“Not in My Neighborhood!” by Diana Bredeson is the First Prize-winning story in the Mystery/Crime category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer's Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.
Not in My Neighborhood! by Diana Bredeson
I hung up the phone in disbelief—the policeman on the other end had sounded as if he were trying very hard not to laugh at me! REALLY? Here I am, a concerned citizen with a problem, and he had obviously not taken me seriously. The more I thought about it, the angrier I grew. He had actually asked me if I had been drinking and then lectured me on the severity of filing a false police report! I told the officer about the suspicious people coming and going at all hours of the day and night. I told him about how my dog had seemed like he wanted to attack the one man after I had tried to (nicely) question him about where he had moved from and what brought him to our neighborhood and the guy had responded with some very rude words. Now I had the police thinking I was crazy, it had been suggested that I try not to be too nosey (AS IF) and the man had asked if Frankie had a “bite history.” I’m sure it was a result of my joking about my “27-pound attack dog”; but still, couldn’t he tell I had just been kidding around? I couldn’t believe that I had been blown off by the … The ringing phone stopped my mental rant.
My good friend and neighbor Jennifer’s voice, filled with disbelief, came through the phone before I finished my greeting. “Carrie, tell me that you didn’t really just call the station to report that our new neighbors are possibly drug dealers or something?”
“Jennifer?” I asked incredulously, before continuing. “Boy, word travels fast at the police station doesn’t it?”
“Mark, the officer who took your call, knows that we are friends.”
“I don’t see why he told you, you aren’t a police officer.”
“No, I’m not, but he wanted to check with me to see if I thought something strange was going on in the neighborhood.”
“So, you told him about …”
“No, I most certainly did not.” She interrupted me. “Remember when you called the police about the Johnsons across the street, who were working on their own house late at night? It’s a miracle that they are still talking to you!”
“They totally understood.” I protested. “They had told me that they would be out of town. When I saw someone over there with flashlights, I got suspicious. If you hadn’t stopped me from going over there, I wouldn’t have had to call the cops.”
“Carrie, I stopped you because you could have been shot or something if it hadn’t been them.”
‘Well, there you go. I was just trying to protect their house while they were gone. They actually thought it was funny, after they got over the surprise of almost being arrested.”
“You can’t just…”
“Yes, I can. What if it hadn’t been them? What if it had been someone trying to steal their stuff?”
“You are just too stubborn. It is not your job to save the world. One of these days you are going to get yourself into something you can’t get out of.” Jennifer sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, my break is over, I have to go. I’ll come by after I get home, we can talk more then. Don’t do anything silly.”
“Yes, mom.” I laughed.
“You need to listen to me. I’m your friend and don’t want anything to happen to you. I …”
“Ah ha, I knew it, something is going on,” I interrupted excitedly. “I could just tell …”
“No, I didn’t say that,” Jennifer jumped in quickly. “I just know how you are when you think something bad is going on, you always think that you need to fix it.”
“I just want to do what is right!” I protested defensively.
“I know that, and I admire that, but I really don’t think anything is going on. Just think of how horrible you would feel if the police went over there and you were wrong. Besides, if something really were going on, don’t you think I would have heard something?” She said the last part (in my opinion) to placate me.
“Jennifer, you have been out of town for two out of the three weeks since they moved into that house, you don’t know everything that has been going on. I’m not the only one who thinks there is something fishy going on. I know—”
“Carrie, no one else but you has reported anything suspicious, I checked.”
“That is just because they are too scared to get involved.”
“You, of course, are not worried about these people getting upset with you for calling the police? What about Frankie or Charlie? Aren’t you worried about them?”
“You know I wouldn’t want anything to happen to my son, myself or my dog. If I know something is going on, I can’t just sit by and ignore it! What if they are trying to sell drugs to the neighborhood kids? I know and love these kids. They are Charlie’s friends. I talk to them at the school bus, they play with Frankie and ride their bikes up and down the street, I know their parents. I mean, really, what do you…”
“Ok, calm down, I don’t want anything to happen to the kids either. I agree that, if the other neighbors think something is going on, we need to check into these men. I don’t want you going anywhere near there, though.”
“Me, what am I going to do? Like you said, it’s not like I am a police officer or anything. I do, however, have to walk Frankie,” I responded innocently.
“Carrie, I know that tone. You promise me that … just a minute, my commander is calling me.” She interrupted herself and I was suddenly listening to elevator music. “Oh, sorry about that. Listen, I have to go, but I am serious about you staying out of this. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Ok, talk to you then.” I hung up and thought about everything for a little while, then jumped up from the couch and grabbed my keys and the leash. “Frankie, I think you need another walk.”
