I started to wonder about my lodger and what he might be hiding in his room. The break-in seemed too calculated and selective to be the work of a common thief, who might have simply stolen Don’s luggage or my computer. Even the cash I’d stowed in my sock drawer was untouched. My fantasies turned paranoid. Was Don a spy—or an Al Qaeda operative who’d turned my apartment into his base? Had the injured-sister story been a ploy to gain my sympathy? Or maybe the accident was real but had been caused by some other agent to distract Don long enough to retrieve something from his suitcases.
Unable to reach Don and thoroughly spooked, I changed the locks, packed his few things into a closet, and moved back into the bedroom, convinced he’d never return. He did. On Christmas Eve, he called when I was in the middle of tree-trimming at my parents’ home in New Jersey. He told me that his ailing sister had died and he was back in New York but couldn’t get into the apartment. At first I was petrified just to hear his voice, but as we spoke, I started to relax. Maybe I was insane and he was a normal guy—a possibility I’d consider over and over in the ensuing months. I told him about the break-in and said I’d meet him at the apartment at three the following afternoon.
I got there two hours early. Mortified at having assumed he skipped town when he’d actually had a family tragedy, I wanted to make it seem as though I had never moved back in. Back out of the closet came his luggage, and I scattered things around to make it look convincingly ransacked. Back on the windowsill went the action figures he had kept there. His plastic storage containers, just about his only furniture, went back against the wall where I’d found them. I reset the clock. I held my breath.
The doorbell rang at three o’clock, and there he was. He seemed tired and sad, as you might expect, and at the same time he seemed obsessed with trying to solve the crime. He searched through the room, sat among the wreckage looking closely at his scattered belongings, and even joked about the perpetrator’s clumsy closet break-in. Strangely, despite the damage, little had been stolen—old cell phones, a little cash, a printer, and some marijuana, according to Don. (The drugs surprised me. I’d only seen him drink a beer once, and he’d said one was his limit.)
I imagined the invasion as retaliation for his womanizing. One of Don’s lady visitors had an on-again-off-again ex-con boyfriend—was he the culprit? “It doesn’t make sense,” Don said. “That guy, I’ve seen him around, and if he did this, he would have made it worth his while.”
Don advanced his own theory: “Three people had the keys,” he said. “I didn’t do it, my sixth sense tells me you weren’t involved, and that leaves one person.” He suspected our eccentric next-door neighbor, Lev, a deeply indebted Lithuanian jazz pianist and self-published science-fiction novelist who fed the cats whenever I went away. “You know, he grew up in the Soviet Union,” Don said, “so you don’t know who he might have been involved with.” I just listened. It was ridiculous, but his explanation did have a certain Occam’s-razor appeal.
Don proposed that we mount surveillance Webcams in the apartment (I refused) and called in the help of his family. He brought over a woman he called his sister and had me relate the story of finding the crime scene. (“I’m sorry for your loss,” I told her. “It’s been a hard time,” she replied.) He also told me he’d sent some items to his brother-in-law in D.C., “a Fed,” he said, “so if there are any fingerprints on them, we’ll find out.”
It occurred to me I’d touched all his stuff when I moved back into the bedroom. What if he found out? To clear my conscience, I confessed. “You handled pretty much everything in there,” he said, as if asking for confirmation of something he already knew. “I found your prints, too.”
“Strong work,” I said, shocked but trying to play it cool. “How did you get them in the first place?”
“Oh, well, you know, you could always just take an empty out of the recycling bin or something.”
Don’s familiarity with law-enforcement techniques might have alarmed me, but I was too embarrassed about my stunt to think clearly—and his anger over the incident only fueled my guilt. When I asked him for compensation after he inadvertently damaged an artwork of mine, Don retorted that it should be balanced against the losses he’d sustained in the break-in, which, as he saw it, happened on my watch. “And when you told me about it, you were just, like, ‘Hey, here’s what happened, sorry.’ My reaction would have been, ‘What can I do?’ Because if I see you have a problem, I’m going to try to help you. That’s just the way I was raised.”