Free Fiction Monday: Parking Space Vigilantes

Free Fiction Monday: Parking Space Vigilantes

Stacy calls herself a Parking Space Vigilante. As a member of the city’s program to ticket able-bodied drivers who park in handicapped spaces, Stacy believes she serves as protector for her small corner of the world from the insensitive, the stupid, and the just plain ignorant.

But when she discovers her nemesis, the driver of a Suburban who insists on parking illegally every time he comes to her neighborhood, Stacy vows to stop him…if he doesn’t stop her first.

“Parking Space Vigilantes,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.

 

 

Parking Space Vigilantes

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

 

Stacy crouched beside the Dumpster and watched as the dark blue Suburban, license number AOB 445, made its way through the crowded parking lot. She couldn’t see the driver behind the tinted glass, but she knew he had to be searching for her, knew he had to be watching.

She was wearing her jogging shorts and her Bay to Breakers T-shirt. Her ticket book was in her fanny pack, along with her pen and her I.D. She clutched a bottle of Gatorade, and waited.

The faint odor of rotted meat blew across her. The nearby Price Choppers wasn’t supposed to use this Dumpster, but often did when theirs was full. She hated those days. Usually she could crouch here, waiting for the Suburban, and smell only the paper waste from the various storefronts in the strip mall. Today was clearly different.

The Suburban slowed in front of the Mongolian barbecue, and her breath caught in her throat. There was an open parking space — narrow, but possible. Maybe, after fifteen tickets, he had finally learned.

Then the Suburban swerved and took its usual place in the handicapped parking space right in front of JoLe’s Stitch and Sew. The passenger side faced Stacy and, although she could hear the driver’s side open, she couldn’t see the person who got out.

Not that she was supposed to. The city’s police department had instructed the volunteers not to get into confrontations with drivers. It’s dangerous enough for police, Chief Danvers had said when he was introduced to the new volunteers. You’re untrained. It had been obvious that he didn’t approve of the new program, mandated by the Legislature, which allowed volunteers to write $250 citations to any able driver who parked in a handicapped spot.

But the moment Stacy had heard of the program, she’d signed up. She went through the training, which included a daylong self-defense course, and she had been on the street ever since. In the past five months, she had issued seventy citations, most of them spotted on her morning run.

Of the seventy, fifteen had gone to good old AOB 445. He had become her private nemesis. There had to be a number of citations at which even 445 would pay attention.

She got up and brushed the parking lot dirt off her bare legs. Her knees were cold. It was warm for April, but the air still had a damp chill.

She tossed her Gatorade into the Dumpster, and jogged toward the Suburban, unzipping her fanny pack as she went. She stopped in front of the Suburban, and pulled out her pen and citation book. The Suburban gleamed, its paint job new, its surface washed and polished. The smoky windshield, which she was sure was not standard, was covered with bugs.

The vehicle was empty, and the engine ticked as it cooled. She bit off the cap to her pen and began to write, feeling a mixture of malicious joy at catching him again, and anger that he wasn’t learning. She had actually complained about him at the station after she had given him his tenth ticket, and the desk sergeant had explained that parking violations didn’t count against a driver unless the driver left the violations unpaid. Apparently 445 had paid every ticket he had received.

She ripped off the ticket and was sticking it between the windshield and the driver’s side wiper when someone grabbed her wrist. The grip was hard and firm, pinching the bones together, cutting off the circulation.

“So you’re the bitch who’s been costing me,” a man’s voice said.

She didn’t move and worked to keep her voice calm, just like she had been instructed. “Let me go please.”

“Not till you take that ticket back.”

She couldn’t see his face, only a shape reflected in the shiny polish on the hood. He smelled of coffee and cologne, and the hand gripping her was manicured.

“I can’t take the ticket back, sir,” she said. All trained words. She had practiced them in front of the mirror until they became rote. She was glad she had. “I am a volunteer with the police department under the program instituted by the state. We’re in charge of issuing handicapped parking citations. Did you realize you were parking in a handicapped zone?”

“You don’t look like a cop,” he said, his voice against her ear.

“I’m not.” She felt her heart rate increase, but she worked to control her breathing, just like she would at the end of a long race. “I’m a volunteer with the department. We have the authority to issue —”

“I got that,” he said. “But you’re not a cop.”

“I don’t have that authority, no,” she said. “But any kind of assault against me when I’m doing my duties will be prosecuted as if you were assaulting a police officer.”

He let go of her as if he had been burned. She turned. Half of his face was obscured by aviator sunglasses. He was white, a few inches taller than she was, and slightly thick through the middle. His red hair had a stylish cut, and he wore a tasteful gray suit. His sunglasses didn’t quite go with the package, the reflective lenses a bit too Hollywood for the Northwest. She saw two versions of herself in them, a slight wiry dark-haired woman with wider-than-usual brown eyes.

