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SUNDAY, MARCH 15TH
48 hours until the shot
My key slid into the lock.
Something wasn’t right.
The mahogany front door to the four-story sandstone building that housed five offices, including my one-man law practice, looked like any other at this end of West Forty-sixth Street. The area was a mix of bars, noodle houses, high-class restaurants, accountants’ practices, and private medical consulting rooms, with each set of offices becoming classier the closer you got to Broadway. The paneled front door to my building had been painted blue about a month ago. The reverse side of the door boasted a hand-cut, steel-back plate—a little surprise for anyone who thought they could kick through one of the panels and open the door from the inside.
It was that kind of neighborhood.
When it comes to locks, I don’t have much experience. I don’t carry picks; never had a use for them, even in my former life as a con man. Unlike a lot of grifters, I didn’t target the ordinary inhabitants of New York. I had my sights set on the kind of individual that deserves to get his pocket picked. My favorite marks were insurance companies. The bigger the better. The way I saw it, they were the biggest con operation in the world. Only fair that they get their pocket felt once in a while. And to con an insurance company I didn’t need to break in; I just had to make sure I got invited. My game wasn’t all about the talk. I had the physical moves to back it up. I’d spent years studying sleight of hand. My dad had been quite the artist, a pro who worked the bars and subways. I learned from him, and over time I’d developed a deft touch: a profound sense of weight, feel, and movement. My father called it “smart hands.” It was this finely honed sense that told me something was wrong.
I removed the key from the lock. Slid it back in. Then out. Repeat.
The action was quieter and smoother than I’d remembered. Less clunky, less resistance, less pressure required. My key almost slid in by itself, as if it were moving through cream. I checked the teeth; they were as hard and sharp as freshly cut keys could get. The face of the lock, a standard double-cylinder dead bolt, bore scrapes around the keyhole, but then I remembered that the guy who ran the travel agency in the downstairs office liked bourbon in his morning coffee. I’d heard him fumbling with his keys a few times, and on the one morning that I’d passed him in the lobby, his breath had almost knocked me over. A year ago I wouldn’t have noticed. I would’ve been just as drunk as the travel agent.
Scrapes on the lock face aside, there was no denying the drastic change in the key action. If the landlord had changed the lock mechanism, my key wouldn’t have worked. No discernible odor from the lock or the key, which was dry to the touch. If a can of WD-40 had been sprayed in, I would’ve noticed the smell. There was really only one explanation: Somebody had forced the lock since I’d left the office earlier that morning. Sundays in the office were a necessary evil since I’d taken to sleeping in the place. I could no longer afford to keep up the rent on my apartment and an office. A foldout bed in the back room was all I needed.
The landlord couldn’t afford an alarm system. Neither could I, but I still wanted some measure of security. The door opened inward. I cracked it half an inch and saw the dime resting in the hollowed-out section on the right-hand side of the doorframe, the lock side, the door itself covering half the coin, stopping it from falling onto the step. In the evening, when I went out to get food, I slipped a dime into the gap between the frame and the door, slotting it into the dime-shaped hole I’d cut into the frame with a penknife. If somebody broke in and didn’t want me to know, he would hear the dime fall, recognize it as craft, and be careful to replace it. The hope lay in the intruder focusing on the noise and sparkle of the falling dime and failing to notice the toothpick jammed precisely ten inches above the first hinge on the opposite side of the door.
Whoever my intruder was that night, he’d been careful to replace the dime, but had missed the toothpick, which lay on the step.
Of the building’s five offices, three were occupied: a travel agency that was in the throes of liquidation, a financial adviser whom I’d yet to see anywhere near the place, and a shady-looking hypnotist who liked to do home visits. They were mostly nine-to-five operations, or in the case of the travel agent and the hypnotist, eleven-to-three operations. No way they’d come in on a Sunday, and no way they’d bother to replace the dime. If it had been my neighbors, they’d pocket the coin and forget about it.
I dropped my newspaper and bent down to pick it up. While I was resting on my haunches, I decided to retie my shoelaces. No one on my left. Nothing on my right.
Shuffling around to get at my other shoe, I scanned the opposite side of the street. Again, nothing. A few cars way down the street on my left, but they were old imports and the windshields were misted up; no way were they surveillance cars. Across the street to my right, a couple walked arm in arm into the Hourglass Tavern, theater junkies grabbing a bite before the show. Since I’d moved here I’d been in the tavern twice, ate the lobster ravioli both times and managed to avoid the mystery beer and shot special, which changed with the turning of the large hourglass on the wall behind the bar. Abstinence was still a one-day-at-a-time deal for me.
After closing the front door, I retrieved my paper from the steps, hugged my collar around my neck against the lingering winter chill, and started walking. As a con artist I’d made plenty of enemies, and I’d even managed to make a few more in my law career. These days I figured it paid to be cautious. I did a three-block loop using every countersurveillance technique I knew: turning down random alleyways; bursting into a light jog before I turned a corner, then slowing way down once I was on the other side; picking up my rearview in car windows and Plexiglas bus-stop advertising; stopping short and making quick turns and then retracing my steps. I began to feel a little foolish. There was no tail. I figured either the hypnotist got lucky and brought a client back to his office, or maybe the financial adviser was finally showing up to either empty his overflowing mailbox or to shred his files.
As I caught sight of my building once again, I didn’t feel quite so foolish. My office was on the third floor. The first two floors were in darkness.
A light shined from my window and it wasn’t my desk lamp. The beam of light appeared small, muted, and it tilted and moved.
My skin prickled and my breath left me in one long, misty exhalation. It crossed my mind that a normal person would call the cops. That wasn’t how I was brought up. When you make your living as a hustler, the cops don’t feature in your thought process. I handled all such business myself, and I needed to see who was in my office. I carried a tire iron in the Mustang’s trunk, but there was no point in going back to the parking lot to fetch it, as I didn’t feel like carrying that on the open street. I don’t own a gun; I don’t like them, but there were some home defense products that I didn’t mind using.
I opened the front door quietly, caught the dime before it hit the tiles, and took off my shoes in the lobby to keep the noise down before moving to the column of mailboxes on the wall.
In the box labeled EDDIE FLYNN, ATTORNEY, I had all the backup I would ever need.
Copyright © 2016, 2017 by Steve Cavanagh