O is for Outlaw Page 50

I passed through Mickey's bedroom and headed for the rear door, fumbling in my jeans pocket for the key. My hand was steady, but every other part of me was shaking so hard I couldn't hit the keyhole. I was afraid to use my flashlight because the guy had now moved to Mickey's bedroom window, where the tapping became sharper, a harsh clicking as though he might be rapping on the glass with a ring. "Open the fuck up and get your ass out here." He had moved the few steps to the front door, where he began to knock again. This time, the pounding was of the fee-fi-fo-fum variety and seemed to shake the intervening walls.

The next-door neighbor, whose bedroom must have been contiguous with Mickey's, yelled out his window, "Shaddup, you prick! We're tryin' to sleep in here."

The guy at the door said something even worse than the F word, which I won't repeat. I could hear him jingle his way toward the neighbor's bedroom window, where I pictured him bashing through the glass with his fist. Sure enough, I heard the impact of his blow and the subsequent tinkling of glass, followed by a startled yelp from the tenant. I took advantage of this tender Hallmark moment to shine a quick light on the keyhole. I turned the key in the lock and was almost out the door when I stopped in my tracks. I'd never get into this apartment again. By morning the sheriff's deputy would arrive and the locks would be changed. While I could probably pick my way in, I didn't want to take the risk. Now that all the stashes had been cleaned out, there was only one thing of value. I set down the two duffels and returned to Mickey's closet, where I lifted the leather jacket from its hanger and shrugged myself into it, then grabbed the two duffels and eased out the back door, barely pausing long enough to lock it.

I was halfway down the back stairs when a face appeared above me. Over the wrought-iron railing, I saw shaggy corn-yellow hair, a long bony face, narrow shoulders, and a sunken chest in a blue denim jacket with the sleeves cut out. I slung one duffel over my shoulder, hugged the other to my body, and began to bound down the stairs, taking them two at a time while the guy in the jacket strode toward the landing. I reached the bottom of the stairs at the same moment he started down. I could hear every step he took because of the jingling of his boots, which must have been decorated with chains. I ran on tiptoe, keeping wide on the outside, conscious to avoid knocking into the water meters near the building.

The manager's apartment was fully dark by now, but Cordia, as promised, had left the back door unlocked. I turned the knob and opened the door to let myself in. My entrance was delayed briefly when the duffel over my shoulder got hung up on the door frame. I jerked it free and flung both duffels into the room. I was just turning to close the door when Dorothy streaked out through the narrow opening. She must have come running to see what I was up to and then couldn't resist making a bid for freedom. Once out, she stopped, astonished to find herself alone in the chilly dark at that hour. I heard a thumping noise and a resounding curse. The guy must have caught a foot on a water meter and gone down sprawling. I could hear him cussing as he recovered his gait and came limping down on us in a towering rage. If he caught up with Dorothy, he was going to wring her neck and fling her over the fence, thus forcing her return to this life in some other form. I grabbed her by the tail and dragged her backward while she struggled to gain purchase on the concrete with her outstretched claws. I hauled her, squawking, into the dark of the kitchen, closed the door, and bolted it in one motion.

I sank down on the floor, clutching her against me while my heart kept on banging and my breath came in gasps. I heard the jingling footsteps approach and come to a halt outside the Hatfields' door. The guy kicked the door hard enough to hurt himself. He must have had a flashlight with him, because a beam was soon being played across the far wall, briefly raking the kitchen table. The wand of light streaked back and forth. At one point, I could tell he'd angled up on tiptoe, trying to shine the light down into the darkened area where I was crouched. Meanwhile, Dorothy strained against my embrace and finally manage to wiggle free. I lunged, but she eluded me. She gave me a cranky look and then made a point of sashaying toward the dining room so that her path took her directly through his beam of light. There was a long, labored silence. I thought he'd break the door down, but he must have thought better of it. Finally, I heard the scritch and jingle of his boots as they receded along the walkway.

I slumped against the door, waiting to hear his motorcycle start up and go screaming away in the night. There was no such reassuring sound. I finally staggered to my feet, retrieved the two duffels, and crept through the dining room toward the guest room. The nightlight in the hallway illuminated my way. The two other bedroom doors were closed, Cordia and Belmira having slept through the uproar in the enveloping silence of poor hearing. Once in the guest room, I kicked my shoes off and lay down on the bed, still wearing Mickey's jacket. Dorothy was already on the bed. The pillow turned out to be hers so I wasn't allowed the full use of it, just a few paltry inches around the edges. The still-indignant cat now felt compelled to wash from head to toe, comforting herself after the insult of having her tail pulled so rudely. The bedroom curtains were closed, but I found myself staring at them, fearful a fist would come smashing through the glass. Dorothy's steady licking took on a restful quality. The warmth of my body activated Mickey's personal scent from the lining of the jacket. Cigarette smoke and Aqua Velva. I stopped shivering and eventually fell asleep with Dorothy's feet resting neatly in my hair.

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