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People Of Interest - Part One

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Hazel gazed at her image in the mirror, seeing the thinning gray hair, the wrinkled skin, the dimming eyes. Not a lot to be of interest there, she thought.

In her youth, Hazel had been no great beauty, but she had been, as are all young people, full of hopes and dreams, and all the joys of youth. She had had all that young people expect: friendships, parties, dates, marriage, and children. Now all that was in the past. Hazel still had a wide variety of acquaintances, but few real friends. She certainly had no more boyfriends, her husband was out of the picture, and her children were far away, living their own lives, full of hopes and dreams.

Hazel sighed. She really should stay away from mirrors. They only emphasized her loneliness, and the fact that no one was really interested in her any more. But Hazel was wrong.

At that very moment, a person very interested in Hazel, had slipped into her backyard and was reaching for her doorknob.

"Damn it - no luck tonight," he muttered.
But he knew that all he needed was patience, and that the time would come when the old girl would forget, and leave the door unlocked - for him.

The shadowy figure left Hazel's yard and slipped on down the road to check out the next house of interest.

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Several days later, Hazel rose early, ate a quick breakfast and prepared for her one social outing of the week. The activity consisted of a slow walk along the river path with a group of elderly neighbors, united in their desire to avoid being carried off by a heart attack - as though one rambling walk a week would do the job. Hazel loved walking by the river and had often thought of walking alone, but the area was a bit isolated, and Hazel was nothing if not cautious.

Hazel was not overly fond of any members of the group, but she did enjoy the variety of their conversations, and the simple pleasure of being with others. What she did not enjoy was the gossip that flowed like a river through the group, when any walker was absent. That morning Amy was the target. Is she ill? Off to visit her family? Off with that so-called 'boyfriend' - or Heaven knows what else? No one knew. Amy had simply not shown up at their meeting place, and so was fodder for empty minds. Who really cared?

Hazel was well acquainted with Amy, as the two had taught in the same school many years ago. Maybe she would phone her old acquaintance, but perhaps not. She'd had enough chatter for one day.

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Another week rolled slowly by and, as usual, Hazel made her way toward the river, ready for the weekly ramble. The group waited, none too patiently, but Amy never appeared.

Here we go again, thought Hazel. Couldn't we at least have some variety? But Amy was the only person absent, and so the gossip continued. Is she visiting family? Is she with her boyfriend again? Maybe she eloped? She could at least have had the courtesy to let us know she wasn't coming so we aren't standing around, waiting for her.

After listening to the silly gossip for another hour, Hazel decided that enough was enough. She would phone Amy as soon as this tiresome hour was over. But she didn't, and another Amy-less walk was endured, and then another.

Finally, after several weeks had passed, and some in the group began to seem genuinely concerned, Hazel picked up the phone and dialed her old friend. No answer. That was really strange. Amy always carried her cell phone. It was a standing joke among the walkers, as though she was expecting a call from the president at any moment. Oh well, Hazel thought. Nothing to worry about. I'll try again tomorrow.

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Other than Hazel's long weekly walk, her greatest pleasure was taking care of her little dog, Archie. He was older now and the long walk in the present cold weather would be too much for his arthritic little legs. But warmer weather was ahead, and at any time of year, even in the dead of winter, Archie did enjoy a short meander around the block. That would just have to do for now.

Every morning after breakfast, Hazel put on Archie's warm winter coat and, leash in hand, she would set off for their morning walk. If she met any neighbors along the way, Hazel would always stop for a brief chat, except when she met that strange man, who lived alone in the large house two down from Hazel's. Several times, Hazel had tried a cheery "Hello!" but in return received only a rude grunt. After that Hazel kept her eyes forward as she passed Mr. "Grunt's" house, and hustled Archie on home so she could enjoy a second cup of coffee and a chance to read the paper.

Hazel loved little Archie to a degree that only other dog lovers could understand. In Hazel's eyes, he was perfect, and so he was, except for that one small flaw, an obsession with small sticks or any other tiny object - the dirtier the better - that he could furtively snatch up on his daily walk. He almost always managed to sneak these small objects into the house and today was no exception. There it was, a dirty old gum rapper. Hazel quickly snatched it up - much to Archie's annoyance - and deposited it in the trash. Then she remembered Amy.

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When she dialed Amy's number, her call was immediately answered, but it was a strange voice that greeted her. Thinking she had the wrong number, Hazel quickly apologized, saying that she had meant to dial Amy Withers.

"This is her number," the strange voice replied. "Are you a friend of Amy's?"

As the conversation continued, Hazel was surprised to learn that the stranger was one of Amy's daughters. She had come to visit her mother but upon arrival, had found the house empty. None of the family had any idea where Amy was, and none of the neighbors had seen her for weeks.

Amy was a responsible older senior, not one to take off on a whim, without telling her family where she was going. The daughter was gravely concerned and said her brother was at that moment contacting the police. After leaving her number with the daughter, Hazel hung up and wandered into the kitchen, stunned by what she had just heard.

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For the next few days, Hazel kept the news of Amy's disappearance to herself. She thought of phoning the daughter again, but was reluctant to interfere, hoping that Amy might have come home - the whole affair simply an innocent mix-up. Late that afternoon, she finally screwed up her courage, and called.

The conversation, that followed, was dreadful. Between tears, Amy's daughter blurted out the dreadful news. Amy was indeed missing. The police were involved and a search had begun. The family wondered if Amy had become disoriented, wandered away and fallen into the river, or the lake beyond, or if she was simply lost, stumbling around somewhere confused and helpless. Worse still, they wondered - was foul play involved?

That evening, as darkness fell, Hazel closed her curtains tightly, checked her door locks one last time, and prepared for bed.

A moment later, a dark figure moved furtively through backyards, checking locks on the houses of interest.

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To be continue.