The Well-Lit Room
By Jeff Baker
Most of the time I don’t spend my time peeping through keyholes. Mainly because most people who hire a private eye in the 21st Century like me, Andrew Navarro, don’t have doors with keyholes. In fact the last few clients I’ve had you needed a keycard not a key to open a door.
And most of my cases don’t involve ghosts.
My latest client named (so help me) Eggbert Walton, had offices in a renovated Victorian house, that had originally been built for a wealthy family and I guess had been pretty ritzy and modern in its day. Now it looked like the Addams Family lived there. The client had been getting odd calls from friends who’d been driving by late at night when the office was closed and had seen a light on in the top floor. He gave me the grand tour during the day and I made sure that there was no awning covering a porch that someone could have used to climb into the office window on the second floor.
Mr. Walton gave me the key so I could enter the building after dark. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to take a long nap during the day to prepare for surveillance at night, but something about this one made me uneasy. He rented the room at the end of top floor and so I sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor outside the room in the hallway. The doors were old and solid, all painted a dull gray. The doors all had old-fashioned knobs above an old keyhole you could peep through, but each door had a modern deadbolt as well. In the dim light of summer dusk I could make out the name on the door: E. G. Walton.
From where I was sitting, I could see the big old staircase leading downstairs at the end of the hallway. Trying not to doze, feeling the floorboards beneath the carpet.
I could hear the bells from the old clock tower at the nearby University, a building that must have been built when this old house was new. I sat there and counted the strikes of the clock from nine o’clock on.
Against all my plans, I dozed.
I woke, just in time to hear the tower bell chime what Dickens called “a deep, dull, melancholy ONE.” But that wasn’t what had awakened me.
There was a light streaming through the old keyhole. A ghostly blue light.
I was wide awake. I crept over to the door and, for the first time in my professional career I peered through the keyhole.
I could see a good slice of the room. The window, half of the old-fashioned wooden desk, and a round shape silhouetted in an eerie blue glow.
The shape moved slightly from side to side.
I wasn’t breathing.
I stood up, very carefully and quietly in the deathly still dark hallway.
I could get a better angle through the keyhole. There was a skinny young black kid, huge Afro (the kind I’d seen on kids in my older brother’s High School yearbook) sitting on the floor, tapping quietly on a laptop. I reached in my pocket for the key to the office door and very carefully, very carefully, very slowly inserted the key into the lock over the old doorknob and keyhole and carefully turned it. It felt like twenty minutes before the key turned and the lock opened as silently as possible.
I realized I had no choice but to open the door fast. The ancient knob was going to make noise.
In the instant that I banged the door I realized this kid might have a gun. He looked up shocked. He was working on a small laptop plugged into a strip beside the desk.
The rest of the story is quickly told. The kid’s name was Keenan, he lived down the street, he’d bought a secondhand laptop for school but he couldn’t get internet at his house “Since the new radio station opened up next door,” so he found this place.
I asked him why he didn’t just use it outside, he said because “outside doesn’t have a plug.”
I asked him how he got in the office, nobody could climb in and he laughed.
“Just a matter of shimmying up the drainpipe on the other side of the corner and stepping over to the window ledge.”
A very thin ledge.
“And the window pulls open form the outside.” Keenan said.
Mr. Walton had assured me that the building was secure. He’d be interested in knowing that it wasn’t.
I wasn’t a cop, but I searched Keenan. No sign that he’d taken anything. He showed me the pictures of himself on the laptop. It was his. I’d done a bunch of crazy things when I was a kid.
I sighed. I told Keenan I’d talk to Mr. Walton. I did have Keenan’s address and he would be more than grateful to learn about the window. It’d be up to him on whether to press charges or not.
As I watched Keenan walk down the street, I thought of the instant before I peeped through the ghostly glow of the keyhole, not knowing what I’d see, when more words from Dickens ran through my head:
“He knew that nothing short of a baby or a rhinoceros would surprise him.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I started this story from the picture prompt which first appeared on the old Monday Flash Fics site in January 2018. A man looking through a lit keyhole in a darkened room. I didn’t finish it, possibly because I didn’t have a handle on the character. (Or the plot!) And possibly because I was doing a couple of other stories that week. So I dug it (and the pic) out of mothballs and decided to give it a go. Oh, and the lines from Dickens are from “A Christmas Carol.”
Happy Passover and Easter, Everybody! ——jeff & darryl