Gunshots echoed through the dark night, just like they had in Badinor. It was comforting, even though I knew it shouldn’t have been. No one is supposed to get used to hearing the sounds of war. And when a soldier returned home from a tour of duty, he was supposed to forget.
This Lewisford apartment wasn’t my home. It was only fifty miles from the Illinois town I grew up in, and it was a temporary place to crash until I found my next job.
I stared at the ceiling, seeing every crack in the plaster, even in the darkest hour. Moisture beaded along the fractures, and the stink of mildew seeped from the walls. Being a dragon shifter definitely had its drawbacks. If I’d been human I might not have noticed. Maybe I’d be asleep.
It was the same heightened shifter senses that made me leave the window open. The apartment was hot as fudge, and closing the tiny thing wouldn’t help muffle the sounds, not to my sensitive ears.
The sound of doors slamming in the hall was as loud as if the walls were made of paper. In this place, maybe they were. I’d been here three weeks, long enough to hear everything going on in my neighbors’ lives.
It could have been the mattress that was keeping me up. I hadn’t slept on one since before I left. Calling it a “mattress” was generous, though. It was a grid of wire with a camouflage of cushion over it.
I rose from the bed and unrolled the sleeping bag that had been my bed for the last six years and set up on the floor, like I’d done every night since I’d arrived. It was better, but still I couldn’t sleep.
A stampede of footsteps carried down the hall, stopping at the door just right of mine. It was oh-two-thirty in the morning, and no question who it was or why they were here.
The bang on the door was the same as it always was, three equally spaced knocks followed by a short faster knock. I recognized it as the thug brigade that had been coming around to see Ellis, my neighbor’s grandson.
“Ellis, open up,” Dick said. It wasn’t a nickname I gave him. My mama taught me better than that. It’s what the leader of the group called himself.
A click and creak told me the door opened.
“Shhh,” Ellis said. “You’ll wake Granny.”
“I got a job for you,” Dick said. It was a voice of confidence and command, one earned through intimidation.
“No, dickweed. At eleven p.m. Thursday, the day after tomorrow.” Dick said.
“You mean like tomorrow, or the next night because technically we’re already in what you think is tomorrow--”
The crushing sound of knuckles on cartilage reached my ears. I flinched, imagining the blood trickle from Ellis’s nostril.
I considered leaving the little punk to deal with the consequences of his choices. He was nineteen years old and capable of choosing what type of friends he made. He deserved whatever Dick did to him, but Ida, his granny, deserved better.
Not only that, but Ellis was smart even if he didn’t know it yet. He just needed the right push in the right direction at the right time.
I opened the door and stepped into the hall. Five scrawny men crowded around Ellis. Dick, flanked by two guys on each side, was the blond one with the narrow face. He and his sidekicks wore jeans around their knees and oversized red hoodies in the dead of summer. They liked to think they were a gang, and Ellis wanted in.
Ellis leaned against the doorframe, cupping his broken nose. His shaggy dark hair looked messier than usual.
Dick’s weasel face scrunched up with rage, and he raised his fist to strike again.
I cleared my throat.
They all turned.
“Let’s get you some ice, Ellis,” I said. “Your friends were just leaving.”
Dick took a step toward me. The kid had balls, likely due to the switchblade sticking out of his pocket. Still, he was a foot shorter than me, and he looked a few pounds lighter than the barbell I bench pressed every morning.
His dark eyes were like a rabid animal’s. He could strike or he could flee, and he wouldn’t be making that decision with logic or reason.
“We’re done here anyway,” Dick said. He turned and leaned in close to Ellis and whispered, “Corner of 15th and A. Thursday at eleven.”
Without shifter senses, I wouldn’t have been able to hear Dick.
Dick and his clones went down the hall to the stairs, and I went to talk to Ellis.
“Let me see,” I said.
“Don’t.” His squinted eyes were full of disdain. He kept his nose hidden. “You shouldn’t have come out here. It’s not your business, Rouland.”
