Smoke rose to waist level. Sirens pierced the billowing blue in rhythm to narrow wedges of light. Parallel beams roved to one side, then another, before crossing with another pair emerging from an unseen threshold. The smoke parted briefly, revealing a fluorescent yellow boot, a red suspender bent obtuse by a reflective circle. More circles emerged, forming points along an oscillating line, spinning in agitation as hands hoisted rampant nozzles to the darkness overhead. The attached hoses stiffened, causing them to buck slightly before yielding to the press of restraining hands. Pressure hummed from the building turgor before sudden release in streams of red, white, and blue confetti.
In the ensuing roar, Woodbern missed the opening of the “Smoke Detector” song. He only knew it had started because of MK Ultra, who mouthed the words otherwise ignored by the rest of the ensemble. Ruby Ridge clutched a spent nozzle to her breasts but lost her grip from a spasm of silver stars that pooled at the soles of Ultra’s feet. From somewhere upstage, a surge of confetti caught Roz Well by the buttocks, obscuring what there was of her denim shorts. She was still dappled in blue as she joined The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress for a double handspring on the pole at stage right.
The pyrotechnics, the choreography, the daily specials that customers would actually want to eat, they could only mean one thing—the Regular was on his way. Even JB seemed more preoccupied than usual, and that was saying something.
No one knew who the Regular was. Ask him and JB would change the subject. Ask one of the dancers, and she would fuss more wantonly than usual at your tie or collar, offering you a private dance on the house, the purr of enticement almost inaudible over the silence it failed to obscure. You listened for a moment longer before following Jackie’s pillbox hat or Geneva’s loosened dirndl down the narrow hall next to JB’s office, and into one of the private rooms.
Nevertheless, there were a few things you could glean about the Regular if you paid close attention:
1. The Regular loved flag bunting. No sooner did the first half-round of embroidered stars and stripes unfurl from the DJ booth, a scrotal bulge between mounted speakers, than every doorway, wall, and light fixture was dripping with it. Patrons left to take a piss, or coax cigars from JB’s temperamental self-serve humidor, never to return. The cleaning crew found them, long after closing, clutching the colors of Old Glory to their throats, convinced that they had left hours ago, and that the veils entangling them were the everlasting tease eluding their waking hours in the bosom of Dreamland. The first veil rose over an empty threshold; the silhouette behind the second beckoned to distant music; the third receded with the rustle of spangles against bare skin; a corner of the fourth clung to moist patches on the floor. The patrons, now awake, never made it to seven.
2. The Regular loved smoke. Thus the incendiary theme of tonight’s floor show.
3. The Regular did not love mirrors. In the days leading up to his annual visit, the club would be closed to give staff time to remove the reflective panels affording lesser patrons a 360-degree view of their favorite dancers. This led to gossip—always out of JB’s earshot—that the Regular had seen better days sometime in the last century.
4. The Regular hated the Kennedys. The JFK assassination loop was taken out of rotation, replaced with newsreel footage of the Second World War, industrial images mostly, molded metals and plastics receding to battle along rolling belts. No references to presidents—not even the word president. And, of course, no Jacqueline Kennedy working the pole. Gina had qualifying exams coming up anyway, and Zero Hour—JB’s code for the Regular’s arrival—was supposed to be the same weekend as her friend’s wedding at the Super All-Mart at City Centre.
5. The Regular was tired of being a regular. He wanted something more. Those regulars condemned to the lower case, in the end, knew their place. And if they forgot, they were kindly reminded by JB or, more frequently, by whoever ejected them from the premises by force. But the Regular would never get the bum’s rush. His gifts to Ultra were hand-delivered by agents in opaque lenses that, from certain angles in the dimness of the club, rendered their eyes all pupil. It had been two weeks since the first delivery, a slim obsidian box that resembled a cigarette between the agent’s meaty, neatly trimmed fingers. JB himself escorted the package to the dressing room, so distracted that his monocle dropped from his cheek and swung like a solitary wattle at his chin. “Hey three eyes,” the agent said. “You dropped something.” JB thanked him, replaced the lens, and proceeded to usher his guest in the direction of his office.
