet.” She didn’t tell him she frequented the bookstore herself.
“We already got plans for next week.” He checked his phone.
A moment passed. He added: “I just got out of a bad relationship.” Shook his head. “She was. . . possessive. I mean, we started out great, but as time went on she grew, well, worse. Didn’t want me hanging around female coworkers, always asking me where I was or what I was doing— and I mean like a police interrogation. Sometimes asked people to keep an eye on me when she couldn’t be there. She thought what we had was a privilege she bestowed on me, like I was a little kid with a new toy, and I could only use it if I followed all her rules.” He fell silent for a few seconds.
The girl was listening. Realized that she cared, without logic or experience, solely intuition and instinct.
Finally the elevator man said: “Anyway, I don’t want to dump my problems on you. I guess my point is, if you want free advice: love is respect. I got out of it a month ago. Of course, she didn’t go easily, but we haven’t seen each other, and she doesn’t know I’m seeing someone else.”
The girl would later tell the police the way he said that last part was what made her a little concerned.
She gave the only reply she could think of: “I’m happy to hear you’re okay.”
The elevator man looked surprised. Then suddenly, the elevator rattled into motion. The girl had forgotten about it.
The elevator man said: “You’re a good girl.”
From some other stranger, in some other situation, the statement might have made her back away. But from him, it felt honest.
The girl finally said: “You’re a nice guy. You give off a good vibe— to me, at least.”
The elevator man blew out a breath. “That’s a relief. Really. I’ve been working on my vibe.” The girl couldn’t help smiling. “I want to protect girls, not hurt them.” He glanced at her. “Sorry, that— just popped out. Didn’t mean to come off as preachy.”
She faced the doors. “The world needs guys like that.”
Ding! Top floor. Like before, he let her off first.
She would later tell the police it was here, just after she got off, with the elevator man behind her, that her gut started telling her something. Something bad. Thought maybe it was the lack of people, or the dark sky, or the eerie quiet. Whatever it was, she started power-walking to her car.
Checked her phone. 10:37.
Her coiled-up nerves sparked, and she whirled around as the elevator man caught up to her in long strides. Held something out to her. “You dropped your ring.”
The girl gasped: “Oh my word!” She took it from his hand, slipped it back on her finger.
“You might want to get a ring guard. The mall has a good jewelry place where you can get one.”
“I’ve been meaning to.” The girl met the elevator man’s eyes. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “You’re welcome. Thank you.”
Both pulled out their car keys. He raised a hand in farewell. “Take care. Drive safely.”
Two adjacent cars flashed their lights. The girl and the man looked at each other, laughed.
He said: “Funny coincidence, huh?”
She almost laughed again when she saw the car beside her mother’s Focus: light blue punchbuggy. She thought: Punchbuggy blue, no punch back.
Then a voice behind them sneered: “You taking her somewhere?”
The girl saw the fear in the elevator man’s eyes. The fear told her: Be afraid.
They turned around.
A woman stood a few yards away. The girl recognized her: the angry blonde woman she saw while walking to the elevator.
The woman held a gun in both hands.
The elevator man’s voice was tight. The girl would tell the police she stood frozen as he said: “What are you doing here?”
The woman pointed the gun at him. “I told you I’m always watching. I saw your profile on match.com. I was outside your house when I heard you call her and arrange a date. I saw you together in the bookstore.” She grinned like a little girl pleased with an accomplishment, a forced grin. Said in a singsong tone: “I was spying on you.” But the girl heard the anger and hurt underneath. “You didn’t think it was over when we went our separate ways, did you?” She glared at the girl. “And now you’re groping this girl in an elevator and taking her home to do God-knows-what!” Her voice cracked, tears on her face, the barrel quivering.
The girl, mute, shook her head no as he stepped forward. “She has nothing to do with this. Listen—”
The woman shrieked: “I didn’t come here to listen to you!” and pulled the trigger twice. The girl screamed as the elevator man collapsed, two bullet holes in his chest, coat and hands bloody.
Then the only sounds were the girl and the woman breathing hard.
“You! Quit gawking at him!”
The girl clamped her mouth shut, looked up at the woman.
The woman’s tone shifted, gun quivering again: “Stay right there. Don’t move. I’m going to get a bag for him from my car, and then we’re gonna have a little talk, okay? Just nod. You hear me?” The woman spoke calmly and gently, like a rescuer, not the one who pulled the trigger. Made the girl even more afraid. Play along, her gut said. Be scared.
That didn’t require much pretending. The girl nodded feverishly. Tears welling up. The woman holstered her gun, ran off.
The girl stared down at the elevator man. Dead.
Never knew his name.
Saw the car keys in his hand. Remembered hers, clutched in her fist, the first thought to penetrate her numb skull. Ran to her unlocked car, flung open the door, started the ignition, not caring about the noise. Everything telling her: Get out get out get out get out.
Logic said: Call the cops.
She decided: Get out, then call.
Autopilot. Ignoring the speed limit, swearing when she saw the booth at the entrance. Stopped. Checked her mirrors. Panting. All senses alert: a voice, a face, a running car. Something.
Paying took too long. Rolled up the window. Slammed the gas. Get out get out get out.
Out. Just enough juice in her phone to dial 911. Threw it onto the passenger seat.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
The tears tumbling out, racking her body. “I’m leaving the Towson parking garage— there was a man— the elevator—”
“Shh, shh, it’s okay. Did he assault you?”
“No!— He— his ex-girlfriend— she shot him!”
The operator changed tone: “Where are you? Is she there?”
“I don’t know— where she is— he was shot on the top floor—”
“We’re sending the police. Are you out of the parking garage? Do you have a car?”
“I’m out— in my car—”
“Okay, just stay calm. I’m going to direct you to the police station. What street are you on?”
The girl would tell the police the 911 call was a blur, it was all a blur, making it to the station, calling her parents.
Her mom holding one hand, her dad the other, the girl sat down with an officer. Box of tissues in front of her. Sobbing. The officer started the recording, pushed back her hat, wiped her brow. Spoke gently: “You’re all right now. You’re safe. None of this is your fault. Now, can you tell me what happened with you and the man in the elevator?”
The girl took a shaky breath. Began to talk.