Copyright is held by the author.
HE CLIMBED the stairs slowly, feigning casualness. He knew his dizziness was more likely the daily dose of Ativan he had taken. They didn’t like to see you miss doses, for any reason. Almost there. He leaned against the balustrade and breathed, hoping the Lease Agent wasn’t watching. These things counted against you.
And there he was, having reached the top of the old fire tower, with its rook’s-eye view of village life below; the hardware store, the coffee shop, the Yoga centre. Bogdan liked the area, and loved the building’s eccentricities, renovated, remodeled into a building, they said, that was full of surprising twists and turns, nooks and crannies. That would suit him to a t, especially after six years in a place with the size and surprise-value of a matchbox.
And there they were, he at the top step, concealing his tight breathing, and the Lease Agent, on the landing, slim, Brooks Brothers dark blue, one leg lazily hooked across the other. He smiled, but it was that of the carrion, if they could smile, or cared to. Pale blue eyes, tinted toward white added to the predator look. Contacts? Laser art? Bogdan didn’t like it. A person’s eyes actually should be their window to the soul; after all, there were almost no others left, except for the honest voice, and touch, and one was starved of both these days.
“Hello.” Bogdan offered his hand. Lease Agent turned and continued the ascent. “Think you’re up to these stairs?” His smooth hand caressed the old wood, his bulky rings scraping gently. “I tried to read your name earlier. No luck. I’ll just call you #15, alrighty?”
Had to be AI. Could move and talk in remarkably human fashion. Not known for giving a damn.
“Bogdan would do. Or Bart, as my co-workers call me.”
Lease Agent ignored him. “Small place, as the rest of them here go, 15, and a workout to get to, but worth it.” He unlocked and pushed open the door onto bare wood floors, polished, broad planks. The room itself was twice the size of his glorious dump, and Bart spied the corner of a modern kitchen disappearing to his left. The living room faced east, its three windows each the size of a car, now glowing with the late afternoon light he loved so much. His own cubby had but one window, in the kitchen, over the sink. It faced east and gave him none of this magical light. He would pay the high rent and more for just the light. His hand felt the wallet in his right pocket, blank cheque ready. $200 was all he could make as a down payment, and the more he wandered the dining room, the bedroom, the more that money shrank, while his heart grew, too desirous of the place. He jammed his hands in his pockets.
Then out came the dread Checkr. Lease Agent was — as he had feared — the thorough type. A too pleasant epithet for a reptile. Brooks Brothers cuffs slipped like trained ballroom dancers, almost soundless against the machine as Lease Agent’s fingers automatically played the Checkr’s keys.
“Good. No yoga master,” Bart said, chuckling, “but hanging in there.”
Lease Agent’s pecs seemed to come to life under his jacket for a moment. One egoistical little pectoral moment, as Lease Agent eyed Bart from head to foot. Could he sense the depression, even through Bart’s best clothes and shined shoes?
“Xoriazine, Ativan, a touch,” Lease Agent said it to himself, entering the data. “I can always tell. Most are on it.”
“A touch. Ativan only. Xoriazine got beat soundly the last time around. Year ago or more.” Why the hell was he explaining anything to this inquisitor?
Then he realized the Lease Agent was preparing for the infamous credit shake. They all relished this bit. When that certain breed of rich got to make the rules, the games, the playing pieces, no bank or government was about to interfere with their snooping casually into your financial state.
Stroking an icon on the Checkr, he turned it upside down for a second and shook it like a piggy bank, then turned it face up for both to see. The Checkr never showed figures, only Monopoly symbols. Fat dude in top hat meant plenty of money; a wad of notes — sufficient means. In his case, the Checkr rattled thinly, a piggy bank dispensing meager coins.
“Not flush, then?”
Bart stared, wide-eyed at Lease Agent, his fingers forming around his wallet.
“Depends what you call flush. Maserati-flush, no. But I’ve paid my rent on the day for my place for six years. Paid for renovations, had new windows and gutters installed. Never missed an upkeep fee. It’s all here.” Bart pulled a folded and worn form from his pocket, a sign of much use and little success.
Lease Agent scanned it quickly and thrust it back as though it were contagious.
Swiping away the more sensitive data on his Checkr — the legislators had come down on the side of the little man on this one, with hefty fines for keeping proprietary data — Lease Agent said, “You don’t look the type to want to live in a place like this.” He was all eyebrows, and a thick crop of dark hair that looked like one of those ancient hayricks, scythed and stacked in the field.
Bart was still smarting from the “look the type” comment when Lease Agent’s face jutted upward, those worn ivory eyes glinting here and there a jewel of tangerine in the setting sun that submerged like a galleon in a sea of pollution. “It’s not the finances, Bro. It’s more the culture here, if you get me. You might fit in. Might just not.” Bart knew then, and felt satisfied in his resolve.
His money was no good. A rumpled old cheque for $200 might as well be toilet paper. His suit was too creased, the thin fabric a dead giveaway. His brown shoes were out of date and scuffed beyond disguise.
He followed sleek, plush Lease Agent as they began to descend the stairs, watched his perfectly sculpted buttocks that peered in turn from the jacket tails, listened to the quality duet of Lease Agent’s quality shoes meeting antique oak stairs, noted the black cob of hair nodding like sinister cotton candy against the Lease Agent’s nape. Then he struck. Bart’s old, union dress shoe struck out with force, punching Lease Agent deep in the lower back, spinning the figure into a grotesque pose, a Nijinskian mockery. Lease Agent’s back snapped backward unnaturally and Bart knew he was right. His hands gripped the banisters tight and, just yards from the glass entry door, his heavy-heels mule kicked Lease Agent in the upper back, near the flopping nape.
The creature went down, a marionette with cut strings, crumpled onto its knees for a second, then slid sideways, curled tight to the banister like a trilobite — like that famous Viva la Pata Brando death scene. His whirring machinery died out as Bart strode over him.
He stepped out into the last sliver of pink sunlight. He may be an old union boy, before greed, and corruption on both sides destroyed that world. But he still knew a thing or two. He may live in a matchbox. But he lived in Wortley Village. He bet Cyborg Lease Agent didn’t. Fitting that they’d cart him out in a pretzeled mess in the trunk of a cruiser.
He passed the parked Red Maserati and took out his keys and scratched the length of the vehicle’s side as he passed. Then he climbed into his tiny old hybrid and smiled as it started on the second turn. Rufus, his aging ally Scottie, seemed to know he had been up to no good, and approved. He clambered carefully from back seat to front and licked Bart’s face.
“Want to hear me recite the next chapter of Moby Dick backwards?” said Bart, and began intoning. It was fitting, somehow, with that brainless cyborg secretary out of commission on the stairs. Not too distant, he heard the collision of the police sirens with the night air.
He drove calmly home. He wasn’t the type. They wouldn’t look at him twice.