“Just don’t park in the handicapped spots any more, sir,” she said, “and you won’t get any tickets.”

“I never got any until you came along.”

She nodded. “The police department is understaffed for this sort of thing. That’s why they’re using us.”

“I can park wherever I want.”

“Actually, no,” she said. “These are restricted —”

“I don’t care,” he said. “I should be able to park wherever I want.”

“Sir, have you ever been with a disabled person? Do you know how —”

“I don’t care about your fucking politics,” he said. “I just don’t want your filthy hands on my car again. Is that clear?”

She swallowed. The dual faces reflected on the lenses looked a bit startled, maybe even frightened. “Is that a threat, sir?” she asked.

He made a sound of disgust, grabbed the ticket and opened his car door. It swung so hard in her direction that it would have hit her if she hadn’t stepped backwards. He started the Suburban, and she backed away as its engine roared. She thought she saw him grin through the smoky glass, then he backed up and sped out of the parking lot.

She waited until he turned onto Fischer Road before she sat down on the curb. Her entire body was shaking. She had never been so terrified in her life.

“Are you all right, miss?” a man asked. He was small, bald, of indeterminate age. He spoke with a slight European accent. He stood in the door of the drycleaners next to the sewing shop.

“I think so,” she said.

“He looked angry.”

“He did, didn’t he?”

“But you’re all right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”

The man let himself back in the shop.

She clutched her wrist. It ached. She moved it around. 445 hadn’t broken anything, but bruises were already beginning to start. She had to report this. She winced. This was the very thing that Chief Danvers had mentioned when he met the volunteers. It would give him, and people like him, ammunition in shutting down the program.

But, if she didn’t report it, and things got worse, that would be ammunition too. And Jones would take care of it. Lieutenant Everett Jones liked the program. He saw it as a way to solve a problem that he believed was growing worse.

With a sigh, she got to her feet, stretched, and continued her morning jog, taking a detour from the usual route to stop at the police station.

 

***

 

Stacy arrived at the station out of breath, her legs aching. She had forgotten how far it was and she had also forgotten about the winding hill that the station sat on top of.

The police station was a gray and glass 1950s monstrosity that somehow managed to survive two riots and one disgruntled sharpshooter. The city kept replacing the front windows, now made of bulletproof glass, but could never find the funds to build a new police station. She walked past the rows of bicycle racks — used only by the bike patrols — and let herself in the double doors.

Behind yet another wall of bulletproof glass sat the desk sergeant. She was tall and built like a wrestler, her wiry blond hair badly in need of a comb. She smiled when she saw Stacy, and slowly that smile turned into a frown.

“You all right?” the sarge asked.

Stacy nodded. “I do need to make a report, though.”

The sarge buzzed Stacy into the back. Stacy steeled her shoulders, and made her way through the narrow corridor that led to the offices. She didn’t really want to see Jones. He had made it clear when she was training that he was interested. She hadn’t been, not because he was unattractive, but because she wasn’t ready. She didn’t know if she’d ever want a relationship again.

Jones’ position as head of volunteer traffic division entitled him to one of the tiny offices toward the back, paid for by the state. He was a cop but, he had once told her, he appreciated the privacy that the office provided. He didn’t like mingling in the squad room, trying to deal with the chaos and do his job.

She rapped on the frosted glass of his open door. Jones looked up. He had an angular face, not handsome, but strong. His blue eyes seemed to see everything.

“You all right, Stace?” he asked.

She nodded and slipped inside. One scarred wooden chair sat across from the desk, piled high with thick manila file folders. Behind Jones was a single window that opened onto the parking lot. His ancient computer hummed on the desk. He pushed his chair back to watch her come in.

“So what is it?” he asked, and she told him. Jones frowned as he listened, examined Stacy’s wrist, and sighed.

“I was afraid this would happen eventually,” he said. “I’m sorry it had to be to you.”

“It’s all right,” she said, even though it wasn’t. Retelling the story raised an anger she hadn’t realized she was feeling. “Why can’t you just arrest this guy?”

“We will now,” Jones said. “Assaulting you is enough to bring him in. I can’t guarantee he’ll stay though.”

“I reported him before. Ten violations. I don’t understand why his license wasn’t taken away.”

Jones punched the computer keyboard and pulled up a screen. “He’s been paying his fines. We can’t do anything to a man’s license based on parking violations. We need moving violations for that, and on those he’s clean.”

“Who is he?” Stacy asked.

Jones looked at her around the screen. “You know better than that.”

“I just figured, since he and I have had an encounter, I have a right to know.”

