“Mom, I think we are being followed,” Tommy said.
The two boys were in the back seat. Charles was backing out of the driveway on our way to my mom’s house to celebrate Mother’s Day. I flipped down the vanity mirror and scanned the road behind us.
Tommy unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned across the backseat. He tapped my shoulder and pointed at the tree shaded alley across from our carport. “A car backed out of the other end of alley, ” he said.
The dirt alley had once been paved with shells, but now was so rutted with thick roots no one drove through it. The only people I could remember parking there were private investigators, hired to do surveillance on me and my family. “It’s probably someone parked there for Mother’s Day.” I said, hoping I was right.
I looked over at Charles. He had stopped and was looking in the rear-view mirror. Charles was one of those people who had to confirm something from every angle before he would believe it. With no proof, I suspected that he thought I was paranoid. We had had several ugly fights over the negative effect “the lawsuit” was having on the kids. Most of the time, he seemed to ignore me or change the subject whenever I thought someone was watching us too closely, or was asking too many questions. Charles finally told me why he thought I was "over-reacting" after I told him about the man and woman in a brown van who had followed me for the third time.
The brown van turned behind me into the Winn Dixie parking lot. I expected the man and woman to wait in the van until I came out of the grocery store. At least that is what all the other private investigators had done. While reaching for a can on the shelf, I heard the soft click and whir of a camera shutter behind me, followed by the shuffle of shoes on the floor.
The next time I heard the camera shutter I snapped my head around and glimpsed the dark haired man from the van slip behind the aisle. I left my cart and hurried around the aisle to confront the man, but could not see him anywhere. After finishing my shopping, I drove to five more stores and circled the parking lots, dragging the van along so I could get a better description of the car, its occupants, and the license tag.
By the time Charles got home from work that day I was livid. The kids were watching television, so I slipped out to the carport and met Charles as he was getting out of the car. I described the details as he pulled his briefcase and other items from the car. Charles seemed detracted or unconcerned.
Dismayed and flushed with anger, I said, “Charles. Look at me." When he looked up, I said, "Did you hear a word of what I said? What if the kids had been with me?”
“Are you sure it was the same car?” Charles asked, leaning in to lock the car doors.
“Am I sure?" I spun around and stomped toward the front door, then turned around and faced Charles. “Is that all you have to say?” Charles looked tired as he shuffled his briefcase and lunch box to reach around me for the door knob. I moved my body to the side to block his hand. “What does it take to convince you?” Charles looked worn out from his stressful job and weary from his hour-long commute. I suddenly felt guilty for hitting him cold with the details of my day.
“I know how hard this is to believe,” I said, my anger fading. “But I was followed and photographed in the grocery store today.” I sighed and tried to relax. “I’ll call Judy tomorrow and tell her to get the judge to stop this. There has to be some protection for the kids and me.” My shoulders sunk. Looking out toward the street, my words came out in sobs, “I don’t feel safe anywhere and I’m afraid. They’ve come to the door, interrogated the kids, and I suspect they’ve followed and photographed them too.”
Charles sat his briefcase down and pulled me to him, holding my head against his shoulder.
“What’s next?” I said, pulling away and wiping away my tears. I didn’t want to the boys to know I’d been crying. I sniffed then swallowed. “I’m sure there is some kind of legal protection for us. Just because I filed a lawsuit doesn’t mean my family loses our Constitutional rights and protection from stalkers, invasion of privacy, or harassment.”
Charles handed me a clean handkerchief then brushed my damp hair back and kissed my forehead. “This is probably not the right time to tell you this.” he said. “I wouldn't call Judy. I called Judy last week and told her that you thought you and the kids had been followed.”
I thought I was being followed? I swallowed and looked at him. “What did she say?”
“She laughed and said, ‘Nancy has an active imagination,’”
My body tightened with rage, but Charles held me back from going inside. I heard footsteps inside and Brandon opened the door. We both smiled at him. “Just catching a few hugs,” I said, then walked into the house to put dinner on the table.
The only way to my Mom’s house in Gulfport, was a ninety- minute drive south on Highway 49, a dangerous four-laned road. Experience with the private investigators in the brown van had taught me that we’d have to lose the P.I. before we got to Highway 49. First, I had to convince Charles to change our route so we could ascertain we were being followed. If Tommy and I were wrong about the gray car, then Charles would believe what Judy had told him, and confirm his fear that I had caused the kids to become paranoid.
Charles shifted into drive, then glanced in the rear-view mirror. He had never been tailed, so had no idea how to outsmart and outrun a professional investigator. I turned around, "Tommy, buckle your seat-belt," I said. He had been looking out the back windshield. I knew he was looking for the second P. I. car.
Brandon glanced at his Dad, then at me. He shook his head, indicating he had not seen anything. Brandon had spent almost his entire life afraid that the people following me might harm me. It saddened and angered me that my two sons had know no other life than that of suspicion and distrust, worrying that the next person at the door, or the next driver would be the one to try to harm us.
