CHAPTER 1. First Heaven.
October 29th, 2015. Early Evening.
Just above the western horizon, the city's autumn sun shone distant, arctic even, a vacant ball of fusion unnecessary to an electrified world of incandescent bulbs and atomic clocks. It lit the Gidlow Arcade with its miles-long multi-colored ribbon escaping the urban core in a Thursday's rush hour. The bumper-to-bumper stream waited while music played from open windows and horns sounded with casual anger. The motorists breathed a rich air of toxins and complained into their phones about what was "killing them." A rusted Chevette zipped up the empty northbound boulevard and toward from where they fled. None wanted to follow. But the freedom... Centuries ago, an intelligent if not a wise man said, "Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast; and each will wrestle for mastery there." True of him, true of everyone, but today one soul atrophies en masse—billions more, tiny failing stars. ...
The dial spun and screeched through stations on the radio hot-glued to the Chevette's dashboard years ago by Uaine Dupree, behind the wheel now, well-scrubbed with dark hair uncombed and still damp. Crackle to chatter to melody, a knock-off Cambodian FM modulator strained to discover a frequency blank enough to pump through his iPhone's music. Instead, it found: country crooners; classic rock; conservative talk as it mocked candidate T—; airwave proselytizers in the midst of fiery Bible passages, "—this I will give you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me"; and NPR's dull rationality failing to realize it was arsenic to a digital society. (Besides the even quieter in-between channels where numbers stations whispered reptilian missives.) Uaine hunted for the thickest static to drive away the hundred voices—outside, at a discontinued bus stop, a homeless schizophrenic self-medicated with contents of a brown paper bag.
Brutalist public housing projects cast irregular shadows across the Arcade, one after another, until the traffic circle on Forsyth where two years of dirt covered the plaque beneath the statue of C. Tanner Houseman, its meaning forgotten, its message never believed. The Pistola Nuevo Luxury Condos sign swung in the breeze from the fence around the looming burnt out highrise, disfigured by spray paint: #lies, #1%. Uaine, the determination second hand now, gave neither the memorial nor the Pistola's ruin any thought and drove north, finally listening to Another Sunset, Another Dawn by Axe, a gentle psychedelic dream, and just in time. ... Two more lights, a gothic cathedral and a precinct station later, grayscale Umber Downs bled away, and he rolled into Amity Heights, a forest of shrouded lanes, where manor houses still stood grand even if their tenants did not. Chopped into duplexes and co-ops, and after a regentrification campaign, they lodged hipster trash and unmoving octogenarians both feigning indifference for the other. Their reasons were identical. Beyond stretched the faded haute cuisine restaurants and somber cafes along Water Street, glaring east through the row of transplanted palm trees and across the river to the scene of downtown's vertical frenzy. Beside them on the west bank, the lone Mertroy Tower soared, an Art Deco monument to the city's golden age.
The little, yellow hatchback pulled up behind an idling Bentley. The valet's pockmarked face held recognition but said nothing, and Uaine passed him the Chevette's keys with a lopsided smile, protocol saving him from a one-sided familiarity. Shallow stairs to doors and his footsteps echoed up the walls of the great marble lobby. Red-carpeted stairs rose to galleries on every side; bronze griffons watched from their high perches. There were no Halloween decorations, the place needed none.
With the smug dismissiveness common to the elderly, an ancient man in white tie passed Uaine as he entered, a smoky-eyed girl in black sequins hanging from the crook of his arm. Guided by her escort—meandering with a purpose—she affected a suspicious, pharmaceutical calm. Uaine caught her aroma of lilac and jasmine and tobacco, still sickly sweet to a former smoker. He spied her hips and ass as he walked without heed into what he first thought a statue, so little did it yield, but turned to find a ghoulish man in a charcoal suit with an earpiece. Basalt eyes glowered at him from a face so inexpressive it could pass for the mask of a dead president. The guard exhaled through his nostrils, and the blast of heat ran over Uaine's cheeks with the dry scent of sarcoidosis.
"Uh... excuse me. I have an interview with the—"
"They will summon you," said in an intelligible but unknowable accent. Unfazed, the great Halloween head had tilted back, the shoulders squared. He gestured to a couch in the center of the room beneath the wavy massiveness of a Tronchi tube chandelier, transparent glass layered one atop the other until it became opaque—funny how simple things can turn mysterious right before our eyes.
Uaine slumped into the stiff red leather. The guard had moved beyond his line of sight but remained close. None came or went while he waited. The shadows grew as the sun slid beneath the tessellated windows of the galleries above and the light died, the sky becoming a black sea greater than any earthly counterpart; as slim contrast, the crystal sconces of the Mertroy's lobby emitted a weary, pondering illumination.
