Charlotte Davis peeked out of the window of her tiny apartment and looked down at the parking lot below. She could barely make out the figures huddled around a vehicle and making so much noise. The car was destroyed. The windshield had all but caved in and the body of the machine now sported huge craters in its once smooth metal exterior.
She reached over and turned the kitchen light out so the people below would not see her. She didn’t know whose car it was, but it didn’t matter. This was just wrong. Plain wrong.
The crime rate added to her anxiety about living in the area. Stockton had actually made it into the ‘Top Ten Cities to Avoid’ in Forbes Magazine.
She never liked the city—too dirty and terminally bent upon expansion—with hundreds upon hundreds of intersecting streets and subdivisions that ran into each other and encroaching upon nearby Lodi.
Charlotte had moved to Stockton more than ten years ago when the fruit company she worked for in nearby Manteca offered early retirement. The company consolidated, shed underachieving plants and eliminated costs by throwing several people into unemployment. She had worked in the same office with the same people for twenty-five years. Suddenly she was cast into an ocean of bleak prospects. And at her age, opportunities were limited.
Though she did not like her position, it had provided security and in a world as insecure as this was, she needed that. She was out of work for six months before she found another position in Stockton.
She did not need the money. There was plenty to last through retirement, but she needed the structure and the feel of day to day normalcy that a job provided. She moved to the city and took up residence in a cute apartment on Benjamin Holt Drive. A nice area she would have no trouble in. Now the area had become overrun with thugs, gang bangers and all manner of riff-raff, and that was not limited to her neighborhood. Crime was everywhere and she refused to move and leave her job.
Moving away from the window and into the living room, she double-checked the lock. Tomorrow she would go to a pawn shop. She had already decided to buy a taser for protection, but she knew nothing of them; how to use them or what the effects were.
The next morning Charlotte took the bus to the downtown area and almost wished she had stayed home. The area reminded her of a destruction zone or some part of a third world country in which the inhabitants seemed like desperate shadows seeking life. Dark, fragile figures reeking of fear and need, slinking through streets looking for dope or whatever means they could find to get it. Faces she looked into appeared vacant. Only a deep, angry hunger lingered there.
April chill sliced past her outer layer and she shivered, pulling her jacket closer. She had looped her purse around her neck and shoulder allowing it to hang on her side, but kept one hand on the strap.
She stepped off the bus on Weber Avenue near Hunter Street. The once beautiful Hotel Stockton building stood in front of her, towering over the area, taking up a whole city block in white sculpted stone, rooftop gardens and abandoned offices. She knew that during the 1970s and 1980s the building had been used as a human services office, but before that, during the early twentieth century, the place had been magnificent.
Though only four stories tall, it was the behemoth of the downtown area. Other buildings in the area were much taller, but could not match the impression this building made.
In front of the abandoned building sat two bus benches: one taken up by two young people—a man and woman of indistinguishable ages looking incredibly pale, dressed in layers of colorful rags and sharing a large blanket between them. Both wore sunglasses in the dim morning light. On the other, a man lay across the full width of the bench, his green jacket pulled close, his face turned away from her toward the back of the bench. She glanced past them toward Hunter Street where the pawn shop was supposed to be.
Charlotte was a small woman with short, curly, sandy colored hair. She had an average face with large, hazel colored eyes. She was not beautiful, but neither was she offensive to look at. She was average and could blend in with the surrounding landscape. For most of her life, she despised this curse, but as she matured, she appreciated the fact that in many situations she appeared nearly invisible to other inhabitants. This was one of those times.
Walking East on Weber, she turned South on Hunter. The pawn shop was between and alley and a Mexican restaurant with a sombrero painted on the door window. A sign boasting burritos for a dollar and ninety-nine cents sat on the sidewalk outside. Several people in the alley leaned against a brick wall near a red dumpster.
Stepping inside she found herself surrounded by metal shelving with a hodge podge of items. The shelving towered over her. At the tops, lighter items of fishing poles and lamps, blenders and toasters. The bottom shelves held metal toolboxes, a gas generator and gardening tools.
She moved down the aisle toward the back of the store, where two men stood behind glass display cases talking and bent on some organizing task. On their side of the counter against the wall, guns and musical equipment hung from metal hooks. Inside the glass cases were jewelry and handguns. Diamond rings and small .38s. Green boxes of brass and copper bullets.
She looked at the man closest to her. A short, middle-aged, balding man with tufts of silver and black hair lining the side of his head. His ears were large. They reminded her of a cartoon character’s ears, the tops pointing outward and away from his head. His face was the red lined face of a long-time alcoholic with small craters marking the side of both cheeks and forehead and a large brown mole on the side of his nose.
He turned toward her, “Hello, hello,” in sing-song, “and what can we do for you today Beautiful Lady?”
She almost rolled her eyes, but stopped herself and gave him an uncomfortable smile. “I want to buy a taser,” she said haltingly, trying not to sound desperate.
