Anna juggled two bulging grocery sacks while she dug for her keys in a purse that strained at the seams. After struggling for what seemed like five minutes, she set her burdens on the front porch. The key ring was, of course, in the furthest depths of her purse. The lock failed to yield to her first couple of tries. She jiggled the key repeatedly and was about to give up when the lock finally opened. Funny, she didn't recall having any trouble like this in the past. Anna peered at the area of the doorjamb around the lock tongue and wondered if those scratches were fresh. Had someone broken in? And could that person still be inside?
She rummaged in her purse and found her cell phone. She had dialed "9-1" before she stopped. This was silly. She was being paranoid. The lock probably needed some graphite, the scratches were old, and she was getting upset about nothing. Besides that, if she called the police every time she saw a shadow, they might not believe her if she really needed them.
Maybe if she went back to the car and got the tire iron out of the trunk—
Anna was sure she jumped a foot. She swiveled her head around so quickly she heard the bones in her neck crackle. Nick Valentine stood just offthe porch, his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. "Did I scare you?" he asked.
"Yes. Definitely." She took a deep breath. "But I'm glad to see you. What brings you here?"
"I tried to call before I left the med center, but there was no answer."
"My cell didn't ring. I must have been in a dead zone."
Nick shrugged. "We haven't talked in a couple of days, and I wanted to see what you've found out." He reached down and hefted the grocery bags. "Let me give you a hand with those."
"No! Don't go in." Anna put her hand on his arm. "Sorry. I'm jumpy. Probably it's nothing, but when I got home, the lock on the front door was sticking. Then I saw some scratches around it and thought maybe somebody had broken in. I was about to call the police."
Nick laid the bags beside the door. "No need for that. Just give me a sec." He turned and hurried to his car. She saw him pull something from the glove compartment and shove it into his jacket pocket before striding back to the porch. He motioned Anna aside. "You stay out here until I check things out."
"Don't do anything foolish."
"I won't." Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a small revolver. He held it loosely in his right hand, his index finger outside the trigger guard, the short barrel pointing skyward."But if someone is hiding in there, they're going to wish they hadn't picked this house."
"That's it. No intruders inside, and no sign that one's been here." Nick jammed the gun into his pocket before retrieving the grocery bags from the front porch. "Where do you want these?"
Nick noticed a strange look on Anna's face as he helped unpack the bags in her kitchen. "Hey, I don't blame you for being suspicious," he said. "But I looked at those scratches around the lock, and I'm pretty sure they're old. And the lock probably needs some graphite." Anna pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and dropped into it. "No, I'm glad it was nothing. What has me upset is the sight of you with that gun in your hand." She dry washed her face with a hand that trembled slightly. "I guess I didn't expect that."
"Would you like me to put it away?"
Nick went outside and placed the gun back in its resting place under a stack of road maps in his car's glove compartment.Glad I didn't need it. But I'm glad it's there.
As he walked back into the house, he held out his hands in a "look, they're empty" gesture.
"Thanks," Anna said.
Nick picked up the empty paper bags from the counter and folded them carefully before he sat down across the table from Anna. "I'm sorry. I guess I should explain why I have the gun."He leaned forward with his elbows on the table. "During my first year of med school I moonlighted at an all-night convenience store in Lubbock. If you read the papers or watch the news, you know that's a dangerous job. The owner refused to keep a gun behind the counter. He was one of those who believed that if you handed the robber the money, you wouldn't get hurt." Nick began moving the saltshaker in random circles on the tabletop. "I spent my first paycheck on the training course required for a concealed carry permit. Then I bought this gun. Every night I worked, I had it on a shelf under the cash register." He looked down and closed his eyes as the memories came back, sharp-edged and fresh. Anna's voice was quiet, almost a whisper. "So it kept you safe."
"In a manner of speaking." He opened his eyes and looked directly into hers. "A guy came in at two one morning, hopped up on speed or something. He pulled a gun out of his belt and pointed it at me. Told me to give him all the money in the register. The way his hands were jerking, I was praying that gun didn't have a hair trigger. I pulled out the bills—probably about seventy dollars—and all the time, my eyes never left that automatic in his hand. The barrel looked about as big as the mouth of a tunnel. Then I thought I saw his trigger finger start to twitch." He shook his head, but couldn't stop the film that was unwinding in his head.
Nick wiped a thin film of sweat from his brow. "I was holding my gun under the counter. I'd grabbed it with my right hand while he was watching my left get the bills out of the cash drawer. I saw that movement and decided it was him or me. I pulled the trigger. One shot in the chest. The coroner said he was dead before he hit the floor."
"You did what you had to do," she said. "He could have killed you."
"Maybe." He dropped his hands on the table and stared into Anna's face. "Unfortunately, the only way to be sure of that had sort of a permanent downside to it. I made a decision, and I stuck with it. Then I put it behind me."
"But you still have the gun."
Nick wasn't sure whether it was a question or a statement, and Anna's tone gave him no clue about what she was feeling right now. "I keep my permit up-to-date, and I carry the gun locked in the glove compartment of my car."
"Why?" In that single word, Nick heard both disbelief and disapproval.
"You can't argue that the parts of town around a hospital are generally pretty unsafe, and the place where we work is no exception. Carjackings, robberies, random drive-by shootings. Back when I was going to church regularly, I recall the preacher saying we live in a broken world. I believe he was right."
"So you depend on your gun to protect you?"
"Sure," Nick said. "What's your protection?"
"The same protection I've depended on for years—God."
Nick thought there was less than total conviction in Anna's voice, but decided not to challenge her. Instead, he said, "I'm not sure God and I are on speaking terms anymore. I seem to remember some commandment about 'Thou shalt not kill.' So far as I know, that hasn't been repealed, has it?"
Anna brushed her hair aside with a casual and probably unconscious gesture. "I think there's room for discussion there, Nick. You might be surprised at how much God can forgive, if you'll let him."
Nick wanted to believe Anna, but surely the taking of a human life brought too much guilt for even God to forgive. He'd made his decision that day, and there was nothing he could do to change it. "Anna, I appreciate what you're saying. But if I'd depended on God instead of Smith and Wesson, I might have been the one lying dead on that floor. It's a good thing I decided to look out for myself. But now I have to live with the consequences."
Anna put her hand on Nick's arm. "You really don't, you know. But I don't think this is the time to talk about it. I'll just say thank you for being here for me today."
Nick rose slowly, feeling as though he were a hundred years old. "You know, I was going to see if you'd like to have dinner with me tonight, but now I don't think I'm very good company. Why don't I head home?"
"Please don't. When I was really down, you kept after me until I went out with you. You really cheered me up, and I appreciate it. I'd like to return the favor." Anna reached into the pocket of her skirt and extracted a multi-colored plastic rectangle. "Besides that, I have a new credit card. Why don't you let me test it out?"
Nick forced a smile. Why not? This probably wasn't the greatest time to be alone anyway. "Sure. This time you pick the restaurant."