Authors: Peter Clines
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
“Sorry,” said Sean. “No offense meant.”
“Don’t mind him,” said Nate. “Repeated testing has proved he’s an idiot.”
Oskar snorted again, but his lips bent into a smile. “You will like it here. It is a good building. Your room has the best view. If you need anything, I am in room twelff, downstairs in the front. Please do not knock after six except for emergencies.”
“Great,” said Nate. “Thanks a lot.”
The manager gave another sharp nod and lumbered back down the stairwell.
“No elevator, then,” said Sean. “How many boxes you got in the Bug?”
“Maybe a dozen. Nothing too heavy.”
Before the unloading began, Sean went to the corner store and bought a bag of chips and a six-pack to christen the empty refrigerator. It took five more trips to empty the Volkswagen. They sat on the couch and each drank their second beer.
“I think it’s going to be a nice place,” said Nate.
“Yeah,” said Sean, gazing out the window, “it’s pretty cool. That it for today?”
“I’m gonna try to organize some of this and then maybe head back later for another load of boxes. If I can get two or three loads tomorrow, that should be everything.”
“We can load up the truck again, get it all in one go.”
“Nah, you’ve done enough, man. Besides, you haven’t even started packing your own stuff.”
“Yeah, about that,” Sean said. “If I help you with another load, can I have your boxes?”
He chuckled. “Sure. Organizing can wait.”
“You staying here tonight?”
Nate looked around the studio. “Hadn’t really thought about it. But yeah, it’s that or sleep on the floor back at the house.” He slapped the futon twice. The bare mattress kicked up a little puff of dust. He looked at his former roommate and shrugged.
Sean sighed. “Then you’re moved out.”
“I’m left alone with the lovebirds for another two weeks. A third wheel in my own home.” He set his bottle down on the empty bookshelf and pulled out his phone. “Come on. I can have a farewell pizza waiting for us by the time we get back over there.”
Nate locked up and they headed back to the stairwell.
“Hell,” said Sean.
Nate looked around. “What?”
Sean pointed at the door marked 23. The door had a lock plate with a small socket above it, but there was no sign of a doorknob.
“Crap,” Nate said. “Did we knock it off?”
“Maybe they’re doing work in there,” said Sean. “Easy way for the crew to lock it. Just take the whole doorknob.”
“Maybe.” Nate looked up and down the hall. “Not the best thing for my first day.”
“If we did it.”
“The entertainment center’s pretty solid. Could’ve whacked it right off.”
Sean shook his head. “I didn’t do it, and I didn’t hear you do it.”
“Quietly away then?”
“I think so.”
They headed for the stairwell.
The second load went off without a hitch, although, as Sean predicted, there was no parking. Nate drove around for fifteen minutes and eventually found a place he could parallel park in, although he had to wiggle his Volkswagen back and forth five times to get flush with the sidewalk in the tiny space. They unloaded and Sean headed off at sundown with half the boxes and a promise to return next weekend for the rest of them.
Nate spent an hour setting up the entertainment system with his old DVD player and even older television. The bookshelves were stocked with his eclectic mix of books and knickknacks. He wedged the desk in a corner facing away from the window and opened up his battered laptop. The screen was coming apart at the seams, torqued open by the poorly-designed hinge, and he was holding it together with duct tape. Now that he’d emptied his savings, the tape would have to hold a little longer.
The lone closet was too small for all his clothes. Not by much, but enough that he knew it would be a constant battle if he decided to force them in there. He ended up folding some dress shirts and nicer pants and sticking them on one of the empty bookshelves. He usually stored his t-shirts there, anyway.
He dropped a cluster of clothes hangers on the closet pole. One bounced free and clattered to the floor. He bent after it and noticed the shape.
Almost invisible in the back of the closet was a panel the size of a folded newspaper. It was painted with the same latex that covered most of the vertical surfaces in the apartment, and had been coated so many times the seams around it had almost vanished. He rapped his knuckles on it and a wooden echo sounded in the closet. There was an empty space behind it.
Nate stood up and walked through his small home. Going off eyeball measurements, it looked like the panel lined up with the bathtub. Maybe a shut-off valve which hadn’t been used in ages. The maintenance crew probably didn’t even know it was there. Just a detail that vanished between contractors. Odds were they had to shut off the water to the whole building now to do any work.
He finished in the closet and decided to move to the kitchen. He only had three boxes to unpack in there, but he figured it’d be nice to wake up and find the coffee maker ready to go, and maybe a coffee cup somewhere nearby.
It had gotten dark while he worked in the main room of the studio. He felt the wall of the kitchen and failed to locate the light switch. It took him a minute, but he spotted it in the spill of light from the other room. A two-switch panel sat three feet from the doorway, just far enough away to be awkward.
Nate flicked the first switch and nothing happened. The second switch caused a loud growl from the sink. He flinched and the disposal rattled to a halt.
He flipped the first switch again and looked up at the fixture. A faint glimmer came from behind the frosted globe. He flipped the switch a few more times without a better response.
“Son of a bitch,” he sighed.
The apartment ceilings were high. Not cathedral high, but two or three feet more than average. A moment of climbing got him balanced on the countertop. The checkered tiles were cold against his bare feet. He leaned out, unscrewed the fixture’s bolts with one hand, and let the globe settle into his hands.
The bulb’s filament gave out a weak glow, but no real light. He gave it a few taps with his fingernail. The filament shivered but didn’t get any brighter.