Jones smiled slightly. “Nice try. But you’re in charge of the tickets. If you find out who the perp is, if they tell you, fine. Otherwise, you need to let this go. It makes for an easier time in court.”

Stacy sighed. She had hated that rule from the beginning, but Jones had explained, during training, why it was in place. Chief Danvers didn’t believe in the new legislation creating the volunteers. He was afraid volunteers would take matters into their own hands, following a car home, issuing verbal warnings, doing things no trained officer would ever do.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “Any sane person would stop using the handicapped spaces. You’d think after that many fines —”

“Damn near four thousand dollars worth,” Jones muttered.

“—he’d give up.”

“Some folks get stubborn. They think it’s a minor thing, and they’re being harassed, so they get belligerent instead of changing. Street cops see it all the time.” Jones pushed away from the desk with one hand. His chair squeaked. “Maybe you should lay off him a while. I’ll send a traffic cop to the area. What time did you say he does this?”

“It’s not every day, but when he does, it’s between 8 and 9, and it’s always the same spot.” She shivered. The sweat had dried on her skin and she was not dressed for the regulated temperatures inside the station. “Of course, I don’t know where he works. He might use the handicapped spot there as well.”

“He’s just probably a rich bastard who figures the world exists for him. You’re getting in the way of his convenient parking space.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe.”

“You know,” Jones said, “it sounds like it’s getting personal for you too. Maybe you should lay off a little, not worry so much about this guy. Pick a new route. I bet you’ll find a dozen new violators.”

“I like my route,” she said.

“I don’t like the way this guy treated you,” Jones said. “Let it rest a while.”

“But you said you’d bring him in.”

“And I said I wasn’t sure how long we could hold him. You do an I.D., he’s got bail money — which he probably does — and bango, he and his fancy handgun are waiting for you at his favorite handicap space. I don’t want that on my conscience.”

She shivered again, but this time it wasn’t from the cold. “You think he’d do that?”

“I been in this job a long time, Stace,” Jones said. “I seen things that most folks couldn’t imagine. Which is a long way of saying, yeah. I just think he might.”

“I don’t get it. Why would a man like that defend a parking space?”

“Why do you?” Jones asked.

She looked at him. “I’m keeping it clear for people who need it.”

“Maybe he figures he does.”

“I saw him. He’s not disabled.”

Jones placed a finger beneath her palm and gently lifted her hand. The wrist had turned black and blue with bits of purple. Fingermarks were clearly visible against her pale skin. “You don’t question it, Stace,” Jones said. “You just figure it’s as important to him as it is to you.”

She stared at her bruises. Jones flattened his palm beneath hers, then squeezed her fingers lightly. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get a picture of that for the D.A. We’ll do the best we can to make a case against this guy stick.”

But she knew he had said that last just to placate her. He had been right before. If 445, whoever he was, had enough money that he’d keep paying fines rather than alter his behavior, he would have enough cash to make bail.

He had a different agenda, and for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what it was.

 

***

 

Stacy knew what her agenda was. She made a joke of it when people asked. She was a Parking Space Vigilante, protecting her small corner of the world from the insensitive, the stupid, and the just plain ignorant. She couldn’t do much to affect things around her, but she could do this.

But beneath the joke was a bit of the truth. She was protecting her corner of the world. The legislature had given her the opportunity, and she had taken it. It was the least she could do.

Her life was quiet otherwise. She owned a small graphic design company that had mostly local, mostly familiar, accounts. Her work left her time for her running, which she did with a single-minded intensity. She had a lot of friends, but most of them were runners, and most she had met in out-of-town events. She exchanged a lot of e-mail, did a lot of visiting when she traveled, and often saw no one but her running partners when she was home. She hadn’t been close to anyone since Colin was alive.

Colin. He’d contracted polio when he was five, spent the next year in an iron lung, and emerged on his seventh birthday, muscles atrophied, unable to walk, but alive. All that mattered, he used to say when someone asked him about the experience, is that I survived.

His life had been so different from hers. She hadn’t realized it until his car broke down shortly after she met him. He asked her to take him to a few doctor’s appointments in her van. Apparently she had been the only person he knew with a vehicle large enough to accommodate him and his scooter.

She drove him everywhere, hanging the blue-and-white temporary handicapped permit from her rearview mirror, and helping him when he would let her. He was a large man with a massive upper body and stick-thin legs, a warm laugh, and the kindest eyes she had ever seen. Only, when she had to help him from the car, or when she had to walk an extra block with him just so that he could use the curbless ramp that allowed him to take his scooter from street to sidewalk, those eyes turned away from her, hard and dull and lifeless. He had been embarrassed by the struggle, and determined to do everything himself.

After a time, she had accepted that.