He glanced back over his shoulder grinning at his partner, then back at her again. “We have a lot of tasers. Do you know what kind you want?”
She shrugged, “I want something powerful. Something to protect me. I saw The Zapper advertised on television the other night and that looked pretty good.”
He sobered and looked serious, walking toward the far end of the display and waving at her to follow him, “We have all different kinds. Come and take a look.”
Stopping at the very end, he pulled open a door at the back of the case. She looked over and through the glass, spotting a longer handled species that looked as if it would fit perfectly in her hand. The gold writing on the front of the black plastic frame named it The Protector. It looked impressive. “Let me look at that one,” she said pointing at it.
He smiled and pulled the gadget out of the case, placing it on the glass in front of her. “Good choice. This is one of the more powerful tasers. It’s typically used in law enforcement, but we got lucky.” He grinned at that and winked at her as if they shared some kind of secret.
Charlotte reached over and held it in her hand. It felt perfect. The weight was just right and it fit her palm perfectly. It seemed to have been made specifically for her hand. The length was good too. She wouldn’t have to be directly in the path of an attacker to use it.
She looked through the glass at the other tasers. Some were smaller and there was one very large one. She turned her head sideways, feigning doubt, “I don’t know… How powerful is it?”
His eyebrows shot up, “This is one of the most powerful things on the market. Like I said, it’s used in law enforcement,” he said again, sounding as if he were trying to close the deal.
She continued to look through the glass and spotted what she thought might be a less expensive model, “That one looks more like my price range,” she said pointing at it. “I can’t afford much.”
He shook his head, “Hey, I can give you a deal on this. That thing,” he tapped the glass above the taser she had indicated, “that’s not going to do the job. For a little lady like you…Well, let’s just say you want something a bit more powerful.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but nodded anyway and bit her bottom lip. “How much?”
He pulled the white slip out The Protector had been sitting on and turned it over. It was priced at over a hundred dollars. Charlotte blanched when she saw the price and shook her head, “No way. I can’t do it.”
He shook his head, “No, no, no. That’s what it usually sells for.” He raised his eyebrows again and grinned wide, “Today we have a very special asking price for pretty ladies like you.”
This guy is an idiot. She smiled. “How much?”
“Sixty-five dollars,” he said firmly. “And that’s the lowest I can go. No haggling on this one.”
Charlotte let her eyes wander to the less expensive model under the glass again, and didn’t respond for a couple of minutes. She looked back at The Protector, then shook her head, reluctantly. “Alright, but that’s still more than I wanted to spend.”
His eyes lit up, “I’m going wrap this up for you and put a couple of new batteries in it, so you can use it right away.”
He snatched the gadget from the glass and moved back to the register, “You got yourself a good deal Lady. You need to practice with it though.”
Charlotte could hardly wait to open the package and look at her prize. She sat at the very back of the bus and took the box from her purse, carefully placing it beside her on the seat and debated whether to open it right there or not. The batteries were inside the thing, so she could start using it straight away. The man had also included a small charger for The Protector and told her to plug it in as soon as she got it home.
She could wait no longer and opened the lid, lifted the small black machine from its setting and grabbed the charger attached to the cord and placed it in her purse. The man had told her to be careful not to taser herself. To practice using the thing so that she could get used to it.
Again, she had the feeling that the machine had been made just for her, almost molded to her palm perfectly. It was weighted so that though she knew she carried something, she could hold it for a long while before it became something more than an extension of herself.
There were only ten other people on the bus. Nearest her, were a couple of young people, only paying attention to each other. Two seats up was an older man who looked as if he needed a shower and a meal. A young man in a hooded sweatshirt with a backpack next to him sat near the middle of the bus.
No one paid attention to her. Knocking the box contents to the floor of the bus, she waited until the next stop at the corner of Main and El Dorado. Moving to the seat behind the older man she waited to see if anyone would sit in the seat across from hers and breathed a sigh of relief when no one did.
Feeling The Protector in her hand, it now felt a bit more weighty, as if the thing knew that it was about to be employed. She checked the trigger, at first fumbled, nervous about using it, and heard the buzz. Her skin prickled and a slight vibration in her hand.
Her throat constricted somewhat and she felt her stomach churning. The man had told her to practice. She looked around, saw that no one was watching. With a quick motion her hand was over the seat in front of her and she depressed the trigger. The man jumped at first, then slumped against the seat.
She pulled it back and put the gadget in her purse, then leaned forward to look at the man, appearing to convulse. He pressed up hard against the back of his seat, eyes rolled to the back of his head, his body jerking as if attached to a live wire.
Then he went limp and she saw that he was unconscious with just a bit of drool at the side of his mouth. She took a clean tissue from her purse, leaned closer, wiped his mouth and let the tissue fall to his side.
Now she knew the thing worked. She knew how it worked and could employ it when needed. Still, she would have to work at feeling comfortable with it. Her discomfort level had been high and she wanted The Protector to feel completely natural. She might need to practice more.