We had adapted to being followed, photographed, videoed, and the embarrassment from the interrogation of our neighbors and friends. None the less, I worried about psychological impact on my sons from a lifetime of always looking over their shoulders and questioning anything out of the normal. I tried to rationalize that the boys were learning the Constitution and Bill of Rights imbibed by their teachers was a facade. It was frightening to learn that in the real world, private investigated weren’t always the “good guys.” Sometimes they were the “bad guys,” mercenaries who slid under the law to stalk, harass and invade the privacy of anyone.
“Charles, slow down a little,” I said, scanning the mirrors and streets for suspicious cars.
“What’s wrong?” Charles said, taking his foot off the accelerator.
“I think we’re being followed.”
Charles let out a sigh. “You scared me," he said, accelerating again. "I thought something was wrong with the car again.” His fear was understandable. We were both worried about the growing debt for expensive repairs on both cars.
“Charles, you need to slow down,” I pleaded. “You're going to have to make a few extra turns to see if we are being followed.”
Charles gently applied the brakes, staring into the rear-view mirror, “What makes you think we are being followed?”
“Please, Charles,” I said. “I don’t have time to explain.”
“We will never get to your Mom’s house at this rate. We’re already late.”
“We’ll have to work fast so they don’t catch up,” I said. “We won’t know for sure unless follow my directions. Please, Charles. After you turn left here, you will have to slow down.”
Charles click on the turn signal as we approached the next street.
“Turn it off,” I said. “You can’t use your turn signal.” My tone was too abrupt and I instantly regretted it.
“Shit,” Charles yelled, after he made the turn. He braked to a hard stop. “I feel like going back home and forgetting this.”
“Please, Charles,” I said, softening my voice. “Trust me. You don’t want to drag this tail all the way down to Mom’s. That would not be fair to her, nor us. First, we need to find out if we are being followed.”
“Tell me what do you want me to do,” he said. I couldn’t tell if Charles was angry at me or the possibility of being followed.
“Keep going, but slow down a bit,” I said, “I have to find them first then see where they are headed,” If the car had backed out of the alley they would have to approach us from the left at Pearl Street, two street ahead. A small light gray hatchback with dark tinted windows inched forward on Pearl Street and stopped at the stop sign. I felt a familiar pain in the pit of my stomach.
“Stop at Pearl street.” I said, swallowing and struggling to sound calm.
“But there isn’t a stop sign there.”
“Doesn’t matter. Stop anyway,” I said..
Charles slowed the car. “I can’t just stop in the middle of the road.” he said, looking in the rear-view mirror. “How do you know we are being followed?”
“Just stop,” I shouted.
Charles pushed hard on the brakes, finally stopping the car. He was angry.
“Please trust me. Don’t move the car. We have to force his hand.”
“Who’s following us? Which car?
“Dad, the tail isn’t behind us, its ahead of us. ” Tommy said. “See the gray car ahead, to our left? See? Its got tinted windows.”
Dark tinted windows was a dead giveaway. I shook my head, thinking that with the dozen or so PI’s I’d burned, one of them would have figured that out. Another giveaway was that the driver remained stopped at the stop sign, even though he had time to turn. He could be a private investigator, waiting to see which way we were going. Or, he could just be someone lost and looking for a street name.
“I can barely see the driver, but I think it’s a woman,” I said. The mirror like tinting on the side windows made it impossible to see if there was a passenger. There was almost always two people in the car.
Brandon hadn’t said anything, but I knew from experience the fear and anger he had felt whenever we had been followed. Brandon would have his learner’s permit in the next year or two. I had asked myself many times, What would he do something dangerous or risky if he thought he was being followed? The defendants had acknowledged my injuries and knew there was nothing to discover. The only reason for following us was harassment. I was not going to just sit back and let the legal system and its judges to allow injured people to be victimized like this.
My anger caused an adrenaline rush. Checking that Charles was seat-belted in, I ordered Tommy to sit back and buckle his seat-belt. “Charles, keep your foot on the brake and don’t stare the driver. We don’t want him to know that we know he’s following us until we check him out first.”
“I wish you would quit giving me instructions,” snapped Charles.
“I’ve done this dozens of times. You haven’t.” I said, “Don’t move the car. There’s no doubt we are being followed.”
The gray car remained in place at the stop sign. I imagined the driver’s confusion, trying to guess our direction.
“Looks like gestapo to me,” said Tommy.
Gestapo, was my family's code word for private investigators. Anger soured my stomach. My daily emotional condition could be summed up in three words - depressed, guilty, and enraged. For three years, my case had been sitting in the Mississippi Supreme Court in a backlog of cases. Our financial picture was melting down and my medical bills were piling up. My attorney didn’t believe that we were being followed. She explained that, while my case was in Supreme Court, the defendants were not allowed “discovery,” including use of private investigators.
“The driver is probably confused about why we stopped,” Charles said. “I think I should go ahead and turn.”
“No. No, wait a few seconds longer. We don’t move until she does,” I said. The longer the gray car stayed there the more I was convince it was a PI. She was stalling to force us to turn first.
