The signs had been taped to each door on the first floor. Some rabble-ramble about there being a smoker on the floor . . . smoking being against condo rules, which had the effect of law . . . smoke endangering children . . . cops being called next time smoke was detected . . . blah blah bluh.
Jacob couldn’t be bothered to read all five paragraphs. It was three-thirty in the morning. He’d already put in fourteen hours today. When he saw the screed taped to his own door, though, he was tempted to put in a few extra minutes bothering someone else.
He didn’t consider himself exempt from condo community rules, but it seemed he was being singled out. Only the sign on his door had words underlined in red.
Cigarette smoke permeated the hallway as it always did in the late hours. Whoever the smoker really was—Jacob honestly didn’t know or care—the fiend had probably stayed up to the wee hours and turned in an hour or two ago. Probably a double-shift worker like himself.
Jacob ripped the leaflet down from his door with one hand as he unlocked and turned the handle with the other. Sheila knew not to raise too much of a fuss at this hour. Like Jacob, she was a respectful tenant. But the bull terrier didn’t hesitate to paw at his thighs while issuing whimpers almost as loud as barks.
“Sorry, girl.” Jacob locked the door behind him. “You’re on your own tonight.” He knelt down to untie his Timberlands, trying to annoy rather than be annoyed by Sheila licking his hands and face. “Done all the walkin’ I plan on doin’ till I get some rest.” He scratched her behind the ears as he stood. “C’mon.”
He led Sheila to the patio door and opened it. The bull terrier looked out into the darkness, then back up at him. Jacob shook his head. Sheila again paused to look outside before reluctantly trotting out.
She’d roam, relieve herself, roam some more, then return when she was good and ready. She’d be gone for a minimum of ten minutes, a maximum of forty-five or so. She’d pick up the empty plastic bowl Jacob always left on the patio and tap it against the glass door—her secret knock—when she was ready to come in.
He was ready to relax. He turned on the stereo’s CD player and pushed in a compilation of obscure blues singers singing slightly less obscure songs from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the only kind of music that could rub the knots out of his neck.
He leaned back in his recliner and closed his eyes, contemplating bourbon and sketching out the day ahead. He’d volunteered for the late-breakfast shift at the diner. It was a Friday, and late morning was the sweet spot—the time when a lot of the best paying customers began setting their plans for the evening. He had time for two, maybe two and a half hours of shut-eye before he needed to shower.
Someone banged on the front door, jolting him out of a reverie. He was expecting Sheila’s tapping, or even barking. That he was used to. The pounding he’d heard instead gave birth to a minor headache.
He turned the music down on his way to the door, expecting a neighbor with a noise complaint. He looked out the peephole. One of two cops was staring back at him.
They weren’t there to arrest him. He knew that protocol. The banging would’ve been fiercer and accompanied by the louder announcement and command: Police! Open up!
They could’ve been scammers. He knew that protocol as well. Crooks dressed up like cops, and when some unsuspecting chump opened the door, they’d beat and rob him.
He eyed his Glock on the bookshelf next to the door. He had strategically camouflaged and hidden it from casual observers behind a stack of books. Other guns were hidden around the apartment, including behind the stereo, but this was the closest. It was the easiest to reach if there were ever trouble on his doorstep.
It had been years since the possession of guns was made illegal for those outside law enforcement, but—at home or away—he always tried to keep one near his person. No need to have one in hand just yet, though. He was tired, but he was swift.
He cracked open the door. “Yes, officers?”
“We had a complaint.”
“I turned the music down,” Jacob said. “I’ll keep it down.”
“Not about that. About smoking.”
“What?” Jacob’s gaze shifted from one cop to the other. “I don’t smoke.”
“We had a complaint,” the first cop said. “We have to follow up.”
“Someone called building management,” the second cop said, “and management called us. We agree some of these condo policies are a little silly, but in this state their rules have to be enforced by us.”
“I don’t smoke,” Jacob said. “I can’t afford to. I’ve already had one scare with my heart.”
“Can we come in?”
