Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cold Horses

            The wind had howled itself into full-out rage for sure. The snow was whipping around with no say at all about where it got to go. Some of them snowflakes never even got to land, I’m sure. That’s how hard the wind was blowing. Maybe like it wasn’t gonna get another chance, like this was the last night it had to howl, and it wasn’t gonna waste it.
            Our house had cracks. The wind whistled in these cracks and the corners of the house filled with little piles of snow. At first they’d melt off right away, because Papa had the fire burning as high and as fierce as he could. This made Mama nervous, because the sparks were all hanging up there in the rafters like orange stars, and she thought the roof might catch on fire. Papa knew better. Some things Mama knows better, but Papa knows fires. But eventually Papa threw the last log on the fire, and a few minutes after that the snow came into the corners again, and this time would not be scared into melting and running off. Papa eyed it, like he would like to do something mean to it if he could, but he couldn’t without getting out of the wall of blankets he had wrapped around all of us. Mama had her arm around him, and he had his hands on our shoulders, one on Annie’s right shoulder and one on my left, holding us close. We were all sharing what little warmth there was, sitting as near to the fire as we could without singeing the blankets or our hair. Still the cold was creeping in, though, as if it was envious of us getting to be all huddled together and warm, or just tired of being locked outside.
            Locked outside. The horses were out there too. I remembered this all of a sudden. I don’t know whether it was because of that thought about the cold, or because for a moment one tongue of flame looked to me just like the head and neck of Bonnie.
            “Papa,” I whispered into his ear over the crack of the fire and the desperate howling of the wind. “Papa, Bonnie and Neptune are still out there.”
            Papa shifted his big hand to the top of my head and brushed my hair. “They’ll be fine out there,” he said. “They’ve lived through worse than this.” He coughed. “Don’t you fret about them, child.”
            “Just watch the fire,” said Mama. “Look how bright it is! Always dancing and changing shape.”
            But I had seen too many fires too many nights to think about it as anything new. It couldn’t distract me for more than a few moments at a time. My mind kept turning back around to Bonnie and Neptune out there, but especially Bonnie, freezing to death in her thin skin of hair. Papa had told me that they flicked their tails to get rid of flies in the summer. Now I imagined them flicking their tails to knock the snow off their backs. But it kept coming down, coming down, swirling around, and dropping on their backs like when it falls from a laden tree branch. Their tails could not flick fast enough. Soon they would be buried. That horrible thought made me tremble. What would it be like to die of being too cold?
            “Papa,” I said again, very softly this time. “What if Bonnie freezes to death? What if our horses freeze out there? It’s very cold.”
            “Yes, it’s cold,” said Papa. “But you shouldn’t worry. They can handle it. They're smart. They’ll get themselves to the leeward side of the house, where the wind won’t hit them so bad, and they’ll just kinda hunker down there. They’ll be alright.”
            But that icy tingling in my mind could not be so easily dismissed. “But the wind is going in swirly circles. It will go right around the house and hit them anyway.”
            “Shhh,” said Mama, reaching over and putting a finger to my lips. “Quiet now. Listen to the fire.”
            It was crackling, and I had heard Mama calling that a merry sound before, which means like Christmas, all fun, but right now that same crackling sounded mean and stingy. The horses could not share in its light. The fire was struggling itself, against the wind and the cold. It had to be mean just now, to defend itself. That’s what I told myself. But my mind went back to Bonnie, nakedly standing, shifting her hooves in the cold.
            Then there came a very strange sound. Papa and Mama’s faces turned toward it. Papa looked surprised, and not very happy. Mama looked confused. It came again. It sounded like when Mama used sandpaper on her fingernails, only bigger. This time the thin walls of our house seemed to shiver, as if they too were cold.
            “What’s going on?” Mama asked. “What is that?”
            Papa groaned. “It’s the horses. They’re rubbing their backs against the lee wall, itching themselves, maybe to make some warmth.”
            The walls were definitely shaking, especially the lee wall, as Papa called it.
            “Is the house going to fall down?” asked Annie.
            “No,” said Papa with a frown. “It’s not.” He began to get out from behind the wall of blankets. He peeled back the layers and stood up. He strode to the doorway and took his bullwhip from the hook on the doorpost. The braided leather gleamed like a coiled snake in the firelight.
            “Where are you going?” I asked.
            “Darling, I’ve got to stop the horses pushing on the walls, or we’re not going to have any more walls, and then we will all freeze.”
            He took one of the blankets, wrapped it tightly around his shoulders, and went out the door. Snow came in behind him in an angry burst. The wind slammed the door.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Shotgun Stories

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"You started all of this."
"This started a long time ago."
"Somebody's gonna finish it."