But, from then on, she saw the little indignities, the way he struggled to survive in a world that didn’t suit him, how even going in and out of a building became a chore. As their friendship grew, she came to appreciate the sense of humor that had become his armor, the way he could look at the smallest problem and see how funny it could be. As they became lovers, she shared the irony with him: She runs, he used to say as a way of deflecting questions, so I don’t have to.

 

***

 

That afternoon, Jones called. They had picked up 445, and had him at the station. They wanted her to come down and choose him out of a lineup.

She had done that before, when she had seen one of her violators hold up a liquor store. The drill was familiar to her — the small room, the one-way glass, the look-alikes paraded in as if they had all done something wrong.

Still, she recognized 445 right away, even though he wasn’t wearing his aviator shades. Something about his chin, his posture, clued her, but it was his styled red hair and manicured hands, so obviously soft even from her vantage, that gave him away.

The next morning, she started on her usual run, but changed her mind. Instead, she went in the opposite direction, going downhill to start, and then running the track near the high school. The route wasn’t as fulfilling as her usual one, but she agreed with Jones: there was no reason to tempt fate. Chances were 445 had gotten off on bail, and he would be looking for her, waiting for her. Besides, Jones had promised to post a black-and-white near 445’s usual handicapped spot. The real police would take care of this.

For two weeks, she ran the new route, knowing she wasn’t getting the workout she wanted. But she hadn’t gotten the workout she wanted for nearly two years. The best route wasn’t east to the strip mall or west to the high school, but south to the winding river paths just off the highway. She never went that direction. Colin had died there, near the turn-off into the Gidana Park, and every time she ran past, she saw the scooter, a hunk of twisted metal against the sewer grate, and Colin crumpled in the middle of the road. She didn’t even drive that route any more.

So she stayed with her unsatisfying workout. Jones had warned her that 445 might not go to trial for six months, maybe a year, and Stacy had to find a new route before that. She finally decided to drive across town, pick up some of the riverside trails from one of the other parks. If she liked that route, she could park her car in one of the city lots and make the round trip in a neighborhood she hadn’t run through before.

With her car, she mapped out a route that would take her the normal five miles of her easy jaunt. She would do her longer route closer to home. The route was half on the roads leading to the river and half in Riverside Park. When she scoped the area out, she saw other runners, a lot of women alone, and cyclists, and knew this was the path for her.

She tried it on a Wednesday morning. The sun was bright, and the birds were chirping. The air had warmed considerably, and promised a hot day ahead. She parked her car in the city lot, in the corner nearest the park, put her keys in her fanny pack along with her ticket book, pen, and identification. She grabbed her Gatorade, and tucked it in the loop specially made for water bottles on her pack. After a few stretches, she was ready to go.

Running in a new neighborhood always made her nervous. Houses she didn’t recognize, strange faces, dogs that could be friendly or hostile were all potential hazards on this first run. She went against traffic along Riverside Parkway, and then turned onto a side street that provided her the best coverage to the park.

There was almost no traffic here, and an excellent trail next to the shoulder on the right. She crossed the road, and took the trail, happy to be on soft dirt instead of asphalt. A drainage ditch was between the path and the lawns, a ditch flanked by trees that stood like sentries on the roadside. The only houses were tucked way back on large lots with long driveways leading to them.

It was the old section of town which had once been the wealthy section, and it still had that 19th century quietness. She was beginning to relax into the run, to enjoy the sound of her own breathing, her feet pounding the dirt, when she heard an engine roar behind her.

If she hadn’t been slightly on alert anyway, if she hadn’t been watching for dogs and other unexpected hazards, she wouldn’t have turned when she did. She saw the wide front bumper of a dark blue Suburban bearing down on her and she leapt toward the drainage ditch. The Suburban caught her right foot, twisting it sideways and back, slamming her against the muddy wall of the ditch and down into the dirty water.

Pain shot through her. Above her, she heard the Suburban’s engine fade as he drove away.

The water was icy cold. Her heart was pounding. She had to get out of the ditch before he came back. She glanced up. The walls of the ditch were too high to get out of easily, and she couldn’t run once she reached the top anyway. She knew this pain. It was too sharp, too excruciating, to be anything simple.

She listened for a long moment, and heard only silence. The same silence she had heard before. The silence she had enjoyed.

She brought her good leg beneath her, used her arms to push herself onto that foot, and bit back a scream as some of her weight went to her injured ankle. Standing, her head barely came out of the ditch. He would have been a fool if he had tried to drive down here. Maybe he had other plans. Jones’ words echoed through her mind.

You do an I.D., he’s got bail money — which he probably does — and bango, he and his fancy handgun are waiting for you at his favorite handicap space.

