The outside light was off. I fumbled for my keys, and found the keyhole with my fingertips. The key turned easily. The door was unlocked. I pushed the door open and crossed into the deeper blackness of the hallway. I felt a breath of air on the back of my neck as the door swung shut behind me. I smelled bourbon, cigarette smoke, and sweat.
A hand clamped over my mouth and a body pressed against mine. A voice rasped in my ear.
I leaned forward, raising one foot, and brought it down hard on his instep. I spun around, swinging my purse, and clobbered him with it. I heard a gratifying howl.
It was over in an instant. So fast, in fact, that I hadn’t had time to register what the voice had said.
“Don’t say nothin’, Cat. It’s me.”
Now there was another voice speaking.
“Aw, man, what you want to pull this shit for? I told you not to pull this shit on Cat. Who you think you are, man, the Boston strangler? You scarin’ Cat. Plus, she a trained detective, man. You can’t go jumping out at her and expect not to get your ass beat.”
Actually, I was a detective in training, which wasn’t quite the same thing. But if my adversaries wanted to think I was the Bruce Lee of geriatric gumshoes, it was okay by me.
The lights flashed on. I blinked.
“Here, lemme see where you hit.”
A middle-aged, medium-height, gray-haired black man was bending over a white man whose face I couldn’t see, but who was wearing a camouflage jacket. It was Curtis, unofficial leader among the street people of my acquaintance, and one of his pals, a Vietnam vet named Steel. If they had other names, I had never heard them.
I should have been pissed. To tell you the truth, though, I kind of appreciated the opportunity to practice my self-defense skills. And if somebody’s going to break into your apartment building and sneak up on you in the dark, you’d like it to be a friend. I couldn’t wait to tell Mel that her training had paid off. Who says your reflexes slow down when you get older?
“Aw, man, whadja hit me with, Cat? I feel like I’ve been hit in the head with a fuckin’ grenade, man.”
“Oh, lighten up,” I said. “It was just a purse.” I held up a bag the size of Mount Rushmore. For two hellish years during my career as a mother, I’ve been suckered into service as a goddamn Girl Scout troop leader, and now I was being rewarded for having to cross-stitch that stupid motto on a mangled doily: “Be prepared.”
“This was his idea, Cat,” Curtis assured me. “I didn’t have nothin’ to do with this part of it. You got some ice?”
I nodded, unlocked the door to my apartment, and headed for the kitchen. Three cats came racing down the stairs to follow me in.
“What are you, on break or something?” I said to Sidney, my little black watchcat. “You couldn’t tell me they were there?” He purred loudly and circled my ankles, pleased with all the commotion. He knew the difference between friends and enemies, even if they both tended to break in and act weird afterward. In my first case, he had captured a burglar, but that poor sucker had probably made the mistake of failing to scratch Sidney behind the ears.