I was introduced to the work of indie director Jeff Nichols with his 2011 film "Take Shelter," which I consider to be a tremendous film, one of the best of a great year; I hope to review it here at some point, but I want to watch it again first. Going back in time to 2007, however, I discovered that his first feature film, "Shotgun Stories," both shows the promising talent that would go on to make "Take Shelter," and lacks the focus and haunted intensity of that masterful follow-up.

Nichols' impressive debut opens showing the towering Michael Shannon sitting on the edge of a bed, shirtless, reading a note, his arms resting wearily on his knees. He is half turned from us, and we can see the faint shape of deep marks on his back. He gets up and checks two dresser drawers, finding them both empty. Then for a moment he turns his back completely, and we are faced with those marks full on: pocked-looking scars cover his back in a scattered pattern, ugly little craters from a shotgun blast. Title card: "Shotgun Stories."

Shannon plays a character named simply "Son" who lives with his brothers, "Boy" and "Kid" in  southeast Arkansas. They are left with these dubiously blunt monikers because their father abandoned the family to restart with a new wife and a new life. Son lives in an empty house because his wife (or girlfriend?) Annie has taken their son and left due to his refusal to give up card-counting, which he insists is not gambling but a "system." Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives in an old van with a broken stereo and a window air conditioner, and coaches kids' basketball. Kid (Barlow Jacobs) lives in a tent in Son's yard, but expects a raise soon at the catfish farm where he and Son work, at which point he intends to ask his quietly cheerful waitress girlfriend Cheryl to marry him. Their lives progress at a leisurely pace, and Nichols' fleshes out the beautiful but decaying rural atmosphere with a Malick-like attention to cotton fields and sunsets and a gentle acoustic guitar score. Then the brothers' mother, who Son refers to as a "hateful woman," drops by to inform them that their father is dead. She is not going to the funeral. When is it? They can look in the paper.

At the funeral, the minister calls the father "a man of faith" and "a productive member of the community." Son calls him "the same man who ran out on us," and proceeds to spit on the casket. This provokes the other band of brothers attending, the ones wearing buttoned-down shirts and ties, the second set of sons, the Hayes boys, who received from their father real names like Mark, Steve, and John. Son's rash action brings the two clans almost to blows, but that is just the beginning. The conflict between Son, Boy, and Kid and the Hayes brothers slowly but steadily escalates throughout the film, aided by a friend of Kid's with the doubtful name of Shampoo, who seems to be quietly spoiling for a fight, and deals in information and rumors that only make things worse, as well as showing the ropes of gun use at a crucial juncture.

Son's scars get referred to repeatedly throughout the film, a reoccurring commentary I found annoying and too obvious at first. But there are conflicting reports of how he got the scars, and eventually they handily and indirectly inform how we think of him and his brothers. Shannon contributes to the sense that this is an almost legendary character by keeping Son stonily aloof throughout, burying his bitterness, while the themes of legacy and inheritance that the scar stories (the title's shotgun stories?) plant are developed further later in the script. "Is that your boy?" one of the Hayes brothers asks Son. "Wonder how he's gonna take it when I give a speech at your funeral." Nichols follows the insinuating aggression of that line with a perfect, heartbreaking cut away shot of Son's son watching another fight beginning, making clear the generational stakes of the conflict. Son wants to be a good father, taking his son fishing, but the anger of the feud threatens to override his more protective impulses.

A slow, thoughtful film about poverty, revenge, and inheritance, "Shotgun Stories" is very quietly disturbing, with under-the-surface tension that builds to quick, non-cathartic violence. Nichols shows restraint, poise, and a deep empathy for his messed-up and lifelike characters.

"Shotgun Stories" (PG-13) **** (Available on Netflix Instant)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Safety Not Guaranteed

"My calibrations are flippin' pinpoint, okay?"


Colin Trevorrow's time-travel indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" is undoubtedly a minor work, a purposefully low-key film with its dramatic stakes built around muted and slowly-revealed emotions rather than any sort of physical danger. It fits right in with the current overly quirky indie film trend, for better and for worse. However, this does not prevent it from telling an effectively touching and even surprising story, centered on notable and promising performances.