She didn’t know how he had found her here. This wasn’t her regular route.

But she was wearing her regular clothes. Her jogging shorts, her T-shirt, her fanny pack. He would have recognized her. He had seen her, followed her, taken his chance.

She moaned, put her hands on the tree-side of the bank and pulled herself up. The house down the lawn looked like it was fifty miles away. Maybe a hundred. Maybe two hundred. She had to get there. She couldn’t remain here waiting for him to come back.

She started to hop, felt the pain each time her body jolted, and then decided that her pride wasn’t worth the agony. She eased herself on her stomach and half-pulled, half-crawled across that thousand-mile expanse of well-tended grass.

By the time she reached the newly painted front porch, black spots were dancing in front of her eyes. She managed to pull herself up the steps and pound on the screen door before she passed out.

 

***

 

When she came to in a white and gold hospital room, with a rerun of Happy Days blaring on the television set behind her roommate’s vomit-green curtain, it was Jones who sat beside her bed. He looked haggard, as if he hadn’t slept in days, and he wore civilian clothes, which made him seem shorter somehow. He was the one who told her that her right leg had been snapped in four places, that her leg had to be elevated for several days, and that running was out of the question, at least for the next few months.

“Did you get him?” she asked, when Jones had finished, not wanting to think about what he’d said.

“No one saw the accident,” Jones said. “You were incoherent when Mrs. Tysel opened the door.”

“I saw the accident,” Stacy said. “It was the Suburban. He rammed me.”

“He followed you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I heard his engine, turned, and saw him, right at the moment of impact.”

“You were incoherent,” Jones said.

She shook her head. “Not then. Not for a while. I landed in the ditch. I remember crawling across the lawn.”

“The Suburban,” Jones said. “You’re sure.”

“Positive,” she said.

He nodded. “You’ll get out in a week. I’ll tell the D.A. I have a hunch he’ll want to see you.”

 

***

 

The District Attorney’s office was a reminder of how things hadn’t changed. Jones had driven Stacy there — he was being kinder than friendship required — and she had found the ride in his squad painful. She wore a cast that ran from her thigh to her foot, filled with steel rods and wire to hold it in place. The accident hadn’t just snapped her leg, it had created microfractures all through the bones. So for them to heal, she had to keep her leg completely immobile, a task that was proving harder than she thought.

The D.A.’s office was on the fifth floor. Even with her crutches, she still found the trip hazardous. The elevator had a metal lip in front of its door. The hallways weren’t very wide, and every doorway had a wooden threshold.

Reginald Bentley, the D.A. was waiting for them. He, at least, had had someone bring in a wide upholstered chair that had enough room for Stacy’s cast. She must have turned pale from the long walk through the narrow hallways; Jones was hovering, continually asking her if she was all right.

Bentley was a thin man, so thin he reminded her of a twig. He didn’t look that spindly on television. His dark hair was receding and he wore tiny round glasses that gave his bony face a look of intelligence that it probably wouldn’t have had without them.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill,” Bentley said. “If I had known how much pain you were in, I would have come to you.”

She was breathing hard, and that embarrassed her. A little over a week ago, she had been in perfect shape. Now she couldn’t get across a building without exhausting herself.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m still not used to the cast.”

Bentley glanced at Jones, and she didn’t like the look. It communicated something — annoyance? Regret? — that she wasn’t quite able to catch.

“I understand you believe you were hit by Peter Taylor. Do you want to tell me what you can remember?”

Peter Taylor. A name, finally. An innocuous one. Who would think someone named Peter Taylor could be so malicious?

She squared her shoulders, told Bentley of her accident, and her memory of the Suburban. Then she started recounting her earlier run-in with Taylor, but Bentley held up his hand to stop her.

“I have the file on that,” he said. “And frankly, some of this troubles me.”

A pain shot through her leg, and she clamped her jaw together so that she would have no visible reaction. The shooting pains were common, the doctors told her, at least for the first few weeks. No sense in letting Bentley think that she was responding to his words.

“It should bother you,” Jones said. He was standing behind her, still hovering. “This guy’s a pig.”

“You’ll get no argument with me on that.” Bentley leaned against the desk and crossed his arms. “The problem is that I don’t think we can pursue this case.”

“What?” Stacy asked.

“I’ve been going over the file. Did you see his license number when he hit you, Ms. Hill?”

“No,” she said. “He came at me from behind.”

“Then how did you know you were hit by a Suburban? You said you flattened yourself and dove for the ditch. You couldn’t have seen a car from that position.”

“Reg,” Jones said.

Bentley shot Jones a warning look.

“I told you,” Stacy said. “I heard the engine and looked over my shoulder.”

“Seconds before,” Bentley said.

