8

“Open the window!”

While Garrett arranged himself behind the wheel, Martha shouted instructions from the driveway’s curb. The private drive that arced past the front of the property office was nearly as congested as the six-lane boulevard which divided the district’s massive housing blocks. The driveway’s pavement where Martha squatted was a good half meter higher than the road. As a matter of fact, she could not properly see how Garrett was getting along inside their MPV.

“Her map is in the GPS. Eight!” Martha shouted.

On the ground, thought Garrett, in the canyons, there is no recess from the wind of pedestrian and motorized freight. Hold that thought. S’OK, where’s your tab?

Martha saw Garrett fall over into the passenger seat just as a guy in a Ford occupying the space beside their idle MPV began pounding out a Morse code of rebuke on his horn. She clenched her purse in her armpit and pressed her palms over both ears. Inside the Qin the guy’s frustration reverberated. Garrett had lurched up-right and covered his ears. The empty shuttle bus blocking the guy in the Ford shimmied. A dozen people, some pacing compulsively, surrounded it and complained loudly to each other about unreliable amentities.

“Third World joke!” a female type in overalls yelped.

“You’re telling me?” a suit, dragging an aluminum carry-on, snapped.

“I can’t find the thing, the seat adjuster thing,” Garrett called out helplessly through the windshield to Martha.

Directly behind Martha was the revolving door to the property mananagement office. This was the only entrance for the block’s property office. Flanking it were two service entrances, one for residential visitors and one for residential deliveries. Under the awnings that led to each set of double doors –in and out– lines of people waited a turn for security clearance. The last time Garrett had been to the office was four years ago, the spring of ’29.

He was fifteen-years-old and itchy then. He was growing fast with nowhere to go, seeing as how Martha disapproved of ballers, and he disapproved of his father. That was the first time Martha had trusted Garrett to carry the rent money. That was the day he decided to walk Martha’s almighty envelope across the courtyard plopped in the center of the apartment block. The community biome, they called it. His urge to explore was until that day unprecedented. All the windows of the apartment where he lived with Martha overlooked the boulevard which wrapped the block. That day, he would have followed the boulevard around to the office, if he had not taken a second look at the map. He had been reminded of the courtyard’s existence by the map of the apartment block affixed to 823’s front door. According to that map, the courtyard measured one hectare. He had admitted to himself right then, he could not imagine such a size. The tiny hectare drawn on the map contained a squiggly maze that apparently related the five wings of the apartment block. That day, the maze suggested to Garrett a short-cut to the office. Otherwise, one hectare was something like stairwells, public lavatories, and distant elevators that Garrett usually ignored or, in this case owing to Garrett’s kind of emergency, he did not wish to ignore.

To begin with, Garrett was not prepared for discovery. He started out in the lobby by asking a concierge how to enter into the courtyard. Those directions, to Garrett’s surprise, were straight forward. Upon locating this glass door some thirty meters opposite B-Wing’s front door, he did not exit, but paused to survey the expanse of scrub and ephemeral. Being unable to spy an end to the path from his position, Garrett returned to the concierge. He asked for directions through the biome to the property management office. The delighted concierge whipped out his tablet to demonstrated for Garrett how to use the property navigation app, “A2B.” Garrett, who did not have a tablet, had studied the screen in the concierge’s hands in amazement. The concierge handed Garrett a card, printed with a personalized map.

Garrett had pocketed the card and forgotten about the map. What he had perceived from the courtyard door to be construction debris were, on closer inspection, actually monuments to the biome’s flora, fauna, and the block’s historic establishment. One of them revealed itself when he approached it. Hear ye, hear ye., it called. Hear ye, hear ye. He had looked around, relieved there was no one to observe his embarrassment, when he fell to his knees to confront a rock no larger than a fútbol. Scratching dirt from its surface revealed a tiny placard, a tiny display, and a tiny recess stuffed with ear buds. He had layed himself over the path to read, watch, and listen to its story about los muertes del niño, de la niña, y de l’abuela.