"Safety" opens with a black screen and a flat voice-over: "How far back do you want me to go?" The voice is that of Aubrey Plaza (familiar to me as the sarcastic and deadpan April on "Parks and Recreation"), and the characteristic blankness of her tone here suggests a certain numbed apathy. The question of how far back, in a movie that expressly concerns the idea of time-travel as a cornerstone of its premise, is a slyly deceptive one with which to begin, because Plaza's character, Darius, is actually in a job interview; she gives too little pretense of taking it seriously to impress the potential employer. This seemingly off-topic opening sets the tone of the film, emphasizing its concern with mostly everyday problems and heartbreaks, but also cleverly pointing out, due to our potential for initial misunderstanding, that these things have a connection with the concept of time-travel. The opening also primes us to accept the stealth structure of the film—a series of one-on-one "interviews," varying in level of casualness and in purpose, that make up the backbone of the story.

Darius is a bored and jaded college graduate, self described as "not a quality hire," and living at home with her widower father, who is of course Facebook friends with her college roommate and somewhat unbelievably accuses Darius of being a virgin. "How do I eject?" she deadpans, with an impressive mix of incredulity and passivity. Her internship at a Seattle magazine is the kind where she takes names and fetches toilet paper. Her mother died when she was young, and she is painfully nostalgic for childhood, a time when she just naturally expected to be happy. Now, she says, "Everything cool is gone."

With this background, it makes sense that Darius jumps at the opportunity to tag along with Jeff, one of the magazine's writers (Jake Johnson, of "New Girl"), as he sets out to investigate, with growing disbelief and curiosity, the "weird" writer of an advertisement seeking a time-traveling partner:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
Jeff tries to join up with would-be timelord Kenneth (Mark Duplass, of "The League" and "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), but is rejected because his cool guy schtick cannot hide the fact that he is a poser, and he has no specific reason ready to hand for why he would even want to time travel. Then Darius—who the other young intern, a stereotypically nerdy looking Indian college student named Arnau (Karan Soni), unsubtly notes is much prettier than Jeff—for once in her life intrigued, gives it a shot herself, and with the help of some hilarious lurking behind sunglasses stands, ends up befriending Kenneth by pretending to take his plans absolutely seriously and imitating his lapses into important-sounding technical/military vocabulary. The scene where Darius and Kenneth meet for the first time in the grocery store where he works is full to brimming with sharp banter-y dialogue that makes it feel instantly classic and memorable. It is one of the best written scenes in a generally strong script, and both Plaza and Duplass handle the back and forth rhythm and the self-seriousness expertly. As their relationship progresses—he totally enveloped in his plans, she (and we) wondering just how delusional he really is—Plaza especially does a fine job of showing both Darius' doubt and her desire to give in to her rediscovery of wonder as she begins to admire and respect, and maybe love, this guy who professes to be building a time machine. The problem with the middle section of the movie, however, is that the chemistry between these two is always iffy at best, and is complicated by the fact that Kenneth wants to travel in time to save his wife from being killed. (More than that I won't spoil, but the script by Derek Connolly has several twists that, while neither game-changing nor impossible to see coming, do nicely shed different light on the characters and premise.) And Duplass, although admirably committed to the role, never really makes it clear that Kenneth more than simply comes to trust Darius.

"Safety" also falls into several independent movie industry cliches, the most annoying to me being the incessant jangly indie songs that play beneath dialogue scenes that would do just fine or better without them, especially in the first half. Presumably they are supposed to imbue the scenes with a light-hearted or comedic undertone, but they mostly just distract from the characters and erode the pseudo-realism of movies like this. That said, there are a couple of transitions and montages that are well scored. The film also risks being too sugary in its earnestness. The themes of nostalgia and regret are present, and not heavy-handed, but the emphasis on romance and a vague "believing," which again the music oversells, at times threatens to take the story in a sticky-sweet direction. The ending is also somewhat . . . unclear, despite dramatic appearances, and left me with an inconclusive feeling.