“Yes,” Stacy said.

“Isn’t it true that in the blur of an accident, you only saw the general size, shape and color of the vehicle and assumed it was a Suburban?”

“No,” she said. “What are you doing? I thought you were going to go after this guy.”

Bentley sighed and shook his head once, a very small movement, almost as if he were reluctant to show it. “That’s my point, Ms. Hill. There were no other witnesses.”

“Surely you could find a dent on his Suburban,” she said. “He hit me hard enough to destroy my leg.”

Bentley glanced at her cast, then his gaze moved back to her eyes. “You want to answer that, Lieutenant?”

Behind her, Jones sighed. “I went to see Taylor after we found you,” he said. “The vehicle was newly washed and there were no dents. But those SUVs have huge bumpers and it didn’t hit you straight on. Chances are, even if he did hit you, the accident wouldn’t have damaged the vehicle in any meaningful way.”

Stacy was shaking, although she didn’t know if it was from anger or exhaustion or both. “But you already have the case against him, right? The one he made bail on.”

“I’m thinking,” Bentley said softly, “of dropping those charges.”

“What?” Stacy half turned in her chair to look at Jones’s face, then winced as another pain shot through her leg. “You agree with him?”

“No,” Jones said. “But he’s done this to me before.”

“The problem, Ms. Hill, is that this entire case is based on your word against his, and frankly, I don’t think we can win this.”

“Why not?” Stacy asked. “He had fifteen parking violations. He bruised my wrist. Jones took pictures of the injury. He threatened me, for godssake. This guy is a menace.”

“Yes, he is,” Bentley said. “But he’s also a rich menace who can afford a good attorney.”

“So what?” she asked. “Does that mean rich people don’t need to be prosecuted?”

“No,” Bentley said, “but there are only so many cases my office can afford to prosecute. We have to pick cases we believe we can win.”

“So win this one.”

“It’s not that easy,” Bentley said. “I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, but a good attorney would eat you for lunch.”

Stacy’s heart was pounding like it had when she had been running from the Suburban. “You can’t be sure of that.”

“I’m a good attorney,” Bentley said. “I’ve been looking at the files. I can show you exactly how he’d do it.”

“Sure,” she said, bracing herself.

“Stace, I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Jones said. “You’re still recuperating. Reg, don’t do this.”

“I have a hunch Ms. Hill wants to prove that I’m wrong,” Bentley said.

“You are,” Stacy said.

Bentley glanced at Jones again. There was no malice in this look, only a bit of sorrow, as if he’d dealt with recalcitrant people before and disliked it. “All right, Ms. Hill. Remember that you will have taken an oath to tell the truth.”

“I’ll tell you the truth,” she said. There was an edge in her voice she hadn’t ever heard before.

Bentley cleared his throat, then stood. He suddenly looked formidable, a branch instead of a twig. “Ms. Hill, would you please tell the court how you describe your volunteer position with the police department?”

She swallowed. The cadences of his voice were different, formal, as if they really were in a courtroom. She took a deep breath, and said, “I’m a volunteer with the ability to write $250 citations to anyone who parks illegally in a handicapped zone.”

“No, Ms. Hill,” Bentley said. “How do you jokingly refer to your volunteer position?”

Her face heated. She couldn’t control the flush and she knew it was a deep one. “I call myself a Parking Space Vigilante.”

“Vigilante,” he repeated softly, turning to Jones, who was apparently playing the part of a juror.

Jones grunted. Stacy heard disgust in the sound.

“You used to live with a man named Colin Penhall,” Bentley said. “Is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

“He died two years ago?”

“Yes.” Damn the flush. It was so deep it burned into her skin.

“He was considered disabled, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“He had polio as a child. It took most of the use of his legs.”

“And he had a handicapped license plate.”

She swallowed. “Yes.”

“Maybe this shouldn’t go any farther.” Jones put a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you stop, Stace?”

She shook her head. She was in the middle of this. She still wasn’t convinced that Bentley was right.

“How did Mr. Penhall die?”

A shiver ran through her that Jones obviously felt. He squeezed her shoulder as if in reassurance. “He was in an intersection,” she said, “crossing with the light. A car ran a red and killed him.”

There was a time when she couldn’t say that so calmly.

“But Mr. Penhall shouldn’t have been in that intersection, should he, Ms. Hill? At least that’s what you said to the local paper that day, didn’t you?”

Her back hurt. Her leg hurt. She wanted to move around. “Yes,” she whispered. “I said that.”

“Why did you say that?”

“Because he was going to the park, and the lot was full, so he had to park his car on the street.”

“That isn’t all of it, though, is it, Ms. Hill? What other factor was involved? What made you tell that reporter that Mr. Penhall shouldn’t have been in that intersection?”

