A walk of twenty minutes took Lamont from the telephone booth to the stoop of his apartment building. The ground floor was a pawn shop. A flickering blue light kept on inside the shop outlined silhouettes of inscrutable artifacts of human and Martian life, equally lost to time, in the smudged windows. The shop attracted more than its fair share of independent explorers, adventurers and retired rocketmen who would take their chances delving into unsettled sections of the planet in search of alien novelties. Technically, a special permit was needed for such things, and any artifact removed from its place was required to be processed, cataloged and approved. In reality, the regulations were impossible to fully enforce, and only served to prevent the organization of large-scale independent operations. Still, the fact that so many Martian artifacts were displayed out in the open here was saying something.
Lamont looked up by habit at the facade of the building. It was five stories high, made of Martian brick with geometric flourishes that had been popular during the first decade of mass colonization in the 70’s. It was nestled between two beams of native architecture that, high overhead, converged organically into a colossal fluted archway of vaguely Gothic aspect. A blinking neon billboard across the street turned the dull orange of the brick momentarily into a bruised purple every three seconds. The windows were widely spaced, one to each apartment, with pipes and conduits snaking between them. All the windows were dark.
Lamont set his jaw, tossing his cigarette into a gutter. The window of his apartment was on the right side of the fourth floor, and he always left a light on when he went out.
He glanced furtively at the surrounding street, the deep shadows of the alley nearby, but saw nothing unusual. A newspaper delivery scooter passed in and out of view two blocks down, the only movement. Lamont glanced at his watch; it was just past three in the morning. It could be a fluke, he told himself. A power surge, a bad bulb. There was one way to find out.
Lamont fished his keys from his overcoat pocket. He unlocked the door to the stairwell before gripping them tightly in his palm, with the longest key firmly set between his middle and ring fingers.
Next: The Martian Mystery