JACOB first noticed the moving boxes on Tuesday morning.
He didn’t think much of it at first. It had been almost three months since old, cranky Mrs. Parker moved out with her six equally old, equally cranky cats, and it was about time someone new came in to fill the apartment next to his own. Preferably someone without Mrs. Parker’s penchant for playing daytime soap operas at a volume loud enough to vibrate Jacob’s walls.
There were six boxes total, unmarked cardboard, all the same size and all unlabeled. They were set in a neat stack in front of the closed door, three on top of three. No one was around. The hallway was empty.
Jacob didn’t give it much thought. He was an early riser, and as it was barely six o’clock, it made sense no one was around. Six normal-looking moving boxes were nothing to blink at. By the time he got back from his run, ate breakfast, and headed off to work, he’d pretty much forgotten all about it.
When he got back at five, all but one of the boxes were gone. By the next morning, the hallway was clear. No U-Haul out front, no big, burly moving men hefting furniture up the stairs. Just those six boxes that had been there and now weren’t. Jacob had yet to see or hear anyone entering or exiting the apartment next door.
That was when it threw him a little. Jacob had never been the nosy type, but the walls here were pretty thin—he used to be able to hear Mrs. Parker’s cats meowing at dinnertime, so it seemed logical that he should be able to hear something of his new neighbor: the television playing, furniture moving around, something. The silence was a little creepy.
When he went to work that morning, some of the uneasiness must have shown on his face, because they were barely halfway through introductory exercises when Shawn remarked off-handedly, “Somethin’ bothering you, Teach?”
Shawn Patrell was a forty-three-year-old African American with a surprisingly lean physique, considering he was an ex-Marine. Now a beat cop well known in the precinct for terrorizing local thugs on a regular basis, Jacob always found himself wondering why Shawn even bothered taking a martial-arts class when one dangerous look was usually enough to send the gangbangers running. Not that he particularly minded, though. Whether it was from his years in the military or as a police officer, Shawn had an almost uncanny ability to pick up on the smallest details, which meant he was often able to figure out what Jacob was feeling long before Jacob himself did.
Like today. Jacob shrugged, casting a quick glance over the rest of his class to make sure they were doing their lunges properly. “Not really,” he answered as he took the class up to a faster tempo. “I think—you gotta go lower than that, Leila—that’s right, good girl—I think I got a new neighbor this week.”
“Oh.” Shawn didn’t break his rhythm, matching Jacob’s form perfectly. “Ain’t that a good thing? You hated that creepy cat lady.”
“Mrs. Parker wasn’t a creepy cat lady,” Jacob answered automatically, but even he could hear the lack of conviction in his voice.
Shawn just laughed. “Whatever you say, Teach. So, what’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem,” Jacob answered, but when Shawn just gave him a decidedly skeptical look, he sighed. “It’s just that… well, he—or she, whatever—has apparently already moved in and everything, but I haven’t heard or seen anything all week. Isn’t that weird?”
“Maybe they doin’ all the movin’ while you at work,” Shawn offered.
“Yeah, but when I’m home I think I’d be able to hear something through the walls, at least,” Jacob replied, and Shawn chuckled.
“Well, Teach, number one, you’re gettin’ a little creepy there yourself, and number two, it don’t strike me as nothin’ strange. I once got a call from a woman who hadn’t seen or heard her neighbor leave the house for two weeks, thought we was gonna go in there an’ find a DB, but it turns out he just broke his foot playin’ basketball or some shit and was just lyin’ in bed watchin’ porn all day.”
Jacob couldn’t help but smile. “So you’re saying that, with one week of silence, I’m being paranoid, but with two weeks, I’ll have precedent?”
“Sure, sure,” Shawn replied, eyes twinkling, “then, if it comes down to it, I’ll bust in your neighbor’s door myself.”
“Why, officer, you make me feel so well protected.”
“Just doin’ my job. Oh, and Teach?”
“You about ready to move on to somethin’ else? Leila looks like she gonna collapse if she gotta do another lunge.”
Fifty minutes later, Jacob clapped his hands decisively together, ending the final sparring session. “Okay, that wraps it up!” he called, nodding at each of his students in turn. “Remember, work on those uppercuts and the dropkicks. We’ll do advanced takedowns next time. Have a good day, people!”