“The handicapped parking spots were full too,” she said.

“Filled with what kind of car?” he asked.

“I don’t know the make and model,” she said, deliberately misunderstanding him.

“But you do know something specific about those cars,” he said. “What is it?”

She took a deep breath. “They were illegally parked. Their owners weren’t handicapped.”

“The Parking Space Vigilante,” he said, and nodded toward her. “Thank you.”

Her whole body was shaking. Jones hadn’t taken his hand from her shoulder. The warmth of his palm kept her upright.

“Jesus,” Jones said. “Was that necessary?”

Maybe it was. She had thought she could stand up to anything. But Bentley had just shown her how her own words could be twisted to prove an entirely different point.

Bentley ignored Jones and crouched before her. “I’m sorry, Ms. Hill. I was going light. Any attorney Taylor hires will do that and more. A jury will think you targeted Taylor, that you shouldn’t have been chosen as a volunteer for the program.”

“She’s one of our best,” Jones said.

“I don’t doubt that,” Bentley said. “But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not we take this case to court. And I don’t think we can.”

“You only take cases you can win?” she asked, her voice shaky. She willed it to behave. She willed her entire body to behave, but she felt as if she had lost control of it since the accident.

“I have to draw a line somewhere,” Bentley said.

“A sure thing is where you draw the line? Can’t you trust that a jury will see through Taylor and his attorney?”

Bentley shook his head. “Personally, I believe you, Ms. Hill, and I think we need to get Taylor off the street. But we have to do it in a way that will stick.”

“And my word against his won’t stick.”

“I’m sorry.”

She glanced at Jones. “No one else saw the accident? No one saw him hit me?”

He shook his head. “We couldn’t find anyone, Stace. Sorry.”

“So what do we do?” she asked. “Let him go on with his life, feeling free to terrorize people whenever he wants to?”

“We keep a close eye on him,” Jones said. “We hope he slips up again, and this time we catch him.”

“We caught him the last time,” she said. “I caught him.”

She grabbed her crutches and struggled out of the chair. Bentley reached for her, to help her, and she shook her head hard. She didn’t want his help.

“What happens to me now?” she asked. “He’ll keep coming after me.”

“I doubt it,” Bentley said. “I think the attack on you near Riverside Way was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He’ll find someone else to target his rage on soon.”

“And maybe we’ll get lucky,” she said, swinging her way to the door. “Maybe he’ll kill that person and there’ll be a witness. A murder case. One you can win.”

“Ms. Hill —”

“Spare me,” she said, and made her slow way into the narrow hall. It was hard to maneuver she was shaking so hard. She wanted to run away from that office, but she couldn’t.

She couldn’t run any more.

Jones caught up with her. “He does that to us all the time.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“It’s supposed to make us work harder, I guess.”

She looked at him. He seemed younger, a little vulnerable. “Do you agree with him? Do you think Taylor will come after me?”

“No,” Jones said. “He doesn’t know who you are. We don’t give out the names of our volunteers, and we kept your name out of the papers when the accident happened. He knows you by sight, by your jogging clothes, probably. He won’t come after you again.”

“Until I start running again.”

“Maybe by then, we’ll have him.”

She stared at Jones. They both knew that would probably never happen.

 

***

 

He drove her home and she almost invited him in. But she was in pain, and she wanted to be alone, and she was so angry she wanted to take it out on anyone near.

Her home was a small bungalow near her design shop. The bungalow had been remodeled with Colin in mind, and the wide doors, the flat floors without rugs that bunched, the single level, all made her life easier now. She didn’t need a caretaker to help her get around, like the doctors first thought she would.

She stood in the kitchen. It had been built with Colin in mind. The sink and counters were low, so that they could be reached from a wheelchair. The refrigerator and stove were larger models she bought after Colin had died.

They spent a lot of time in this room, Colin cooking something scrumptious, and Stacy sitting by the large windows which overlooked her garden. She looked at the garden now. The spring flowers were just beginning to emerge. A birdbath sat in the middle of her flowerbed and a robin splashed in the water.

Vigilante. She couldn’t get Bentley’s voice out of her head. Parking Space Vigilante. She had been making a joke. Everyone knew that. She had been making a joke.

Vigilantes were people who took the law into their own hands, to see that their own brand of justice, right or wrong, was carried out. She wasn’t a vigilante.

Peter Taylor was.

She shivered. He was the one who believed the laws didn’t apply to him, and when she pointed that out with ticket after ticket, he had gone after her. He was angry at her for interfering with his life, and he had devised his own punishment for her, something he felt was just. He used his vehicle to punish her, just as she was using it — at least in his twisted mind — to punish him.