“What would your grandmother think if she knew who you were hanging out with?” I asked.
He walked inside, throwing the door in my face.
“She heard,” Ida said. She reopened the door and gave me sad, tired smile.
“I don’t need this shit.” Ellis shoved my shoulder as he pushed his way out the door, wearing his red hooded sweatshirt.
I watched him stomp down the hall.
“Strong-willed,” Ida said. “Like his mother.”
“Can I get you some tea, dear?”
“Sure.” I couldn’t sleep anyway. Company wouldn’t hurt, and I could see it in her soft gray eyes that she wanted to talk.
She headed toward the kitchen. She walked slowly, like each step hurt a little, but other than that, she didn’t let her pain show. I followed her in and closed the door behind me.
“Take a seat, Slade,” she said. “I’ll be right in.”
I did as I was told and sat on the floral print sofa. It was twice as nice as anything in my place, but that wasn’t saying much.
Ida had been in the building since her husband died. And she’d been taking care of her grandson since his parents disowned him. She had a good heart, and she deserved better than life had given her.
“Thank you for looking out for Ellis,” Ida said. A small metal tray shook in her hands as she came back into the room. I knew better than to ask if she needed help with it. She set the tray down on the glass coffee table and took the seat beside me, the only other seat in the living room.
“Happy to help,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. I didn’t like lies. I was happy to help her, and I helped Ellis as a package deal.
Ellis had looked scared, even when he’d been acting mad. He was a kid who’d gotten in too deep.
“Sometimes I think it would be easier if he’d stayed with his parents in Charlesville.” Ida sighed and took a sip of her tea. She was a small woman, late in years. Her hair was white and curly, and cut short, and her personality reminded me a bit of my mama. Strong, and kind.
I took a sip of my tea. It was plain and steaming hot, just the way I liked.
“I have something for you,” Ida said.
“The tea is enough,” I said. It was. I didn’t need anything except a job. I needed to be busy. Sometimes I helped Ida, and that kept me busy. But I didn’t want her money.
Truth was, I’d felt unbalanced for a while. It was hard coming back to the States and not having a job already lined up. I needed a home, a place to be. Lewisville was working out okay, but I knew in my bones that it was temporary.
“Here.” Ida pulled her hand out of her nightgown pocket, and showed me a black stone. It was smooth and a little shiny.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This is what I want you to have,” she said.
She grabbed my wrist and dropped the stone into my palm. It was cold, strangely cold in the hundred-degree heat.
“Thank you.” I didn’t really have a need for a rock, but I appreciated the gesture.
“It belonged to my late husband Bert.” She’d told me stories about Bert. He seemed like a good guy. Faithful, courteous, and kind to strangers.
“Are you sure you want me to have it?” I asked. She didn’t have much. I didn’t want to take something special that had belonged to her husband.
“Slade,” she said. “Take it. It might help you. You’re lost.”
“You’re like Bert,” she said. “I can tell. It’s the way you sniff the air, the way you hear things that you shouldn’t be able to hear. You’re a shifter like he was.”
“Oh,” I said. She’d never mentioned anything about Bert being a shifter, but the place did have the wild scent of bear. It was infused with the fabric of the sofa, faint, but still there. I never would have asked, but I wasn’t surprised.
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“You don’t have to tell me about yourself if you don’t want to. But I think the stone might mean something more to you than it does to me. It was something Bert picked up in New England during his mercenary days.”
Bert had been a soldier of fortune. And a shifter. None of the stories she’d told me about him suggested that. I’d pictured him as more of a bank teller than a gun for hire. If she thought I was like him, what did she think about me?
I wasn’t sure how a rock would help me, or how I felt about her knowing my nature. I settled on a polite answer, and accepted her gift.
She smiled, deepening her friendly wrinkles. “You’re welcome. Put it under your pillow at night. It’s magic, and it will help you.”
Magic? This little rock? Well, it certainly couldn’t hurt. Maybe it would help me find a good job.