Tim had to constantly remind himself to keep his pace down. Cleve Isaacs seemed to be a pretty good guy, but he was still getting used to bicycling everywhere. The big black ex-cop was a little out of shape, as he readily admitted, but Charles recommended him and Tim had no objections.
“Here we are.” Tim braked and slid alongside the curb on the left side of the street, Cleve behind him, in front of a parked white pickup. They dismounted and lifted their bikes over the curb. Tim stopped, turned, and spat at the truck. It continued to whisper as they carried their bikes up the walkway.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Cleve said with a grin. “Couple miles. Just have to do it ten times, and we’ll be there, right?”
“That’s a good way of looking at it. We’re not in any hurry — if we leave after an early breakfast we can be there by lunch. I’m expecting to take plenty of breaks to let the people who aren’t used to riding rest their butts. But if you’re not used to it, you’ll still be sore after a twenty-miler.”
“Yeah, I guess. Well, let’s see what’s going on up here.” They carried their bikes inside and left them in the alcove.
Rebecca’s apartment was on the third floor of a five-story building. The ground floor was devoted to a small lobby with art deco revival styling, a mail alcove, and a few offices. There had been little here to attract looters, so it was relatively unmolested. The lobby smelled of stale air with a trace of unplugged refrigerator behind it; the only sounds were from outside. Cleve, out of habit, walked toward the elevator and nearly had his finger on the button before he remembered and laughed. “Guess we’re taking the stairs, huh?”
“Yeah, I always took ’em, it’s only two flights. Faster than waiting for that elevator.” He grinned. “Especially now.” Tim showed Cleve to a short hallway leading to the stairway door. Small windows gave enough light to see in the stairwell, but little more. “Let’s go.”
“Whoa! Red! We gotta stick together! I can’t take those steps four at a time!” Cleve rasped. Tim stopped at the landing and waited for Cleve to catch up. “You never know, there might be people waiting up here.” He pulled his gun and pointed at Tim’s holster.
“How do we do this?” Tim whispered, drawing his own pistol.
“Side by side. That way, they can’t take us with one shot. You watch our backs.” They crept up the next flight, Tim looking back. “No windows in the doors. Good and bad.”
“They can’t see us, and we can’t see them?”
“Right. Two more flights?”
“Yeah.” They continued up the stairs to the third floor.
“Okay,” Cleve said, “this is a steel door. You pull it open quick, and cover yourself with it. I’ll look down to the left. If that’s good, I’ll give you the thumbs-up, and you peek around the door and check the hallway.”
“What about the hall to the right?”
Cleve knelt next to the door, pistol ready. “I’ll make sure of that too. Ready? Go!”
Tim yanked the door open, walking it backwards as Cleve snapped his gun down and watched. He stood, peered to the left, then gave Tim a thumbs-up. Tim ducked down, then peeked around the door. “Nothing.”
Cleve dived into the hall, landing with a muffled grunt on his left side. “It’s clear,” he whispered. “What’s her number?”
“308. About halfway down.”
“Okay. You lead, I’ll watch our backs. Side by side again. Look for doors that aren’t shut all the way.”
They worked their way down the hall to 308, making nearly no noise walking on the shabby grey carpet. Up here, unplugged refrigerator odor took center stage, crowding aside the musty stale smell of unoccupied living space. “Shit,” Tim whispered. “Her door is ajar.”
“I thought it was a door,” Cleve whispered back; Tim rolled his eyes. “Sorry. Don’t tense up. Doesn’t mean there’s anyone behind it.
“Okay, time to make some noise. Stand beside the door, knock, call for her, and tell her it’s you. If she’s there on a hair-trigger, she probably won’t shoot unless you really pissed her off — she’s your ex, right? Best case, she tells us to come in. Second best case, nobody’s there. Worst case, we alert anyone else in here to our presence, if I didn’t do it with my dive through the door. But it’s too quiet in here, I don’t think anyone’s home. I’ll watch the hall. You look for changes in the light, shadows, whatever might indicate movement behind that door. If your knock doesn’t push the door open, go ahead and push from where you’re standing. We’ll make it up from there.”
“That’s encouraging,” Tim whispered. “Okay, here goes.” He knocked on the door and called as it swung open. “Rebecca? It’s Tim! Tim Petro. Don’t shoot!”
Except for the door bumping its stop, there was no sound from the apartment. “Now what?”
Cleve ducked around Tim to the other side of the door and looked inside. “Go in low, I’ll cover.”
“I sort of remember the layout of the place,” Tim said. “The kitchen and dining nook are around this divider. The living room and bedroom have windows. If there’s anyone lying in wait, they’ll be in the dining nook. Maybe the kitchen.”
“Maybe. You go in low and cover that stuff to the left. I’ll come in high and watch the rest.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Tim dived, imitating Cleve’s dive from the stairwell, but landing on his right side. Cleve slipped in behind him, taking in the entire place. Nobody greeted them or opened fire.
“I think she’s flown the coop, buddy,” Cleve said.
“Yeah. Jeez, her refrigerator stinks. But we still have to check the bedroom and bathroom.”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Off the kitchen. It goes through to the bedroom.”
“Fine,” Cleve said. “We’ll check the bedroom. Same drill as before.”
They approached the bedroom door, standing half open. “Damn,” Tim said, wrinkling his nose. “The toilet backed up or something.”
Cleve only grunted.
“Rebecca?” Tim called, pushing the door open. Then, “Rebecca!” He ran in; Cleve cursed under his breath and hurried to cover him.
Tim stood over the bed, shaking a woman lying face down on the bed, calling her name over and over. Cleve checked the bathroom, looked out the window, and walked to the nightstand. “Hey. Tim. I think she’s gone.” He lifted an empty pill bottle. “Hydrocodone/acetaminophen… not hers, but I guess that’s one way to do it. Here, let’s turn her over. Might as well make sure it’s her.”
“It’s her,” Tim said. “See that?” He lifted her hair and pointed to a cross tattooed on the back of her neck. He looked up at Cleve, tears on his cheeks. “She was Catholic. When it came down to that or me, she chose it. I wouldn’t convert.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “How long? She’s cold.”
“Not long after the power went out, I’m guessing. She left a window open, and it isn’t hot. In a couple days… well, never mind that. Check the other side of the bed, she might have left a note.”
Tim walked around, stooped, and brought up a piece of paper. “She did!” He read:
I can’t do this. It keeps calling to me, night and day. I can’t sleep for its jabber. But I WON’T GO. I heard gunshots Friday and Saturday, and I hoped someone was killing the trucks. But nobody came.
My final confession: bless me Father, for I have sinned. I have cursed the trucks. I have stolen food from other apartments, knowing the people will not come back. I have wished to die. I will die by my own hand, for this I pray your forgiveness. But if I live, the trucks will take my soul, and better Hell than what they would do. I have seen it. Blessed Savior, forgive my sin and receive my soul this night, so the trucks will not devour it. And if Tim Petro has not been taken, I pray to Our Father that he will come to know You.
Tim dropped to the floor and sobbed. Cleve laid a hand on his shoulder for a moment, then slipped into the living room to watch the hallway and give Tim a little privacy.