It had been one of those days, you know, the sort where you hoped, when you woke up again, it would be a distant memory if not gone altogether. Everything had gone wrong, the handover from my shift to the next, longer than usual, I got home late to find the building’s security system malfunctioning, and after everything that could go wrong had, I was late getting to bed, which meant I was going to be tired and cranky even before my shift started.
But what topped it all off was that the alarm didn’t go off. It was not as if I hadn’t set it, I remembered doing it. There was something else in play.
I rolled over and instantly noticed how dark it was. It was never this dark. It was why I chose an apartment as high up as I could, there would always be light coming from the advertising sign on the roof of the building over the road at night, or direct sunlight not blotted out by surrounding buildings.
I also left the curtains open, deliberately. I liked the notion of being able to see out, sometimes looking at the stars, other times watching the rain, but mostly to see that I was not in a dark place.
Not like now.
I got out of bed and went over to the window. Yes, there were lights, but they were all the way down on the street level. Everywhere else, nothing. It had to be a power blackout. Our first in a long time. I should have noticed the air conditioning was not on, and it was almost silent inside the room.
The apartment had windows that opened, not very far, but enough to allow some airflow, and the room feeling stuffy, I opened one in the bedroom. Instantly, sounds drifted up from street level, and looking down I could see the flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks, as well as the sounds of sirens.
The cold air was refreshing.
It took a few minutes before I realized the elevators would not be working, and I remembered the only pitfall of having a high-up apartment, it was a long way down by the stairs, and even longer going back up.
In the distance, I could see other buildings, about ten blocks away, with their lights on. It had to be a localized blackout, or perhaps a brownout. We had been having problems across the city with power supply caused by an unexplained explosion at several power stations on the grid.
Some were saying it was a terrorist attack, others were saying the antiquated infrastructure had finally given out.
My attention was diverted from the activity below by the vibration of my cell phone on the bedside table. I looked over at the clock and saw it was 3:10 in the morning, not a time I usually got a phone call.
I crossed the room and looked at the screen, just as the vibrating stopped. Louis Bernard. Who was Louis Bernard? It was not a name I was familiar with, so I ignored it. It wasn’t the first wrong number to call me, though I was beginning to think I had been given a recycled phone number when I bought the phone. Perhaps the fact it was a burner may have had something to do with it.
About the go back to the window, the phone started ringing again. The same caller, Louis Bernard.
Curiosity got the better of me.
“Yes?” I wasn’t going to answer with my name.
“Get out of that room now.”
“Who….” It was as far as I got before the phone went dead.
The phone displayed the logo as it powered off, a sign the battery was depleted. I noticed then though I’d plugged the phone in to recharge, I’d forgotten to turn the power on.
Get out of that room now? Who could possibly know firstly who I was, and where I was living, to the point they could know I was in any sort of danger?
It took another minute of internal debate before I threw on some clothes and headed for the door.
Just in case.
As I went to open the door, someone started pounding on it, and my heart almost stopped.
“Who is it?” I yelled out. First thought; don’t open it.
“Floor warden, you need to evacuate. There’s a small fire on one of the floors below.”
“OK. Give me a minute or so and I’ll be right out.”
“Don’t take too long. Take the rear stairs on the left.”
A few seconds later I heard him pounding on the door next to mine. I waited until he’d moved on, and went out into the passage.
It was almost dark, the security lighting just above floor level giving off a strange and eerie orange glow. I thought there was a hint of smoke in the air, but that might have been the power of suggestion taking over my mind.
There were two sets of stairs down, both at the rear, one on the left and one on the right, designed to aid quick evacuation in the event of a calamity like a fire. He had told me to take the left. I deliberately ignored that and went to the right side, passing several other tenants who were going towards where they’d been told. I didn’t recognize them, but, then, I didn’t try to find out who my fellow tenants were.
A quick look back up the passage, noting everyone heading to the left side stairs, I ducked into the right stairwell and stopped for a moment. Was that smoke I could smell. From above I could hear a door slam shut, and voices. Above me, people had entered the stairwell and were coming down.
I started heading down myself.