Hollow ping signaled a new text message ('yo bro its Josh Masters you got tickets for lektor spektor? I told my grl Id get us in')—he didn't even know a Josh Masters, it sounded made up... maybe he did, either way. Powered off, the screen that shade of electric dark, Uaine returned the iPhone to the breast pocket of the tuxedo. ... In the big attic of the Dupree house, drapes of gossamer spread wide from the rafters and hinted at a prehistoric orb-weaver hidden among the trunks, boxes, asbestos, and rat shit. Uaine had climbed up into that peril earlier in the afternoon to fish from a creaky chest his brother's narrow tuxedo coat and pants; Raif had worn them at his wedding when he was Uaine's present age. A height disparity showed more of Uaine's wrist and ankle than he wanted, but he guessed it was the current fashion, anyway. Closet bare of any professional collared shirt, he donned the once-pricey John Varvatos v-neck he stole from the wardrobe room on the set of an unaired pilot which cast him in a minor role. He discovered an old leather portfolio containing complicated architectural notes initialed with GWD, his paternal grandfather, whom his father told him designed bridges for a living. "Fucking sells people bridges," said Uaine's father as he finished another highball. Though less talented, he had also been an architect. The sketches tumbled onto his bedroom's draft table, and in their place, Uaine packed his nightclub flyer drawings, laughable résumé, and a patchy print out of an e-mail squeezed from a dry ink cartridge:
Subject: Invitation to Interview, Re: Assistant Application
I am enthused by your application. It precedes you admirably. It is my hope that in the duration between your inquiry and this reply you have not found desirable employ elsewhere. The position of private assistant, at this time, remains unfilled. A meeting is a proper course. I will expect you the 29th of October at the Mertroy Tower. As my days are rigorously scheduled, an evening interview would be best suited, let us say half past seven. I am anxiously expecting you.
That Uaine hadn't sent any application didn't bother him. Dandra could have done it, or Ms. Nantakarn, Don Wichita if he was feeling generous: the various venue owners he worked for on-and-off. Their clientele ranged from the distinguished to the displaced. It was also probable his mother had sent it in for him in one of her manic moods. He told her he was a club promoter, and it was nearly, sort of, kind of true—it was his answer for old classmates when he ran into them, each a herald for the same question, "But what do you do?" Them with their degrees and internships and tech start-ups, balanced lives like a Chemistry class pH experiment (the lesson: if you're planning on being a loser, don't attend a preparatory academy), but each cheerful voice replied, "Oh, that's gotta be a blast!" ... His mother, devoid of social conscience, informed him his was a job for "cokeheads and queers." Earlier in the week, hovering in the doorway, he asked about the assistant position, she just grumbled and wrapped herself tighter in the bed sheets; the nightstand beside her piled high with the Lettres Provinciales, The Fountainhead, and Leviathan along with half-empty bottles spilling lorazepam, diazepam, midazolam onto the Berber carpet—
"I never saw someone sit around so still. Me, I fidget," said a rough, breathy voice. It carried a moist nasality, a wet rag lodged in the sinus cavity. "Did you know Governor Holbach died right there, where you're sitting there?"
Uaine jumped to his feet. "Jesus. Shit. I didn't know." He turned to face a kid doorman with low-set ears, name tagged: H. Jaffie.
"No worries. It was a long time back now when the Mertroy was a hotel. He came down in his robe and slippers, sat there, and died in his sleep there. True story. I guess he liked to be around the people."
They looked across the empty lobby.
Uaine rubbed his neck. "Uh... yes, I guess so. It's a nice thought."
"Yep. Yep." Jaffie kneaded his hands together in front of him and focused on Uaine's Adam's apple. "Said he died of dehydration. Said he had sand in his mouth. He hadn't had a drink in three days. That's when it happens; by day three, people don't survive without water."
"Well, average people at least." Uaine grinned.
Jaffie's head bobbed. "Everybody's average people."
"When it comes to water, yeah?"
"Not only," and Jaffie motioned Uaine to follow. They walked, and he paused at a portrait and recounted the tale of Alexander Mertroy, founder of the largest elevator service company of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries—keepers of thirteenth floors across the nation. A learned man, Mr. Mertroy, a scholar of the arts and archeology, was even present during excavations at Ur, where he had a torrid affair with Agatha Christie. Yes, a humble elevator operator turned business owner, later hotelier, occasional philatelist, and late-life occultist; that was if the rumors were true. ... Around the bend and behind the central staircase was a bank of seven elevators, each etched with the gilded "M." They proceeded past the matched pairs to the one at the end. Jaffie used a key from a jingling ring wired to his belt and the slim, brass door slid into the wall. He bade Uaine enter with a crooked smiled flourish.
Inside, the panel held only utility buttons, and one marked "PH" glowed. Jaffie leaned in and swiped the portfolio from under Uaine's arm with a plump but dexterous hand. "Don't need this. You can get it back at the front desk. Yep."
Before Uaine could protest, the door snapped shut, only a pencil lead's breadth between its edge and the tip of Jaffie's receding red nose. Uaine wondered, Why hadn't he grabbed him? Politeness? It couldn't be tact. His mother had embedded in him from an old French movie the contrast between the two: "A man opens a bathroom door by mistake and sees a naked lady. He steps back and says, 'Excuse me, madame.' That is politeness. The same man finds the same naked lady and says, 'Excuse me, monsieur.' That is tact." The joke escaped Uaine, if there was one. ... The caring came gradually, if at all, same as everything else; instead, he shrugged it off as an over-zealous doorman and made a fist to watch his hand relax. It was slow to unfold. He was drying out, but not like Governor Holbach. With a quiet vibration, the express elevator rocketed toward a castle in the clouds, those storehouses of snow and dew, and Uaine sighed at the stillness of his heart.