When he was done, he resolved to stop at every officious informatic on the trail to read its story, watch the video repeating its story, and listened to a dramatic reading of its story. At one point, obtusely cornered by C-Wing and D-Wing, doubts about his mother’s motive for moving them suddenly into B-Wing slithered into his eleven-year-old recollections of the old days in Barwood. Farther along the trail, vaguely suspicious that he had retraced a path, Garrett even entertained the possibility that he could teach himself Braille if he could memorize all the legends word for word. But this was not to be.

Along the way he had forgotten his mother’s instruction to “Just swipe your resident badge at the revolving door.” Instead he had dallied under the awning with the visitors to catch stray small talk. He was itching to tell someone about his journey in the biome.

That was how he first hooked up with crubes his own age.

I heard Mezvinsky is buried in the biome, he mumbled to two girls and a dude who were looking for a short cut to E-Wing cantina. They burst into laughter.

“No hablamos Ukrainian,” the small one with the long violet hair extensions quipped. She smiled, the dude glowered, and that is how the sublime sense of accomplishment which had stirred Garrett’s pride began to shrivel.

“Switch is on your left. Push and press at the same time,” Martha urged. She could not see that Garrett was studying the guy in the Ford with rank contempt.

He was thinking, from the chest up the guy in the Ford had the look of a crube. Now that the sun was laying post-meridian, the way he kept one hand on the wheel and one arm hanging out of the window screamed dual-fuel aspirations: mid-market ride, mid-market MOLLE vest, mid-market tats, mid-market pec’s, and mid-market ‘stache. Also his head was shaved to 11-o-clock shadow length.

Crube Emeritus, Garrett thought, I bet you voice-to-sext when you get caught in a real a jam. Bet you send to a mailing list. Bet you eat beef chuck once a week.

A listless cheer from the shuttle bus passengers distracted Martha. The bus driver had returned, and they were boarding. The guy in the Ford tapped the horn impatiently or triumphantly as he seized an unexpected opportunity to shoot into the passing lane between a panel barge and a cab.

Garrett leaned side-ways to peer through the passenger window at Martha’s knees, grateful that his reading glasses were out of reach. Even so, he could tell, the taut hem of her skirt had crossed that beige boundary of girdled-high, no-man thigh. “Shapewear,” he sharply corrected himself.

“Your mirror is cock-eyed,” Martha warned loudly, returning to Garrett.

Garrett nudged the rear-view and pawed both arm rests recklessly. The rear passenger-side window struggled to rise and fall between the door’s crusty lips. The vehicle’s voice-activated-operating-system crackled in pidgin static, then abruptly terminated. His elbow triggered some device that released his safety belt. Martha flashed him a grimace he could not see and straightening herself. She exhaled deeply and fanned her purse. Across the road the clock mounted above the a mini-mart blinked, 13:28, 13:28.

“If that doesn’t work, crank under seat,” Martha ordered. She squatted again anxiously. Now her son’s cheek rested on the steering wheel as he searched the void under his seat. Finding the release knob, he turned it until the seat could not possibly deliver more blessed relief to his legs. At last he stretched. His toes merely caressed the brake pedal. Garrett leaned over to signal Martha with his thumb and forefinger, OK.

“Safety belt!” Martha shouted as Garrett figuratively fired up the MPV. Being battery fueled after all, the only tell-tale sign of ignition amid the wind of four-hundred passing cars per minute was the MPV’s motor-check sequence relayed in color to its cornering lamps — red, blue, green, white, off. Likewise Martha felt energized as the blazing sun gradually cooled her agitation, from under her collar to the balls of her feet in the pleather wedgies. She stayed by the curb facing the boulevard until the Qin was out of sight. She composed the remainder of the day. In those four minutes, she imagined that Garrett would deliver their share unscathed, that he would return home, that she had formulated an itinerary to arrive for work on time and not a minute earlier.

Martha finally turned to deliver the rent money. When she pressed her resident badge to the revolving door’s air-lock, she was startled.

“You have a message,” the revolving door announced. “This message has been anonymized. Please report immediately to the Office of Loss Prevention, Property and Casualty Division, Room G15, Managing Director II MSc. Sokari Nanfadi, for your complete brief.” The recording ended definitively.