Frankie was more than willing to go for another walk only a couple of hours after the first one. We took the long way around and walked on the opposite side of the street from what I now thought of as the “sketchy” house. We greeted everyone as we enjoyed the Saturday morning happenings in the neighborhood. People were out everywhere taking advantage of the wonderful sunshine. The slight breeze made the temperature bearable. There were people mowing their lawns, kids riding bikes, teenagers playing baseball in the field and a group of kids and adults playing basketball in a driveway. The Norman Rockwell-esque atmosphere came to a complete stop, though, once we turned the corner onto the street with “that” house. Nobody was outside, and everything was quiet; it was as if an invisible cloud hung over the block.
“This is eerie, huh?” I whispered, sure that although he couldn’t verbally answer me, he was feeling it too. “I don’t even see Tommy and your girlfriend Daisy.”
‘Whoof.” He proved me wrong with that single bark. His body was on high alert, his ears standing straight up, and his tale was stuck flat to his rump.
“I just know something is not right with these people. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I just have a feeling that something is not right with them.” I looked down, expecting him to reply in some way, when the sound of a vehicle coming around the corner made me look up.
“Whoof, whoof, whoof,” he replied as I pulled him back and leapt out of the way of the car. The man in the van laughed as he raced passed us and screeched to a stop in the driveway of “that” house.
“Hey you, lady with the dog,” he demanded with an accent as he stalked towards me. “What are you doing around here spying on us?”
“What are you talking about? I am walking my dog, just like always.” My voice somehow came out sounding calm despite my being scared silly.
“You aren’t fooling me…” He stopped and jumped back as Frankie began growling, bared his teeth and tried to lurch at him. “Keep that dog away from me. It would be a real shame if something happened to him.”
“You can’t threaten me, we aren’t doing anything wrong,” I hollered angrily to make sure he heard me as he rushed back across the street.
The man ignored me, pulling out a cell phone as he ran to the back of the van.
“It’s ok, calm down. He is gone now,” I soothed a still growling Frankie, whose whole body was shaking, as I crouched next to him and picked him up. As I raised my head and started to get up, I noticed that the rude man was leading a couple of young girls, who appeared to be about my teenage son’s girlfriend’s age, to the front door; practically running with them. All at once it hit me, these guys weren’t selling drugs; they were doing something even worse. Those girls had looked terrified, and when one of them tried to look at me, the man had pushed her.
Although Frankie loved the sprint home, I was panicking. A thousand thoughts were flying around in my head. What do I do? I was sure that those girls weren’t with that man voluntarily, but what could I do about it? What if those men knew where I lived?
“Whoof, whoof, WHOOF!” The increasingly loud barking cleared the mangled mess of thoughts and I knew what I had to do. While I couldn’t stand the thought of those girls being hurt, I absolutely could not risk my family being hurt either. I grabbed the phone and punched the buttons to call Jennifer. While the phone rang, I worriedly made sure the locks where engaged on all of my doors.
“Carrie, I am really busy, I …”
“Jennifer, listen … I know for sure that something is going on at that house and you need to get someone over there now.”
“What are you …”
“No, listen to me. We almost got hit by the van and that man came over and threatened us. If Frankie hadn’t tried to bite him, he might have…”
“STOP TALKING!” She ordered, cutting my rambling off. I recognized her work voice; I now had her full attention. “Now, take a deep breath and start from the beginning.
Twenty minutes later Jennifer and two police officers that I didn’t know were at the house taking my statement. Frankie, after sniffing them to make sure they were ok, was now lying on the rug monitoring everything.
“Ok, ma’am—I think we have everything we need.” The younger officer, Jim, closed his notebook and stood up. “Be sure to stay away from the suspect’s house. We would hate to have to arrest you for interfering in a police investigation.”
“But I …” I began in protest.
“Carrie, you have to stay out of this. You can just let Frankie out in the back yard.” Jennifer cut me off before I could get started.
“I have to walk my dog. He loves the exercise and he will not do his business in our yard.” I glared at all three of them and was preparing to start my defense when the lock in the front door started turning and Frankie ran to the door.
“Mom, what are the police doing here? Is everything ok?” Charlie’s worried voice reached us before the door was fully open.
“Why are you home so early? Is something wrong?” I rushed to the door, Frankie right on my heels.