I was on the 39th floor, and it was going to be a long way down. In a recent fire drill, the building had been evacuated from the top floor down, and it proceeded in an orderly manner. The idea was that starting at the top, there would not be a logjam if the lower floors were spilling into the stairwell and creating a bottleneck. Were those above stragglers?
I descended ten floors and still hadn’t run into anyone, but the smell of smoke was stronger. I stopped for a moment and listened for those who had been above me. Nothing. Not a sound. Surely there had to be someone above me, coming down.
A door slammed, but I couldn’t tell if it was above or below.
Once again, I descended, one floor, two, three, five, all the way down to ten. The smoke was thicker here, and I could see a cloud on the other side of the door leading out of the stairwell into the passage. The door was slightly ajar, odd, I thought, for what was supposed to be a fire door. I could see smoke being sucked into the fire escape through the door opening.
Then I saw several firemen running past, axes in hand. Was the fire on the tenth floor?
Another door slammed shut, and then above me, I could hear voices. Or were they below? I couldn’t tell. My eyes were starting to tear up from the smoke, and it was getting thicker.
I headed down.
I reached the ground floor and tried to open the door leading out of the fire escape. It wouldn’t open. A dozen other people came down the stairs and stopped when they saw me.
One asked, “Can we get out here?”
I tried the door again with the same result. “No. It seems to be jammed.”
Several of the people rushed past me, going down further, yelling out, “there should be a fire door leading out into the underground garage.”
Then, after another door slamming shut, silence. Another person said, “they must have found a way out,” and started running down the stairs, the others following. For some odd reason I couldn’t explain, I didn’t follow, a mental note popping up in my head telling me that there was only an exit into the carport from the other stairs, on this side, the exit led out onto an alley at the back of the building.
If the door would open. It should push outwards, and there should also be a bar on it, so when pushed, it allowed the door to open.
The smoke was worse now, and I could barely see, or breathe, overcome with a coughing fit. I banged on the door, yelling out that I was stuck in the stairwell, but there was no reply, nor could I hear movement on the other side of the door.
Just as I started to lose consciousness, I thought I could hear a banging sound on the door, then a minute later what seemed like wood splintering. A few seconds after that I saw a large black object hovering over me, then nothing.
It was the culmination of a bad night, a bad day, and another bad night. Was it karma trying to tell me something?
When I woke, I was in a hospital, a room to myself which seemed strange since my insurance didn’t really cover such luxuries. I looked around the room and stopped when I reached the window and the person who was standing in front of it, looking out.
“Who are you?” I asked, and realized the moment the words came out, they made me sound angry.
“No one of particular importance. I came to see if you were alright. You were very lucky by the way. Had you not stayed by that door you would have died like all the rest.”
Good to know, but not so good for the others. Did he know that fire door was jammed? I told him what happened.
“Someone suspected that might be the case which is why you were told to take the other stairs. Why did you not do as you were told?”
“Why did the others also ignore the advice.” It was not a question I would deign to answer.
They didn’t know any better, but you did, and it begs the question, why did you take those stairs.”
Persistent, and beginning to bother me. He sounded like someone else I once knew in another lifetime, one who never asked a question unless he knew the answer.
The man still hadn’t turned around to show me his face, and it was not likely I’d be getting out of the bed very soon.
“You tell me?”
He turned slightly and I could see his reflection in the window. I thought, for a moment, that was a familiar face. But I couldn’t remember it from where.
“The simple truth, you suspected the fire was lit to flush you out of the building and you thought taking those stairs would keep you away from trouble. We both know you’ve been hiding here.”
Then he did turn. Hiding, yes. A spot of trouble a year or so before had made leaving Florida a necessity, and I’d only just begun to believe I was finally safe.
I was not.
They had found me.
And it only took a few seconds, to pull the silenced gun out of his coat pocket, point it directly at me, and pull the trigger.
Two stabbing pains in the chest, and for a moment it was as if nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.
The last thing I saw and heard, several rounds from at least two guns, voices yelling out on the passage, and people running.
As I lay dying, my last thought was, it had been a good run, but no one can run forever.
© Charles Heath 2021