“Wait. Where’s Room G15?” Marth barked at the intercom.

“Ah, honey,” a woman said forelornly as she stepped into the revolving door. “Seventh floor. Follow me.” She waited on the other side for Martha to pass through the entrance and a gamut of expressions from disorientation to intractable dread. She exchanged pleasantries with the concierges.

“I work on F in telecommunications. I’m surprised we haven’t met,” she continued more brusquely and ushered Martha toward the elevator banks with a mechanical gesture. Side by side they walked apace, neither looking at each other nor anyone else.

Martha never before had cause to go deep into the business end of the apartment block. The deposit drawer was right at the front desk. Martha’s impression so far was that she could hear more footsteps than she could ever trace visually. The long corridor and its branches where her companion led were oddly uninhabited. Corner offices like curio cases of figurines tacked to drywall were few and far between.

A lifelike grunt of dissatisfaction for her predicament erupted from Martha involuntarily. With uncanny sympathy her guide rifled the contents of her shoulder bag. She produced a strip of gum for herself and offered one to Martha.

“Hungry?” Martha’s guide asked unceremoniously. “I suppose you haven’t heard. There was an incident on a residential floor about a half an hour ago.”

“What’s that to do with me?” Martha gasped.

“I couldn’t say, but our P&C unit is quite well known for rapid response audits. On account of the risks, you know, of claims fraud. That is not unheard of in this development,” she simpered. Simpered? No other description for the tone sprung into Martha’s mind. Martha cut a glance at her companion now. She was two or three inches taller than her rounded shoulders implied. Or was that padding? Martha wondered. The seams of her jacket seemed strained, it wasn’t buttoned, but the mouse grey hair was her own. Martha swallowed a referral to a “copper” specialist who she had patronized once.

“That’s none of my business,” Martha said firmly, tucking the stick of gum into her purse and her purse back under her arm. “I haven’t changed a single fixture in that apartment since I moved in ten years ago! Nonetheless, I’ve come to pay rent as always.”

“Floor 34? Yes, well, P&C does have a reputation for woodwork protocol. One team canvasses anyone remotely associated with an incident proximity. Another team appraises and adjusts. Now, here we are.” Martha’s guide turned into an alcove that housed a pair of facing elevators. She pressed the buttons on both panels and retreated like palace guard to a position squarely between them, opposite Martha. She chewed gum slowly, eyes on the floor, until a dulcet chime broke her silence. The elevators’ doors opened.

“I take this one to six. You take that one to seven,” she advised Martha who was gaping at her from outside the alcove. “You can’t miss the direction to G15 when you get out.”

She seemed to Martha to hesite until a young man with a briefcase strode into the alcove and directly into the car that she had assigned to Martha. His accessories glinted under the overhead lights. His summer sable complexion shined. His sudden appearance and his pose, back against the wall, seemed to catalyze Martha’s guide. She fairly leaped the distance to Martha to sling an arm around her waist and twirl about face as if Martha were a May Pole.

“Oh, hello, Vice-president IV Doctor Bessimmer, how are we today,” she said merrily. Martha, alarmed, could not recall disclosing which floor she lived on.

“Toomey,” Bessimmer replied from inside the elevator.

“Take my card,” Miz Toomey whispered to Martha, drawing her a step closer to the elevator. “Just in case.” She held out the hand in which she had palmed the card. Martha shook it noncommitally, but the card clung to her clammy hand.

“It was nice meeting you. Thank you for your kindness,” Martha said. She took a step toward the elevator and the man. Bessimmer could not manage even the appearance of annoyance for being delayed. It wasn’t natural. Martha swiveled, unsheathed her purse, and flipped it open.

“Please, I must return this,” she said to Toomey, handing over the foil-wrapped gum and scraping Miz Toomey’s gummed-up card into its place. “Honestly, I don’t chew. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she murmured as she backed into the elevator. The door closed automatically.

It reopened with a chime to floor G. When the man followed Martha out, and she wasn’t all that surprised. G was the only destination for that elevator bank. She was a bit unnerved to discover that G15 was the only room on the floor. The elevator opened into a reception area.