“I told you that we were getting out at noon today because of the playoff game tonight.” He brushed past me, absently playing with the dog before stopping to stare at the crowed living room. “Ms. Wallis, what’s going on?”
“The officers have some questions for your mom about the new people who moved in a few blocks down,” Jennifer answered. “Have you noticed anything, Charlie?”
“You mean the one with all the vans in front of it? It looks like they are moving out.”
“What do you mean, moving out?” The officer that was still sitting, Mike, jumped up quickly.
“When did you observe this activity?” The younger policeman moved towards Charlie, pulling out his radio.
“Not too long ago, when we went by on the bus. There must have been 6 or 7 trucks and vans there. We all thought it was strange because they just moved in a few months ago,” Charlie replied, then added something that really got everyone’s attention: “Some of the guys were crushing on a couple of the girls. They were pretty cute, but some of them didn’t seem very happy”
“I’ll be right back.” The more senior officer stepped outside onto the front porch.
“Sit down son. I have some more questions.” The other policeman instructed.
“Mom, we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he insisted as he dropped his backpack and sat down.
“You’re fine, don’t worry about it. I am right here.” I sat on the floor next to him.
“They just want you to help them …”
“Ok, first of all, is this the first time you noticed anything strange going on over there?”
“No sir, a bunch of us have been watching that house for months now,” my son replied.
“What, why didn’t …”
“Carrie, please don’t interrupt.” Jennifer interrupted, stopping for a second when Frankie started barking as the other office came back into the house. “Charlie, go ahead with what you were saying. Ted, come over here, I think you are going to want to hear this.”
“Ok son, start at the beginning,” the senior officer said after he sat on the couch and took his notebook out.
“Well, um …” he started, only to look a little uncertainly at me. “Mom, we were just kidding around.”
“It’s ok, whatever it is, it is alright. Just go ahead and tell them everything,” I reassured him, wondering what he was worried about me finding out.
“Well …” He started, blushing a little as he glanced at me again before continuing. “The first time we noticed the girls was a few days after you told me about somebody new moving in. Tommy lives on that same block and he said that he thought maybe they were that old man’s daughters or something. He said he had seen two of them once before and tried to talk to them because he thought they were cute. The old man hollered at Tommy and told him to stay away from his girls. Then a few days later he said there were more girls that came late at night with some other men, who were yelling at the girls to hurry up and get inside. When Tommy first told the rest of us, we thought he was making things up since he is always making things up. Two or three weeks ago we saw about ten girls arriving in a van and they were dressed up like they had been on a date or something. You know, with their hair all done and lots of make-up and high heels. They kind of looked like girls do when they go to a club.”
“A club, how do you know …” I squeaked, realizing all at once that my 16-year old son was no longer my baby.
“Not important right now. Carrie …” Jennifer started.
“I know, sorry, I’ll be quiet.”
“Son, you have been very helpful. Now remember, we don’t want you or your friends approaching anybody from that house. If you see or hear anything, I want you to call me at this number at any time. If I am not available, leave a message with the dispatcher.” The officer handed Charlie his card and then turned to me. “Carrie …”
“I know, stay away from that house,” I responded glumly.
“No, actually, I want you to continue your normal daily routine. If you change things up now, it will tip them off that something is going on.”
“I can do that. Do you want me to …” I perked right up, excited to be helping.
“No, you need to continue doing everything the same as you have been doing them. Just be sure to be your usual observant self. If you notice anything, even the smallest change, I want you to let us now ASAP.” Mike looked extremely serious as he gave me his card. “I need you to promise that you aren’t going to interfere in any way. If this is what I think it is, these men will not hesitate to hurt you, your dog, your son, or anyone else who threatens them.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t just keep Frankie here like Jennifer suggested?” Swallowing my pride as worry for Frankie and Charlie washed over me.
“No, I think you will be fine as long as you stick to your normal routine. They will not want to call attention to themselves if they can help it. Just remember, call me or anyone at the police department if you notice anything different,” he sternly advised as the three of them walked to the front door. “Call me if you notice anything strange.”
The silence after they left was broken by the dog announcing that it was time for dinner.
“Mom …” Charlie started hesitantly as he filled Frankie’s bowl.
“Sweetheart …” I began as I took out the fixings for homemade pizza. We looked at each other, laughed, and hugged, and the awkwardness was broken. “Why didn’t you tell me about the people at the house?”
“I thought it might be a little weird, you know, talking about the girls and how some of the guys were talking about them.”