That evening as she watched her regular program, she found her eyes drawn to the thing sitting on the table, plugged into the charger. She wanted to practice more. Perhaps there was a place to practice—like shooting ranges—but for tasers. She doubted it, but the idea of practicing thrilled her. She would no longer be afraid walking the streets. In fact, if anything, she would be the one they should be afraid of. Charlotte smiled, clicked off the television and headed for the bedroom, looking forward to the next day.
The morning dawned in Stockton, much like the thousand before it, but this day Charlotte had a spring in her step. She wore jeans to work instead of her regular slacks and a few co-workers made comments about how well she looked.
She rarely drove, but this morning she had moved her Hyundai out of its parking space. She brought extra clothing in case she needed them. The Protector sat snugly at the bottom of her purse with a package of tissue over it.
The day moved quickly and before she knew it, she was back in the car driving down Pacific Avenue toward the Stockton Royal, a theatre that had been spectacular in its heyday, but had now gone the way of old, unkempt buildings with peeling plaster and more repairs than they could afford to make. Now the place showed older movies for a dollar per seat. Sometimes they showed art house movies or had sci-fi marathons. Tonight they had a double feature: Nosferatu and the original Bela Lagosi film of Dracula.
Charlotte stepped inside and purchased a container of popcorn with a small soda. She made her way up the red-carpeted ramp at one side of the theatre and chose a two-seater up a couple of steps from the main seating arrangement.
Despite the disrepair and age of the building, there was a feeling of being in a place that was once plush. A feeling of older elegance hung in the air. Across the massive wall on one side of the theatre, a gazelle sprung from its hiding spot, blue sky behind. Small footlights embedded into the floor along the border of the carpet only allowed enough light to see where one walked.
Only five other people had purchased tickets and they sat entranced by the film. Bela Lagosi swept down steps looking grim, cape fanning out behind him.
She looked up at the projector window and saw no one at the helm. In her younger days she had worked as a projectionist and knew that unless there were problems, that spot would remain empty.
No one sat at the back of the theatre, so she would have to move forward, closer to the screen. The Protector sat firmly in her right hand, fully charged and ready.
Charlotte left her purse, popcorn and soda in the place she would return to. She sat behind a young man who took no notice of her. She could have been a mosquito and got more reaction when she moved behind him.
She glanced up at the projector booth again, saw no one there and quickly pulled the trigger, reaching over the seat as she did it. He jumped once, made a small, throaty sound and fell limp.
She sat down for a minute and leaned forward, looking at him. As the man in the bus had done, the young man’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he appeared to convulse, moving jerkily, back pressed against the seat.
She pulled the seat down behind her and sat for a moment, watching the young man. No one else had even glanced in their direction and she leaned forward, resting her arms on the seat in front of her, she moved her lips close to his ear, “Sorry about that,” she whispered. “I have to get some practice in. You should be fine in a few minutes.”
She went back to her own seat and watched to make sure the young man recovered fully. When she saw him sit up and look around, she felt a sense of relief. At least there was no long term damage, she thought.
Saturday morning Charlotte felt brightened by a sun that finally broke through the slate sky. She stood on the concrete slab of apartment patio, leaning against the iron railing, looking across the parking lot toward the old oaks in the courtyard. Birds sang and squirrels scampered.
She had two days of leisure to squander and decided to spend those days as a hedonist. Walking to a nearby bagel shop, she purchased a couple of slugs, a large cup of latte and strolled home easily, contemplating the past week’s events.
She felt easy, comfortable and without worry. She wanted to make plans for a limitless future. Suddenly, with the force of an explosion inside her head, she knew her future was not mapped. There were choices to be made. She stopped in the middle of the crosswalk with this consideration. Never before had she envisioned that. She had always ridden the wave. Went the way the wind blew her.
Just as suddenly as the thought struck her, so too did the behemoth of a vehicle traveling at a velocity that doubled that of the actual speed limit in the area. The collision of human and machine put Charlotte at a slight disadvantage and she was picked up, traveling through space, her coffee and bagels moving in another direction.
Her head rested against the crimson stained concrete curb that had snapped her neck. The new Hummer that hit her had continued its journey, the driver barely braking upon impact. He had sensed the danger of stopping and put the pedal to the metal, moving away from the scene before anyone had the sense to take his license plate number.
Emergency services made record time, arriving at the scene in less than ten minutes. Gawkers stood outside stores, shaking their heads, while traffic was re-routed and slowed to a crawl.
A small, middle-aged woman walking along the concrete path, stopped for a moment, taking in the tragic scene. On the grass strip alongside the concrete, she noticed a small, dark object. Golden lettering along the top of the object sparkled brilliantly in the bright morning sun.
She glanced at the emergency crew packing up, but no one had seen the taser. She bent over and snatched it up, quickly placing it in her bag before anyone noticed, then continued on her way to the bus stop.