There were a few polite thank-yous tossed his way before his students promptly headed to the back of the workout room to collect their duffel bags and work clothes. Jacob smiled quietly to himself. Despite the little lunge fest at the beginning, it had been a good class. Everyone was a regular and, as usual, had followed his instructions to the tee. It was why Jacob loved teaching advanced classes, and also precisely why he definitely wasn’t looking forward to the two beginner classes he was slated to lead before noon. More often than not, they tended to be filled with either bright-eyed teenage girls looking to become the next Lara Croft in order to impress their boyfriends, or young tough-guy types who gave Jacob so much trouble it was all he could manage not to punch them in their sneering faces and just be done with it.
“Steelin’ yourself for the newbies, Teach?” Shawn asked, coming up to stand beside him, duffel bag slung over one shoulder.
Jacob shrugged. “Gotta make a living somehow,” he answered, and Shawn laughed.
“Maybe you oughta just kick those punks right outta your classes,” he said. “Sure would make my job easier, anyhow. I ain’t lookin’ forward to the day I come up against some banger who just happened to learn his jujitsu from you.”
Jacob just grinned. “Well, in that case, I guess you’ll just have to counter with the judo and Krav Maga moves I taught you. Can’t be damaging your street cred, after all, officer.”
Shawn’s jolly reply was cut off by a familiar voice. “Hey, Jacob?”
Inwardly, Jacob sighed, but when he turned around to address the woman who had spoken, his smile was real. “Yes, Amy?”
Amy Lockhart was a graduate student at the local university, twenty-seven years old, a pleasant—if slightly shallow—young woman with long, blonde hair and expressive blue eyes. She was smart when it came to doing lit reviews and writing ethnographies, but not so quick on the uptake when it came to taking a hint, and Jacob already had a good idea where this conversation was headed.
“So I was thinking of going tonight to check out that new restaurant that opened on Thirty-Second Street, the Italian place?” Amy said and gave him a charming smile. “I could sure use some company.”
Jacob gave another inward sigh, reaching a hand up to run his fingers backward through his hair. He’d already lost count of how many times Amy had asked him out, and each time he had gently but firmly refused. For good reason too, he knew. Amy was a sweet girl, pretty and petite, but in Jacob’s case it was a textbook case of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” But Amy was persistent, and he was running out of excuses. Maybe it was time to just tell her the truth. She deserved it, anyway. After faithfully attending his classes for so many months, the least she deserved was to be told she was barking up the wrong tree. He rather suspected the only reason she continued coming to class was because of him, anyway.
Next to him, Shawn cleared his throat. “Y’know, Miss Amy, me an’ Teach was just gonna go out for drinks at the pub tonight. Some o’ my guys been complainin’ they ain’t seen him since the MMA seminar in the summer, and they lookin’ for some pointers, know what I mean? So s’okay if I steal ’im, just for tonight?”
Amy frowned, and for a moment Jacob thought she was going to insist. Shawn gave her his most winning I’m-just-your-friendly-neighborhood-policeman smile. “Pretty please, Miss Amy?”
Amy sighed. “Well, all right,” she said, rolling her eyes as if extremely put-upon, although they could all tell it was mostly for show. “I guess it’s okay with me, but only because you asked so nicely, Officer Patrell.”
“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” Shawn answered, tipping an imaginary hat. Amy laughed, winked at Jacob, and walked away. Jacob let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.
“Wow, Shawn, I owe you one,” he said, giving his student a grateful smile, and Shawn grinned back.
“No problemo, Teach,” he said, giving Jacob a friendly pat on the shoulder. “I wasn’t kiddin’ ’bout the drinks, though. Me an’ some other boys from the precinct’re hittin’ up O’Toole’s after the shift, pro’ly be there around six. You down?”
Jacob thought briefly about his plans for the evening, which basically involved eating dinner alone, watching Jeopardy, and surfing YouTube. The decision really wasn’t that hard to make. “Yeah. I’m down.”
“Awesome. Oh, and, Teach?”
Shawn leaned close, whispering as if it were a secret. “If you wanna throw Amy off your track, just tell ’er to come by in the afternoons, y’know, when you teachin’ your other class. That oughtta set her straight, if y’know what I mean.”
Jacob rolled his eyes at the lame joke but couldn’t keep from smiling. Shawn, after all, made a very good point.