Trevorrow has a secret weapon, however, in Jake Johnson, who makes his too-cool-for-school magazine writer into a tragic case of a deeply nostalgic man who feels past his prime and longs for his glory days. His real motive is to reconnect with a past girlfriend, who he is startled to find has actually aged and is no longer the hot blonde he remembers. As their renewed relationship bumbles through ups and downs (in a nice parallel to the main plot), Johnson gets to do everything from comparing his old flame to a fairy tale character representing lost purity to drowning his sorrows and trying to live large vicariously through Arnau (who otherwise has next to nothing to do) by helping him hook up with some random girl—a shockingly wrong-headed idea that the script sadly lets pass with no comment. But Johnson does all these things convincingly. There is one brilliant, sad, hilarious shot of him whirling around in a go-kart teary-eyed, with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other, that perfectly encapsulates both the childishness and the sadness hidden beneath the sunglasses of the successful and confident guy who defines himself by his job, his Escalade, and his condo.

Plaza, too, is a standout, here combining her trademark cynicism and deadpan comic delivery with a greater vulnerability and sensitivity. It is not so different from April's general arc on "Parks and Rec" really, but she carries it off so convincingly and effortlessly that I didn't mind. Hopefully this is just the start of bigger things for both these actors.

Despite its flaws, this is a simple and effective film about emotions and choices, a gentle comedy rooted in tragedy that takes both regret and hope very seriously.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" (R) ***1/2 (Available on Netflix Instant)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentin's Day links

Happy Valentine's Day everyone.


1. Jeffrey Overstreet, one of my favorite film critics, ponders films about marriage:

2. The ever-hilarious After Hours crew of dissects romantic comedies:

3. Amid all the pink hearts, etc., should we remember who this holiday is named for, perhaps?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Five Minutes of Heaven

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Liam Neeson has morphed somewhat of late, from an actor who specialized in serious, Oscar-winning films like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (and was also Spielberg’s first pick at some point for the title role now occupied by Daniel Day-Lewis in the somber, reverent “Lincoln”) to an actor who is most likely to be seen in movies like “Taken” and “The A-Team”—both movies that work well in their own way, but are of a completely different caliber and intent than much of his previous work. In this most recent portion of his career, he has successfully reinvented himself as a genuine take-no-prisoners action star; and, I might add, a much more entertaining and convincing one than the present-day versions of eighties’ icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But despite this transformation, Neeson still gamely lent his star-power, talent, and box-office-draw name to a small European release like “Five Minutes of Heaven”(Pathé, BBC Fims), a film that, although it received some attention at Sundance in 2009, made a comparatively tiny amount of money in the US and slipped by virtually undetected.

Neeson stars here as the Irish-Protestant Alistair Little, who, at the age of 17, killed a Catholic boy named Jim Griffin in his Ulster home. Little eventually served time in jail and is now rehabilitated and released. The movie opens with Neeson narrating in an even, dignified, and straightforward way the specific situation of the 1975 murder and the general atmosphere of the Troubles. “For me to talk about the man I have become,” he says, “you need to know about the man I was.” His narration, and the slightly grainy, washed out footage that accompanies it, examines some of the group-think causes of terrorism. The man he was is played by Mark Ryder, who looks remarkably like a younger Neeson, from the tall, purposeful frame to the long, narrow nose. His eyes, however, are bright and clear, while the present day Alistair played by Neeson has a face weighed down by years of regret and melancholy resignation. Alistair now makes a living speaking about reconciliation, and he is scheduled to meet Joe Griffin, the younger brother of the man he killed. Neeson expertly conveys a blend of conflicting emotions: Alistair does want the meeting to take place, perhaps for his own closure, but is also visibly nervous, and understands and generously insists that the confrontation, which a TV crew will be filming live, must be completely on Joe’s terms. His crime weighs on him, and he wants more than anything to atone, but he also has made a career out of that attitude, a complication deftly shown when he repeats his opening narration lines to the TV cameras; the words begin to sound like something that has become routine for him. Our awareness of this possibility feeds into our comprehension of and sympathy with Joe's bitterness.

Playing Joe Griffin is another great Irish actor, James Nesbitt. His name is not nearly as well known as Neeson’s internationally (although you can currently see him as the comic and roguish dwarf Bofur in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”), but his performance is just as important to the success of “Five Minutes in Heaven,” if not more so. Joe is a bitter, angry man. He saw Alistair kill his brother over thirty years ago, and could do nothing, and his mother has blamed him ever since. He stews under a cloud of resentment and simmering ire, barely concealing his own deep sense of guilt underneath. The film first introduces him sitting in the back of a long black luxury car as he is driven to the meeting; it is a long tense scene as Joe keeps flashing back to the fatal event and his mother’s treatment of him afterward, and wavers on whether he will actually go through with the confrontation or not. He is completely agitated and distracted, and the scene is almost painful in its raw emotionality. And this introduction is not even Joe’s most emotional moment; rather the script pushes him further and further into the dark corners of his wounded mind, where his desperate lashing out seems equally divided between Alistair and himself. Joe runs the gamut of emotions in this film, and every one of them is finely stamped on Nesbitt’s haggard and vulnerable face. He also gives Joe an irrepressible nervous energy that shows itself in multitudinous small, quick, intense movements. His mental unease communicates itself bodily and creates a vivid portrait of a torn and broken man. The script by Guy Hibbert also gives Nesbitt several powerful monologues to work with, which he devours with energy, while always making the words sound like they are coming straight from the mess of Joe Griffin’s inner struggles.