“I understand, but I thought you knew that you could tell me anything. No judging.”
“Yeah, but …” He began, torn between loyalty to his friends and the need to talk about things.
“If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, how about one of the officers that were here earlier?”
“Maybe, but it’s ok, I can tell you. Just promise you won’t tell any of the guys. I don’t want them to think I’m a snitch or anything.”
“I won’t tell them anything you said about them. In fact, if it doesn’t have anything to do with the new neighbors, then just don’t tell me. How does that sound?
While we made dinner together, I found out that Charlie really didn’t know anything more than what he had told the police. He had just felt funny about talking about the conversations he had with his friends with me. After reassuring him again that he didn’t have to worry about me saying anything to his friends, I found out that our new neighbors were the main topic of conversation among everybody on his bus, including his bus driver. In fact, the bus driver had already said something to the school’s front office. This made me feel a lot better—safety in numbers and all. Surely those guys wouldn’t do anything to me if a lot of others were suspicious of them as well.
With a new-found calm, the next morning I set out to take Frankie for a long walk before leaving for church. As we went around the corner to the street with the sketchy house I came to a complete stop. Two houses down, across the street from that house, a six-foot-tall football player was pacing worriedly and talking to himself.
“Tommy, is everything ok? Is something wrong with your mom or dad?” Concern for my friends made me rush to his side.
“No ma’am, they’re fine.” He stopped and looked at me with tears in his eyes. “It’s Daisy, she is gone.”
“Gone, what do you mean gone, where did she go?” My voice raising to be heard over Frankie’s excited barking at Daisy’s name.
“We were taking a walk, and while I was scooping her poop up we heard a funny sound from the house over there. Daisy was gone before I even realized that she had gotten out of her harness.”
“I’m sure she’s ok, let’s call her. Daisy, Daisy!” Her answering yipping had barely begun before Frankie barked in return, pulled his leash out of my hand, and took off like a bullet across the street.
“Oh no, what do we do?” The look on Tommy’s worried face made me realize what a cute little boy he must have been. He looked at me warily and spoke hesitantly. “We need to go over there, don’t we? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anything to happen to the dogs, but I am pretty sure that I saw one of those guys with a gun the other day.”
“A gun, are you sure about that?” A cold feeling washed over me. My baby was over there and I needed to rescue him. As I thought about how Tommy and I would do this, Officer Mike’s words popped into my head and I pulled my phone out of my pocket.
“Ms. Landers, are you ok? What do you want to do? I’m really worried about the …” He began.
“Hold on a minute, Tommy.” I cut him off as the policeman’s deep voice answered. “Hi, it’s Carrie Landers, you came over to my house yesterday about those people. Do you remember …”
“Yes ma’am, I remember. Is everything alright?” He answered.
“No, maybe … I’m not sure …” I stopped, feeling very foolish. What if the dogs were totally fine? What if those people weren’t really doing anything wrong?
“Carrie, ma’am, are you still there?” the deep voice called.
“Well, I was walking my dog and he got loose to go chase after Daisy and now they are both …” My words rushed out so fast in my nervousness that they ran together into one incoherent sentence.
“Calm down, breathe … Now tell me where you are and what’s going on,” he instructed as I heard a door closing. “Are you in a safe place? I am on my way and I am calling backup. Now, tell me everything.”
The next thirty minutes past in a blur of activity. Tommy and I had, as instructed, retreated a safe distance away. Thanks to Tommy’s report of seeing a man with a gun who seemed to be pushing a young girl into the house against her will, the police had probable cause to enter the premises. Inside, they found ten scared teenage girls who had been kidnapped from various places. A man in the backyard who had cornered Daisy was now cowering due to a growling Frankie, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. I had never been so proud of my little attack dog! It took me five minutes of calling Frankie before he stopped snarling, but he wouldn’t leave the backyard without Daisy. The two of them were happy to be reunited, and Tommy took them both to his house so they could spend more time together.
“Carrie, I have to hand it to you, your nosiness really worked to our advantage this time,” Jennifer said teasingly as she walked up to me. “The police are happy to have broken up the human trafficking ring. The Houston police were close to cracking the ring when a girl escaped and the criminals got spooked and disappeared. Apparently, they decided working out of a small town would work better.”
“My nosiness? I’m not nosy, just very curious and observant!” I protest and then grinned, hugging her. “Hey, maybe I can be a consultant or something for the police on future cases?”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. Just stick to your day job!” She burst out laughing.