Mercy gave me directions to be dropped off at an apartment where a friend was letting her couch surf. We drove silently through the dark streets, each lost in our own thoughts. So much so, I made three wrong turns when Mercy’s instructions came a little to late.
I was finally feeling the stress of the confrontations with Detective Ames and with Keith. It bugged me that Keith would be so easily motivated by outright greed. He had never been like that before. Even rejecting his responsibilities with Ella had been more about his insecurities and fears than outright selfishness.
I tried to shrug it off. Obviously, the man had changed. More than I would have thought possible. But my mind kept going back to the holes in his narrative. Keith wasn’t telling me everything. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something important about the change from the man I’d loved to the man I’d confronted today.
Mercy leaned over my shoulder from the back seat and pointed to a building. “That's it, Nicola.”
I pulled over and she got out. She leaned in through the door to talk. “I appreciate the lift. And I'm sorry it didn't go as well as you hoped.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe we just need to sleep on it or something. We can talk to Muriel again tomorrow and see if she is leaving Keith's legionnaires. If so, we have a mission accomplished, and that’s that.”
Mercy paused and rolled her shoulders. I got the feeling she was unhappy with what I'd said, but I couldn't figure out why that would be.
She raised her head and peered over the car at the apartment building across the street. “Speaking of Keith...” She jerked her chin towards the entryway. Keith was just walking into the building.
Joseph raised his eyebrows. “Well, well, well. Just like a bad penny, he turns up. What are the chances?”
I shut off the ignition and opened the door.
“Hey!” Joseph called. “What are you doing?”
I leaned down to talk. “I want to clarify something that’s been bugging me with Keith. You can stay here, if you don't want to come.”
I trotted over to the sidewalk, smacking the head of a statue of an angel with one wing broken off. Joseph caught up just as I reached the door. I noticed Mercy trailing behind him.
I frowned when I realized that the door was the kind that you needed a code for or to be buzzed in. That could be a problem.
I pulled on the door anyways, choosing the obvious but futile attempt first. The door unlatched and opened easily. A quick glance showed us that someone had abused the latch until it had broken.
We walked inside and stopped. None of us knew which of the dozens of apartments on three stories was Keith's. I looked around the tiny entryway, feeling stupid, until Joseph spotted a list of names on the buzzers outside. I crossed my fingers, since a lot of apartments didn't bother keeping up with the high turnover of tenants. But, there it was, “Ludlow, K” on the tag for apartment 3F.
“Well, aren't we all double-O seven?” Joseph laughed as we walked to the stairs. “Finding the evil mastermind behind the plot to destroy the world.”
I snorted. “So now Keith is Dr. No?” I asked as I started up the darkened steps.
I glanced out of the huge window that served as the outer wall of the stairwell. With the lighting in the stairwell out, I could easily make out our car across the street, and a man walking along the sidewalk next to it. I frowned, thinking the way the man walked was somehow familiar.
“Naturally,” he said, drawing my attention back with a Sean Connery-esque accent. “And you, my dear, are shaken, not stirred.”
Our laughter echoed in the dark stairwell, as I huffed my way up the stairs. In the dim light of the street lamps filtering in through the huge window that served as the outer wall of the stairwell, I saw Joseph breathing heavily. I noticed that Mercy didn't get winded at all. Bitch. The jealous thought that I sent her way had no real animosity to it.
We reached the third floor and began walking down the hallway. I noted the door that was probably 3F and kept my eyes on it, locking on to our goal.
The door burst open, making us jump, and several tough looking men walked out. Their body language screamed aggression and I stopped in my tracks before I even noticed the guns and knives they had in their hands and strapped to their legs.
I grabbed Joseph's arm, pulling him behind me as my mind raced through scenarios. We were only a few feet from the stairwell. The hallway was straight with no corners or side halls. The stairwell had a fire door. The men hadn't turned towards us yet. There was no way to know for sure that they would attack us.
I pulled at my memories for an emotion that I didn't feel often: paranoid alertness. I found it buried in my childhood when I used to go walking in the sparse forests of my grandparent's house in the country. I'd just seen a large paw print and convinced myself that a mountain lion could be in the area. A snapped twig had set my nerves on edge instantly.
I used the emotional energy to see the men’s auras. An overlay of colors and vague shapes showed me what kind of people they were. Horns, claws, fangs, rage, blood.
Pushing Joseph towards the stairs and hissing at Mercy, I turned and ran for it. A shout behind me told me they'd spotted us, and I cringed when a loud, sharp cracking noise sounded.
We ran through the door, and Mercy and I turned in perfect synchronicity to shut it behind us. Our eyes met and I saw surprised approval in hers.
I filed that away as we turned and stumbled down the stairs as fast as our feet would move. I clutched the banister to keep my balance as we swung around each corner on the stairwell.
The door above us crashed open and the uppermost pane of the huge window shattered as the fire door flew through the glass. I barely noticed the bits of glass falling around us as we hit the front door as fast as we could move.
We burst out of the apartment building and ran for the car. I threw a glance over my shoulder just as we hit the street. I could see the shadows of the men moving in the stairwell.A loud crack rang out in the night and another pane of glass shattered. I stumbled over the fire door, now laying across the sidewalk, and lost my balance.