I’ve largely dedicated this review to the two main actors because the film does the same thing. It hands over its simple plot to these two actors and characters and reveals itself as a great two-handed acting showcase. Neeson and Nesbit complement each other’s styles as well: where Neeson is all dignified containment, Nesbit is practically boiling over. But director Oliver Hirschbiegel (famous for his German film on Hitler’s last days, “Downfall”) also deserves much credit for his restrained but purposeful, and at times starkly beautiful direction. There are three splendid shots in particular that stand out:  The first comes about halfway through the film, when Joe is finally descending the stairs at the country retreat to confront Alistair, caught on the documentary team’s TV cameras. Hirschbiegel keeps his own camera directly in front of Joe, putting the character’s discomfort at the unnaturally staged quality of the event front and center, as Hirschbiegel's cinematographer (Ruairi O'Brien) takes the place of the fictional film crew. The second two come right near the end of the movie (mild SPOILERS ahead), when Joe and Alistair meet once again: first Alistair enters the ground floor of an abandon building, and the camera pulls back to show Joe waiting on a balcony above him, looking down unseen with an intense and frightening expression; then Alistair climbs the stairs and enters a room on the second floor, and the camera again reveals Joe, again where Alistair cannot see him, this time behind the open door. These shots suggest the moral and power imbalance between these two men. What is between them will forever keep them on different levels, at the same time enslaving both of them to the past, unless in their increasingly desperate hunt for closure and meaning they can somehow get past each other and the mental and emotional space they take up in each other’s lives.

Though at times slow and too dependent on long, play-like talky scenes, this film is a thoughtful drama about terrorism, revenge, and the possibility of forgiveness, elevated by riveting performances from Nesbitt and Neeson.

"Five Minutes of Heaven" (R) **** (Available on Netflix Instant)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Life Through the Wall

Life Through the Wall

Brendan heard her life through the thin, plastered wall that separated their apartments.
She walked quickly around.  Her feet were rarely slow.  Sometimes she paced, but
hurriedly.  Staccato.
 She set her table for four.  Plate.  Plate.  Plate.  Plate.  Silver-ilver-ilver-ilver-
ilverware.  But she ate alone.  There were no other voices but hers.  From the sizzling and whistling and clanking he could tell she sometimes made elaborate meals for herself.  The thought had crossed his mind before that she might be fat, but he had dismissed it.  She had a light step.
Sometimes she spoke to herself, but usually too low for him to hear.  Sometimes,
especially early in the morning, she scolded herself like a broken record.  “You’re late you’re late you’re late you’re late you’re late you’re late—you are late!”  The door slammed behind her.  She locked herself out with gusto.  Sometimes, especially late at night, she sighed heavily as she flopped down on her couch.  It was old and creaked when she moved.
She often hummed to herself, little snatches of eighties’ songs he did not recognize.
Her washing machine was the noisiest thing in her apartment.

She had conversations on the phone.  He tried to piece things together from the one side he heard, just her voice.
            . . .
            . . .
            “Yes, I’m sure.  Thank you.”
            . . .
            “I’m hanging up now, Ken.  I’ve already said everything I can say.  You need to talk to someone else.  I can’t deal with this anymore.  Don’t call here again, please.”
            . . .
            “I’m hanging up.  Goodbye, Ken.”
            She was rather quiet for a while after that call.