Jacob didn’t even glance at his bookshelf. He had enough close-up experience with cops—watching their movements, reading their badges, listening to their tone of voice—to know they were the real deal. If they’d seen him glancing, they would’ve become suspicious. No need to provoke them. Of course, they could’ve been corrupt cops, out to beat and rob him regardless. Most likely, he figured they were cops on the tail end of their late shift who had nothing better to do.
“Sure.” Jacob stepped backward and opened the door wider. “Come on in.” Normally he would’ve asked for a search warrant. But, again, no need to provoke.
The two men entered but didn’t progress much beyond the doorway. Jacob kept his eyes on them as he made his way to the stereo. He turned it off but remained next to it, ready to grab the Glock behind it if necessary.
“Not much of a smell in here,” the first cop said.
Jacob shook his head. “Only what you brought in with you.”
The cops glared at him.
“And, me too,” Jacob said. “The smoke is still on my clothes from when I got in a few minutes ago.”
“Getting in from where?” the first cop asked.
“Where do you work?”
“This an interrogation?” He’d humored them—they knew he wasn’t the villainous smoker—but now he was tired of them. If they were going to make some kind of move, he wanted them to get on with it.
“Just asking,” the second cop said. “You look familiar.”
Jacob smirked. “I work at the diner on Baker Street. Maybe you’ve eaten there.”
The cop stared and then nodded, but said nothing.
“And I’ve got to be back at work in a few hours,” Jacob said, “so if you don’t mind.”
The cops exchanged glances. The second cop turned and put his hand on the doorknob, then hesitated. It looked as if he were preparing to lock it.
Jacob took a step forward. On top of the stereo, his right hand inched toward the back edge, ready to snatch his piece. He could have it in hand, safety off, and pointed in less than two seconds.
The first cop wasn’t looking at Jacob’s hand. He seemed to be studying his face. Finally, he nodded and said, “Have a good night. Maybe we’ll see you down at the diner soon.”
They left without another word. Or glance.
Jacob locked the door behind them and looked out the peephole.
They were gone, or at least out of sight.
It didn’t take long to figure who’d called them here in the first place: the Ethiopian, five doors down. Whoever the smoker was, Jacob was sure it was someone within two doors of that guy.
The Ethiopian . . . the same guy who’d refused to ever even nod “hello.” The same guy who couldn’t be bothered to hold the front door when Jacob’s arms were burdened with groceries. The same guy with those three brats who ran up and down the halls when he was trying to nap. He was the one.
It took Jacob only a second or two longer to figure why the police had eyed him so. Did they know what he really did, or did they just catch his slip? The diner closed in the early evening and there was no way he could’ve just been getting home from work. Not unless he had another job.
He walked to the patio door and checked his watch. It was nearing four-thirty. Sheila should’ve been back already. Peering out, he saw nothing on the patio. Her tapping dish was untouched.
He’d entertained fears in the past. Letting Sheila run free, contrary to the city’s leash laws, was just inviting someone to pick her up or poison her. But, even though she was his little sweetheart, Jacob knew no one could grab her without a fight, and she was too picky of an eater to be easily poisoned. No, she was a wily one. She’d taught Jacob a few tricks. The way his pre-dawn morning was turning out, however, he found it a little harder to push away dread.
He grabbed a jacket and flashlight, left two lamps on, then locked the patio door behind him. He knew Sheila’s favorite and less traveled routes. He followed one of them at random while calling her name.
He entered the woods, treading a dirt path frequented by dog-walkers and joggers. It stretched on for miles, winding behind several housing complexes. He wasn’t worried about waking anyone. The early risers were already waking, turning on their lights and radios and getting ready for work. Buses were beginning their routes, and garbage trucks would soon join them. One man calling a woman’s name wouldn’t bother anyone.
But Sheila didn’t respond. Despite the flashlight, Jacob stumbled more than once, mixing curses with her name, which didn’t help. It was ten minutes before he saw his little girl, pacing in front of a dense cluster of ferns and stopping every so often to issue a whimpering bark.
“Sheila? What is it?”
The bull terrier barked again but didn’t even glance in his direction.
Jacob approached, looking around him. Beyond several rows of trees was a middle school. On the other side were three-story houses. Upper middle class territory.
Standing next to her, he asked again, “What is it, Sheila?”