In Nate’s limited electrical experience, this was a power problem. A few opinions of his new home’s maintenance crews stampeded through his mind. He corralled them just as quickly. No one would’ve been working on the apartment at night. They just didn’t know it was broken.
He set the globe down on the counter and straightened up to give the bulb one last tap. As he did he noticed his hand. The base of his fingernails, the cuticles, were tinged with bright blue. It was so bright they almost glowed.
, thought Nate,
It was a party bulb. The last tenant had left a black light in the kitchen fixture. It wasn’t one of the cheap ones made with purple glass, so it had passed as a regular bulb. The white tiles on the checkerboard countertop had a faint gleam to them, too.
He leaned out again and set his fingertips against it. The glass was hot, but not enough to burn. A few quick twists and the bulb dropped into his hand. He let it roll back and forth, never settling against his skin for too long, and set it down on a pile of dishtowels and cloth napkins.
There were two spare bulbs in one of the boxes. It took a few minutes to find them, and he shook one against his ear, listening for the jingle of a broken filament. He switched off the fixture, set the new bulb down next to the black light, and worked his way back up onto the counter.
Nate got the new light in place without too much effort. He balanced himself against one of the kitchen cabinets and bent over to the switches. He flicked the first switch back to the on position.
He straightened up on the countertop. “Stupid fucker,” he said. He’d fumbled around in the dark and put the black light back into the socket. His cuticles were gleaming again.
Nate stretched out his foot and used his toes to swat the light switch back to the off position. He unscrewed the bulb and went through the careful balancing act of swapping the two bulbs. Once it was in place, he reached down and turned the light on again.
The bulb gave out the dim glow of black light.
Nate wrinkled his brow. He’d swapped them this time. He was sure of it.
He flipped the switch, pulled the bulb, and hopped off the counter. He took both light bulbs into the studio where the light was good.
The one in his left hand was a General Electric. He recognized the cursive G E in the text circling the top of the glass ball. Beneath the logo were the words LONG LIFE WHITE in an arc. It was fifty-seven watts, an energy-saver. It was one of the ones he’d brought with him.
The bulb in his right hand, the one in the light to start with, didn’t have a fancy logo. It was just marked K-LITE. It also was fifty-seven watts.
It also wasn’t a black light.
Nate worked at a magazine in Hollywood. Not the shining steel and glass Hollywood always seen on television, though. The part he worked in had rattling elevators, no air conditioning, and ten-year-old computers. The magazine was the same—not A list, but solidly in the Bs. He knew it had something to do with movies and celebrities, or maybe the different crew people behind the scenes, but truth be told he’d never been interested enough to pick up an issue and read it.
He’d stumbled into the data entry job and had been doing it for almost two years now. He was technically a part-time temp, but his bosses always pushed to get forty hours a week out of him. The idea of actually hiring him full-time had never been brought up by either side. This was an unspoken understanding.
It was a mindless way to earn nine twenty-five an hour. The magazine sent out thousands of mailers, flyers, and sample issues every month, and a fair share of them came back in white mail crates, bundled together in packets of a hundred or more. His job was to compare the addresses to ones in the database and determine whether they were current or flagged for non-delivery. The catch was that the database grew by a hundred names or more every week, some of which were just the same clients being listed under a new entry. Plus each week brought another crate or two of returns to his cubicle.
The cubicles defined the company in so many ways. They were bulky partitions, salvaged from the offices of a bigger company when it went belly-up. Each oversized wall and its base took up so much space that the room was a model of inefficiency. Anne and Zack, the other two semi-permanent temps, had to turn sideways to get into their cubicles. Jimmy, the office intern, had to climb over chairs to get to his. Nate only rated the cubicle by the door because nobody wanted to wrestle the mail crates into one of the others.
He reached for another bundle of returns and heard a sigh behind him. He tried not to flinch.
“I tried to call you last night,” said Eddie.
Eddie was the worst sort of employer. He thought he was a generous, fair man with a firm grasp of business. He was actually a tightwad middle-manager with few good ideas who micromanaged everyone. Nate had worked in the office for two weeks when he was given a long speech about how he wasn’t applying himself and meeting expected quotas. He’d countered with some very simple math and shown how Eddie’s expectations were impossible for anyone to achieve. His boss had stood there, staring at him, and then wandered away. Three days later, he’d come back to moan about how he’d expected the whole project to be done the week before.
There was a shuffle of chairs as Zack and Anne leaned out to see if they were Eddie’s chosen focus today. Once they realized his gaze was on Nate, they slipped back into their own cubicles.
“Sorry,” said Nate. “What’s up?”
“Why didn’t you answer your cell phone?”
“It never rang.”
“I called three times,” said Eddie.
Nate felt a moment of relief and annoyance at the same time. If something was important enough to call three times on a Wednesday night, Eddie would’ve been down in Nate’s cubicle first thing Thursday morning, not late in the afternoon. He’d called for something petty, been annoyed he couldn’t get through, and only remembered his annoyance after lunch.
“I guess I was in a dead spot,” said Nate. He focused on the new bundle of return slips and peeled off the rubber band.
“We’re in the middle of Los Angeles and you’re trying to tell me you couldn’t get a cell phone signal?
“I bet it’s my new place,” said Nate after a moment’s thought. He shrugged. “The walls are all brick and plaster. I think it doubles as a bomb shelter. When war breaks out, you can all hide out at my place.”
He heard a quick snort of laughter from Anne’s cubicle. She was the one bright spot in the office. She was another temp like him, with the cheekbones, eyes, and body of a model. Her hair stretched down to her waist. Anne had been at the office for eight months now.