            Another call was apparently from her mother.  This one came late at night when Brendan was laying on his back in bed staring at the tiny bumps in his ceiling.
            Her voice bled soft and muffled through the wall.  He could not catch all the words.  “Hi Mom.  Why are . . . late?”
            “Mom? . . . okay?”
            . . .
            “Slow d . . . what’s going . . .?”
            . . .
            “Okay.  Alright.  I’ll be right there.  I’m leaving right now.”
            . . .
            “Yeah.  . . . hold tight Mom and . . . don’t move more . . . have to.  I’m coming right . . . .”
            He heard her striding through the house. He heard the tinkle of keys and then the slam of her front door.  She forgot to lock it.
            Brendan lay still in the quiet dark.  The unlocked door began to bother him.  What if someone was waiting for just such an opportunity to get into her apartment and take her stuff?  Or worse, wait in ambush for her?  What if a murderer got in?  Maybe she would remember.  He counted to ten.  She did not come back to the door.  He heard her car start and pull out of the driveway.  What could he do?  She had completely forgotten to lock her apartment door!  There was nothing he could do.  He always locked his door.  It wasn’t his fault—he had been a good example if she had ever noticed.  But of course she had not.  Who would notice something like that?  Who would notice someone like him?  Brendan did not make much noise. He was careful and quiet, having had long experience with how easily sounds traveled through the paper thin walls of the old apartment complex.  He had been there for years.  She had just recently moved there—what was it, two months ago?  She had not had time to learn.  And now anyone in the apartment block might know she was gone by the racket of her departure, might be ready to sneak in and take what they wanted, might already be starting to do so.
            He could not let that happen.  She did not know the danger she had exposed herself to.  It was his responsibility.
            He slid lightly and silently out of his bed, his feet landing perfectly in his slippers, which made almost no sound as he moved across his thinly carpeted floor.  He opened the small, concealed drawer of his bedside table and took out his sidearm.  He flipped the safety off.
            He walked purposefully across his apartment, eased his door open slowly and just as carefully shut it and locked it, as silent as he could make himself.
            He stepped into the hallway, and for a moment, he felt terribly vulnerable.  Anyone could see him there.  His silhouette against the dim, flickering lights in the hallway, would be stark—perfect posture but pistol all too obvious.  Anyone all down the narrow hallway could see him, would have a perfect shot at him.
            He strode to her door quickly.  He reminded himself that it was midnight, that few would be awake, that they all worked long hours and came home exhausted, that to the best of his knowledge he was the only tenant who had a gun.  He knew he shouldn’t be so concerned about such things.
            He tested her door.  It was indeed unlocked.  He began to turn the knob, but his hand froze.  What if someone had already been here?  What if they had booby-trapped the door, intending the explosion to kill her when she returned?  He gently released the door knob and looked under the door.  He could see nothing.  He straightened back up, and the shifting of his weight made the hallway floorboards creak.  There wouldn’t have been enough time to rig something like that anyway, he told himself.  Nonetheless, he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
He took a deep breath and pushed her door open quickly.  No one was in sight.  All clear.  Maybe he had worried for nothing.  Still, better safe than sorry.  And there was no easy way to lock her door without a key.  He wondered if there was a spare somewhere.  No, that would be too dangerous.  She wasn’t that stupid.
He looked around.  He was in a small entryway, perhaps eight feet long, which led into the spare living/dining room.  He saw the table which she sat down to dinner at every evening, four chairs around it.  It was shabbier than he had imagined, covered in old, blotchy stains.  Off to the left was the bedroom, small and square, with a low doorway and a slight step down.  The layout of the apartment was exactly the same as his.  He supposed he should not be surprised.  It made sense.  But he had never been inside any of the other apartments before.  He could see the bed jammed up into the corner of the bedroom, to allow space for a small upright piano.  He stared at in incomprehension.  He had never heard music.  He had never heard her play.  And yet the piano took up most of the rest of the small bedroom.  It could not be practical.  She must be extra careful not to bump it every time she got out of bed.  What was it doing in there?  There was no chair on bench before it.  There was not even really room to comfortably stand in front of it.  It would be difficult to play.
Suddenly he heard a noise.  Someone was walking down the hallway—soft, careful, insinuating steps, approaching her door, which he had left slightly ajar.  He closed it quietly, and readied his gun.  He would have the advantage of surprise against the intruder.  They would not be expecting resistance.  He would shoot first.  He would shoot to kill.  The leader first, and the rest would scatter like flies at the swat of a hand.  But he would not let them get far.  He would keep one alive for questioning, find out their motive, what motive they had for attempting to abduct . . . her.  His love.  He did not know her name.  It didn’t matter.  They had tried to assassinate her and he had saved her.
            He heard them right behind the door now.  He could not wait any longer.  He fired three times, putting three perfect holes in the door.  The shots echoed enormously.