Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors to perform their own real-life act of clandestine observation — and to write about what they saw.
I filled my tank about halfway and slipped back into traffic. Rush hour was winding down—gridlock didn’t suit my purpose—and the streets flowed steadily. Radio gave out glossy pop that wanted a film to be featured in. Turning north, I saw the mountains start to fade against the California dusk.
Follow that car , our hard-boiled heroine commands upon climbing into an idle taxi, pressing wads of cash at the cabbie. The cabbie, in the interest of plot, rarely declines to tail the mark, unless it is to subvert the trope. Neither does he wish to know what prompts this sort of spying. Who actually demands a reason?
No vehicle quite caught my eye, so I picked a gray sedan like mine—and soon felt almost equally watched. Within a few blocks I convinced myself this was the wrong car, leading toward uncertain disaster. The driver made two hesitant lefts. I peeled off before a third. It occurs to me now that she may have been lost.
Contrary to stereotypes, I find L.A. drivers polite. Just as New Yorkers try to make the crush of subway and sidewalk tolerable, we give each other room for error on the road. I asked someone who grew up here if he’d notice an otherwise normal car that seemed to stick to his bumper, and he answered: “Absolutely.”
I had more success, once night had settled, in smoothly tracking a silver pickup as it swung to join the 101. I tried to maintain speed in a separate lane, though it wouldn’t be long before I had to pass. I hastily merged and allowed a third motorist between us. A few miles later, the truck swerved across the entire freeway to exit.
Alarm split my brain. I sped into Universal City after them. The two men in the truck were arguing, I thought, and I may have locked eyes with one or both when they glanced up into their rearview. We slowed at an intersection so wide and desolate it struck me an invitation to murder. Their eyes flashed in the mirror again, heightening my paranoia. With the signal green, I struck out alone.
So, fear—fear of someone else’s vigilance, their willingness to do me harm. I hadn’t “maliciously and repeatedly” shadowed either of my targets, per the state’s stalking law, even if I did so “willfully.” I understood why a pulp noir character offloads the duty of surveillance to the cabbie—by cleaving motive from action, each party can more accurately deny malign intent.
Then I noticed a real live taxi. It felt like fate. It didn’t have a fare; I didn’t imagine it ever had. With the slightest practice, my stealth had improved: I anticipated where we’d go and when to slow or accelerate. When the taxi vanished around a curve, I leveled my heart and hit the gas.
But the cabbie surprised me. His path proved so erratic I wondered if we’d ever reach its end. Two pilots in requirement of a single definite way to go. As we cruised through Burbank, my resolve crumbled. I let him get away on Empire, rolled to the curb, and stopped. While I made a phone call, a car pulled up behind me. Nobody got out.
The man at the wheel cut a solid, gleaming figure. He wasn’t staring down at a phone. He appeared to drink the calm surroundings. Wasn’t he the perfect witness and judge. He’d sit there till dawn, till I tried to escape. In a hundred miles I’d sputter on fumes, whereas this guy would never run dry in pursuit.
Of course I’m exaggerating. His friend showed up and they talked awhile. I found the nearest fast food place and bought fried chicken with a giant soda. Everyone eating in that room was tired from their own chasing. When they finished and went to the parking lot, I made sure not to see what they drove.
Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest is available now from Catapult Books.