"That's twice you've helped me move, Luc," Jerry said. "I almost feel like I should be paying you for it."
"Let's just say we're even for that dead mouse in my trunk," Luc said.
Luc had spent the last few days moving Jerry into his new place, after his old landlord turned out to be a sadist. At first Luc thought he was exaggerating, but then news of the torture chamber spread, and Luc couldn't refuse. The building would get new management anyway, but Jerry wanted out. It had taken a day just to clean out the garbage. There were empty cans of cat food all over the place. Jerry didn't even have a cat.
But now their job was done. Luc had just helped Jerry carry the couch upstairs, the last step before Jerry was officially moved in. The building had once been a cathedral, but had been sold and remodeled a decade ago. With its high bronze clock tower, it stood as a grand downtown landmark. The clock even still told time, albeit without the bells.
They were on their way to lunch at the café next to the hair salon. Jerry stopped and stooped down. "Hey, check this out." He picked up an old cassette case. Its cover, spat out by an inkjet printer, showed 80's greeting card-turned-cartoon Rainbow Brite. "Twenty-seven episodes!" it said.
"What do you think it means?" Jerry said.
"It means there's apparently a very sad Rainbow Brite fan out there."
Jerry opened the case. On top of the label that the bootlegger had put on the cassette, was a black label from an old hand-operated label-maker. In white elevated letters, it read: "If lost, please return to 27 Chestnut, Apt 48."
"27 Chestnut?" Jerry said. "That's my place."
"I guess we can return it when we get home."
They went on to the café. Luc got sandwiches and opened up his laptop while they waited. Jerry stared at the case with the intensity of a Torah scholar. "Who the hell buys a Rainbow Brite bootleg? This must belong to some isolated childless weirdo."
"I wouldn't talk," Luc said. "You're the one with the My Little Pony desktop."
"And who got me into that show again, Luc?"
Luc tipped his head with a smirk, and checked the news. Someone had stolen a penguin from the aquarium. The employees were very worried for its safety, especially in such warm, dry weather.
Jerry sat in thought. "Number 48. That's on the top floor. Creepy."
"What's so creepy about it?"
"Well, I gotta admit, that place wasn't exactly my first choice. A lot of it's that clock tower. I don't know why, but it's always been kinda eerie to me. Like I have to be careful around it, or else it'll take vengeance on me, or something."
"That's kind of weird, Jerry."
"Hey, I didn't say it made complete sense. But if we're gonna return the tape, we gotta go all the way to the top. We gotta go up through the tower."
"I think we'll be okay," Luc said.
Once they were done with lunch, they headed back to Jerry's apartment building. The tower stood over them like a silent guardian, a living monument to the past. Its numbers were in large roman numerals; its hands were deadly arrows; vicious-looking gargoyles sat on every corner. Now that Luc got another look at it, he could see what Jerry was talking about. Medieval Europe was alive and well in this tower, and it demanded your attention. Luc thought for a moment that he might listen, and hear the murmurings of old ghosts inside.
Up to now, Luc had just seen it as an interesting clock tower.
"Well," he said, "on we go."
Jerry unlocked the door, and they went in. They turned right in the lobby--once a narthex--toward the spiral staircase within the clock tower. The stone stairs had hardly changed since the church was here, and were just barely thick enough to hold an average human foot. Luc didn't have too much trouble climbing up; he usually preferred the stairs anyway. But he constantly had to wait for Jerry to catch up, heaving and sweating. It wasn't even his usual fatigue and sloth; he was actually terrified to be here. Luc wanted to tell him he was being completely irrational, but now wasn't the time to gripe at him. Luc had his own phobia of fire extinguishers, not much saner than Jerry's.
The fourth floor, being right under the roof, had a different shape from the rest of the apartments. Luc had read in the brochure that they were mostly studio apartments, something for college kids to use during class. After catching a breath, they walked over to number 48. The door was open.