She would never forget that first encounter, seeing her own face reflected small in his aviator lenses. His anger had frightened her. She had never carried mace on her runs, but she had after that.

And she hadn’t been overreacting. It had become personal, yes, but not because of Colin’s death. Maybe that had been why she had volunteered in the first place, maybe that was why she worked as hard as she did. The fight with Taylor had become personal because she couldn’t believe how stubborn he was, and why he kept fighting for a cause that showed him so obviously in the wrong.

Even the old man had found Taylor outrageous. The old man—

Her breath caught in her throat. The old man. She hadn’t remembered him. Until now.

 

***

 

“Nice work,” Jones said the next morning. He was seated at her kitchen table, drinking a mug filled with strong black tea because she didn’t have any coffee. He looked at home there, his legs stretched out before him, his head leaning against the back of the chair.

Stacy was standing — once she had gotten used to the crutches pushing on her pits, it was actually more comfortable than sitting down. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You remembered the old guy. That helped. Bentley’s going to make a case against Taylor after all.”

“For assaulting me?”

“While you were writing the ticket.” Jones turned to her. “Sorry. We still can’t find anyone to verify the hit-and-run.”

She swallowed. “What’ll Taylor get if he’s convicted?”

“Dunno. Might be the same as assaulting a police officer. Might just be community service. But what he will get is continued vigilance from the department, just like he has been getting since he touched you. A guy doesn’t touch one of our own without hearing about it one way or another.”

Her arms were getting tired after all. She made her way to a chair. “What do you mean?”

Jones shrugged. “He’s got three more tickets since you were in the hospital. And he’s been stopped a lot, mostly let off with warnings, but we managed to catch him speeding yesterday.”

“You were doing this without Bentley?”

“Like I said, the D.A. can only prosecute so many cases. He picks the ones he can win. We pick the ones we can stop.”

“You think Taylor’s scared?”

“Not yet,” Jones said. “But he will be. The thing is, him and that car, they’re like a team. Whenever he gets behind the wheel, he forgets there’s other folks in the world. As long as he does that, we’ll watch him.”

“Is that legal?” she asked.

“As long as he keeps making violations, sure.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Then Bentley’s got him. That old drycleaner, he was scared to death by the look on Taylor’s face. Said he saw murder there.” Jones sipped his tea, and studied her for a moment. Then he said, “You know, you won’t get an apology from Bentley for treating you that way in his office.”

“I know.”

“But don’t be surprised if he asks you about your accident on the stand.”

“I thought he wasn’t going to prosecute that.”

“He won’t. But like he showed you, it’s all in what the witness will say. All you have to do is be honest.”

“Honest?” she asked.

Jones nodded. “When he asks you how you broke your leg, you can say —”

“That I was in a hit-and-run accident when I was jogging. A dark blue Suburban speeding on a side street slammed into me.”

Jones leaned his head back. “You got it now. That same jury, the one that wouldn’t listen to you before, would hear that and put it in the back of their minds. Taylor’s lawyer won’t like it, but he won’t be able to do nothing about it since you didn’t accuse nobody.”

She sighed. She wanted to go back to issuing citations and not worrying about court. Court, with its games and its emphasis on winning and losing, was not a place she wanted to be.

“I’d still like to volunteer for the department,” she said, “if you’ll have me. I may not be a reliable witness. I have vigilante leanings, I guess.”

“Vigilante my ass,” Jones said. “It was a court argument.”

“Still, it might be again.”

Jones shook his head. “You’re the best we got, girl. If we had more who cared like you did, this program might work.”

“To the chief’s dismay.”

“To his delight. Keeps his officers going after more important things. He was just worried, you know, about the kind of dangers we were putting citizens in.” Jones took his mug and cradled it against his chest. “And maybe now I’m worried about that too.”

“Because of me?”

“Because of Taylor.”

She ran a hand over her cast. It still felt strange, something hard and plastic where her skin should be. Did Taylor make her afraid? Of course. But he made her afraid of him, not of doing her volunteer work.

“I’m not worried,” she said. “People are complex, but most of them aren’t mean.”

“Don’t know how you can say that, sitting there, unable to run,” Jones said.

She looked at the sink, lowered so that someone in a wheelchair could use it. If she closed her eyes, she could still see Colin there, whipping up one of his famous three-course dinners. “I guess I learned from a friend that you don’t look back on the bad. You just try to make things better.”

“Sounds like your friend was an idealist,” Jones said.

She shook her head. Colin would be grinning, winking at her, sharing the joke.

“Oh, no,” she said. “He was no idealist. He understood reality better than anyone I’d ever met.”

 

 

Parking Space Vigilantes
Copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2000
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2021 by WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Greg Randles/Dreamstime

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