“Boys, don’t look at the car.” They already knew the drill, but I reminded them anyway. At first, I had all but flagged down the private investigators making it obvious they had been discovered. When my attorney had told me that if they were “burned,” PI’s were suppose to leave to prevent being sued for harassment. I asked Judy what she meant by “burned.” She replied, "That means you discovered them."
But burning a PI did not make them leave me alone, nor had it not stopped the harassment.
“Nancy, I can’t just sit here. I have to turn or do something.”
Charles would have to do a Crazy Ivan. “I’m sure it’s a PI," I said. "No one's behind us, so just stay put.” The gray car remained at the stop sign. Any other driver would have given up and turned. There was no doubt we were being followed. I just had to prove it to Charles.
Through the side mirror I saw another car coming up behind us. We were going to be forced to make the first move. Hopefully the private investigators weren’t using two cars this time.
“Charles, when I tell you, turn left. But don’t use the turn signal.”
“I don’t like this Nancy. I don’t see why-”
“Hush,” I said. "I have to think." I closed my eyes, trying to visualize the route we could take.
"Look, Mom," Tommy said. The driver of the gray car slowly pulled forward. After she crossed the intersection, she pulled over beside the church parking lot, then stopped. I knew she was looking in her rear-view mirror to see which way we were going.
“Charles. Turn left - now” I said. “Quick, before she has a chance to turn around.”
Charles slowly turned onto Pearl, positioning us in the opposite direction of the gray car. He slowed down and looked in his rear-view mirror.
“You have to speed up Charles,” I said. “She'll turn around. We'll look. You drive. We have to put distance between us. Head toward the Mall, that way we can lose her in the Terraces.” I looked behind me through the rear window. Both the boys had turned around as well.
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’m positive," I said. " What have I been telling you for the last five years? Haven’t you been listening?” My patience had run out.
“The gray car turned around," I shouted. "She's gaining on us. You’ve got to speed up.”
“Nancy, I’m not going to run a stop sign.”
It felt like Charles was driving in slow motion. “Just drive faster - this is ridiculous. And, quit looking in the mirror."
“Did you see it?” Tommy said to Brandon. Tommy had learned to drive at sixteen. He had to wait until his Senior year in high school because we could not afford the extra car insurance. While he had his driver’s permit, he shuttled me around on errands.
We were two blocks ahead, but the gray car was gaining. As we approached Hardy, a busy, four- lane street, the traffic light was green.
“Good. Now slow down. Don’t go through the green light. Wait for it to turn yellow, then wait until I tell you to go,” I said. The gray car was one block behind us. I looked at the traffic light, “Turn Yellow. Turn Yellow,” I said.
When the traffic light turned yellow, I said, "Wait," counting, "One, two, three. Go now.”
“Nancy, you’re going to cause us to have a wreck-”
“Now,” I shouted. “Stomp on it. Go. Go. Go.” I looked behind us as Charles gunned the car across the intersection. If I timed it right, the traffic light would turn red before the gray car got to the intersection.
The light turned red just as we we were clearing the intersection. I turned around expecting to see the gray car to stop at the red light.
The gray car ran the red light, bouncing over the large hump in the middle of the intersection.
“Charles, she ran the red light.” I said, shaking my head. “Any doubts now?”
“Is that car still behind us?” Charles asked, slowing down and squinting into rear-view mirror. I suspected he was still trying to convince himself that the gray car was actually following us.
“Yes,” I said. “Charles, you’ll have to speed up.” Maybe they were learning my tricks or had them writing in my file. My attorney said the private investigators kept files. This woman was aggressive. Losing her is not going to be easy. If Charles could put more distance between us, we could lose her in the Terraces.
"Turn left at the next street," I said, Charles ignored me and drove past it.
“Why did you miss the turn?” I said, anger creeping into my voice.
“I’m driving this car,” Charles said, “This is getting too dangerous."
I took a deep breath. The gray car was now only a block behind us. “Charles, this isn’t one of the male ego things. I’ve done this dozens of times. I am not going to go ride an hour to Gulfport, go shopping with the kids, and let that gray car follow us to Mom’s house, knowing that the gestapo will sit outside watching and taking pictures of my mom, the kids, me, and you.”
“Charles, pull over and let me drive,” I said. I seldom drove anymore because of my memory problems and blackouts, which my doctors suspected were seizures. Even though I was on medication, break-though-seizures were possible, so my doctors had advised me not to drive, especially if tired, sick, or stressed. Unfortunately, those three words summed up my daily physical condition.
Tommy leaned forward. “Dad, please let Mom drive. She knows how to do this.”
Charles had driven past the entrance to the Terraces. We were in the business section behind the Mall. Most of the downtown stores were closed, so their parking lots were empty.
“Turn right and pull over behind one of these stores so we will switch places,” I said.
Charles pulled into the empty parking lot on the side of a carpet store. “You’re not suppose to be driving. And, it’s not safe in this area,” he had said, looking around.
[Each succeeding portion will be posted on Twitter/ToxicJustice #TJnanoseries, then added to this page.]