Luc knocked. The door swung open a bit. "Hello? We've got your tape." He waited for a response, but didn't hear anyone. There were tiny footsteps and rustling inside, but they sounded more like an animal than a person. He turned to Jerry. "I think I should go in. There might have been a breakin. Somebody could have been hurt."
"I dunno," Jerry said. "Shouldn't we call somebody first?"
"I wouldn't feel right unless I checked."
They crept in. Luc took the flashlight he kept clipped to his belt, and lit it up. The beam showed him a cluttered mess, easily worse than anything he'd seen in Jerry's apartment. Papers, wrappers, boxes, and cans lay strewn about everywhere. They could still hear rustling. Luc imagined a confused dog, wondering where its master was, trying to find something to eat. A stream of liquid that Luc hoped wasn't urine flowed from a bathroom. He didn't see any furniture, except for an old standard-def TV on a crate.
Then the rustling stopped, and something padded into the kitchen. Luc turned and pointed his flashlight. It wasn't a dog, but a large black shape standing on two feet; as soon as the light touched its face, it let out a shrill squawk.
Luc shrieked, and flung the flashlight aside. It hit the wall, the light went out. Luc was sure he heard a crack. Coming here was officially one of the worst ideas he'd ever had.
Luc and Jerry turned and fumbled around for the direction of the door. The apartment lit up, and the two froze, ankle-deep in garbage in the middle of a stranger's apartment.
"Dammit, Popo," a grizzled voice said. "That's no way to treat our guests."
The black shape turned out to be a penguin. It quacked, and waddled on the trash toward the person who was standing in the door to the next room. He had a thick beard, and wore a pair of white overalls. "Name's Butler. Mind telling me your business here."
"Right," Luc said, turning to Jerry, who held up the Rainbow Brite cassette. "Is this yours?"
The brightest smile Luc had ever seen popped onto Butler's face. "It sure is. I am so glad you found it." He rushed over and took it from Jerry. "Ah, I just got this, too. Got a whole set of videos." He gestured to a pile of tapes next to the TV. From here, Luc could see labels for Popples, Care Bears, Maya the Bee, and pictured this man scouring conventions all over the country for old girls' cartoons. "Sorry I can't give you a reward," Butler said, "but you're welcome to watch it with me if you want."
"Maybe another time," Luc said. "Who's the penguin?"
"That's my best friend, Popo." He reached into his pocket and took out an opened can of cat food. Holding the tape in his armpit, he dug out some of the catfood with his finger and licked it off. "We met at the aquarium, that's where I work." Then he took another fingerful and offered it to the penguin. "He was getting bored, so I decided to bring him here to hang out." It nibbled, and Luc worried for a moment that he'd find out just how strong a penguin's bite was.
But Butler drew his hand back unharmed. "See? Isn't he friendly?"
Jerry said, "I wouldn't mind having a penguin for a friend."
"You sure you can't stay?" Butler said as Popo waddled happily around the apartment. "We can listen to Popo's war stories."
"Sorry," Luc said, "but we really have to be going."
Luc grabbed Jerry's wrist and dragged him out to the apartment hallway. They didn't stop until they got to Jerry's apartment, on the second floor. "What just happened?" Jerry said.
"We just met the weird mentally ill guy who stole a penguin from the aquarium," Luc said.
"Are we gonna have to call the police?"
"I think so. I'm pretty sure stealing a penguin is a crime. That guy obviously wasn't right."
"You're telling me? He creeped me right the hell out."
"I just hope they can get him some help."
Jerry opened the door. As they went in, Luc observed the state of the apartment, still clean and organized, and wondered how long it would be before Jerry turned into something like Butler's. He wasn't in any danger of stealing penguins, but Luc didn't want to come over one day, find everything piled on the floor, and have to wonder whether Jerry had been robbed, or was just lazy.
"Man," Jerry said as Luc dialed the police. "That clock tower... that crazy guy... I don't think I like this place. Maybe I should move."
Luc slapped him in the face.