She hunched down, pointing her nose. Jacob crouched. He used the flashlight and his free hand to untangle the weave of vegetation until he saw it. He blinked a few times and shook his head, something in him not wanting to believe he was staring at a gun.
It was black, the color of starless midnight, hard to really distinguish even with the flashlight shining on it. At first glance, it resembled a Colt Anaconda, but he knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t quite like any other revolver or even any other handgun he’d ever seen. Even on the current black market, where all kinds of firearms from the past hundred years could be found relatively easily, this thing would’ve been an oddity. He couldn’t resist picking it up.
It was ice cold, but Jacob grasped instead of dropping it. He was surprised the handle warmed almost instantly and to such a degree that the warmth enveloped his hand. It was as if he’d put on a glove. He ran his left hand over the barrel. It didn’t feel like metal; it was more like some kind of tough plastic, radiating warmth.
He heard two separate rustles in the treetops—one in the tree directly above him and one nearby. There was no breeze, and the commotion sounded like much more than what a squirrel could manage. Tiredness and confusion may have been feeding his paranoia, but he thought it best to move away quickly.
He tucked the gun into his jacket’s holster. Worried over Sheila, he’d made the rare mistake of leaving his pad while unarmed. If there were someone in the woods who meant him harm, he wanted something in his possession.
He rationalized his taking the gun in retrospect when he was halfway home and realized he still had it. The initial grab had been done out of pure instinct, part of a basic will to survive. Sheila had kept up as he ran and, at the halfway point, took the lead.
He hustled after her. He hadn’t heard any other noises behind him, but the right side of his chest, which was closest to the gun, felt warm. There was something special about the piece. He wanted to get home, safely, and examine it.
He checked behind him before he stepped onto his patio. Nothing.
He let Sheila inside, looked around again, then locked the patio door behind him. He pulled the blinds over the glass then headed toward the kitchen.
He laid the gun on the counter. He expected it to be glowing, but it remained black as obsidian. He stared at it for a moment, trying to figure the source of the warmth—as if sight alone would tell him—before he decided to open the cylinder. It’d be a good idea to check if the piece were loaded, and with what.
The gun was again ice cold but warmed instantly like before. An oddity, but it was nothing compared to what he saw when examining the cylinder. Each chamber appeared as if it were the inside of a tiny geode.
What the hell had he picked up?
His head jerked at the sound of a piercing screech coming from his bedroom.
The alarm clock. The alarm near his recliner would sound off in ten minutes. Jacob checked his watch. No hope of getting any decent shut-eye at this point. He decided he may as well head out to the diner early.
He carried the gun with him as he shut off the alarms. He then took it with him into the bathroom. Strange as the thing was, he wanted it near him. He allowed a significant distance only when he left it on the sink during the five minutes he spent in the shower. Even then, he did his best to keep an eye on it through the transparent shower curtain.
He dressed quickly then put out some food for Sheila. All the while, the bull terrier kept her eyes trained on the gun in her master’s waistband. “Be back around four for dinner,” he told her.
Thankfully, it was a crisp day. He could wear his work jacket over his regular outfit and no one would question it. Like many of his other jackets, it had a hidden holster that would cradle his new baby quite nicely. He usually didn’t carry at work, just kept a piece in his car. But he wasn’t going to part with his new foundling. Not until he knew more about it.
He set his apartment’s alarm and walked out the front door. Down the hall, the Ethiopian was hustling his kids out of the apartment, no doubt preparing to escort them to the bus stop.
On any other morning, Jacob would’ve turned away and headed for the floor’s other exit. Today, something impelled him to approach.
The Ethiopian seemed to notice him only after all the kids had been shuffled into the hall. After closing and locking his door, he turned to find Jacob almost nose-to-nose with him. Neither man moved.
“Call the cops on me again,” Jacob said, “and I’ll give you a damn good reason to.”
Jacob turned and walked toward the farther exit. He restrained himself from shoving any of the kids out of his way. He tried to walk as straight a line as possible, hoping the Ethiopian would call his bluff. Instead, he heard the man nervously whispering to his kids, hurrying them toward the closest exit.
The left side of Jacob’s chest felt warm. He smiled.