Woodbern followed Ultra’s lips as she implored the crowd to do the Smoke Detector. Details of the dance were scant, so Ultra always improvised, burnishing the air with one hand, then the other, in time to strokes on the guiro. Her eyes met Woodbern’s. She winked, wagging the tops of her fingers. She was onto the chorus before Woodbern thought to respond, the a in danger drawn out in a rising vibrato.
“Too soon?” Woodbern felt the hotness in his face as he turned away from the stage. JB removed his firefighter's helmet and clutched it to his chest. His gesture of condolence was belied by the tautness of his cheeks over incipient laughter.
Woodbern recognized the line from The Comedians. With his library gone, Woodbern had more time to enjoy the upgraded cable in his midtown hotel suite; Escutcheon was covering his tab until he could find a new place. (“Escutcheon Enterprises is a family,” said the earnest communications officer as she handed him his key card and ceremonial check. “How can we not look after our own?”) As Woodbern learned the geography of his new neighborhood—three blocks from Escutcheon’s corporate campus—he scanned unfamiliar newsstands and the occasional bookshop, stopping once or twice at a title he recognized. He returned to his suite empty-handed, got himself a sandwich and a beer from the digital concierge, and perused his options on the wireless control slate. The Comedians was the most popular program in its 9 p.m. timeslot, and if a Subscriber Override ever interrupted an episode, the Network could expect weeks of protest and petitions, using language just shy of Homeland interdictions against threatening law enforcement. Each titular comedian had a signature line, delivered in conversation on a couch over beers (or “brews,” in the show’s homespun vernacular) shared in the modest living room set. The lines were delivered at regular intervals, at the exact pace and pitch every time, at first in recognizable context, but then with increasing irrelevance. JB’s inspiration, a spritely professional in rumpled business attire named Sal (short for Salvador, according to the credits), started every episode as the knowingly impatient foil for each of his harried companions, bumming a light from the former smoker, boasting of sexual conquests to the recently separated spouse. From refrain, Too soon? grew in cadence and repetition, merging with the rest of the casts’ characteristic expressions, creating the incantatory substance of the second act—
That’s not awkward.
—until the actors could no longer sustain their pretense of sobriety and yielded to communal hilarity. The camera lingered over the cast, felled and breathless by an unspoken punchline. Woodbern, on first watching, could coax nothing but coughs from the back of his throat, tasting of soot and sulfur. During last night’s viewing, he could have been watching himself sinking into the divot between couch cushions, laughter laying him prone as the credits rolled.
“Too soon?” JB repeated, with mild irritation.
“Should’ve known,” replied Woodbern. JB, hearing his cue, resumed his constitutional between the bar and the main stage.
The inspector in charge of Woodbern’s case was oddly reassuring as he and his team collected samples from what remained of his apartment. “Crossed wires,” the inspector mused, nodding at the rectangle of white paint designating the former location of his refrigerator. “A common concern in buildings dating back to the last century.” The inspector tapped a stylus to his lips and looked thoughtfully at a sagging length of singed curtains. “The settlement will be substantial, given your landlord’s liability.” Woodbern nodded impassively. A discolored illustration of Big Ben had wedged itself under the sole of his shoe.
He was roused to attention by the sporadic murmurs of the club between numbers. He looked up to a silent and empty stage.
Woodbern was barely two sips into his Patriot Ale when Gina reminded him, yet again, that he needed to go to the Night Market.
“Why do I have to go? They’re your friends.”
“And they deserve the best. We are not toasting them with Bubblee in a Box.”
“Why not? Do they have something against American craftsmanship?”
Gina inserted an adhesive tab perpendicular to the page she was reviewing. “You’re not doing this for them. You’re doing this for me.”
“You bet I am. What’s the big deal anyway?”
Gina took a sip of bourbon. “Have you ever had the French stuff?”
“Why would I want to? You know I was reading somewhere that the French invented ideas? Some fruit named Day-cart. Spent all day with his eyes shut, thinking. Of course they would invent sparkling wine.”
“Don’t blame me. Blame the Sedition Tariffs. I don’t see how a glass of good champagne now and then emboldens our enemies. If anything—” She stopped at Woodbern’s rapid flutter of hands on the varnished table of their booth. A silhouette approached from just beyond the fringe of overhead light. It paused midway between them to form the third point of a suspect triangulation. It belched, fumbled at a back pocket, withdrew an obliquely folded wallet, and made its way to the laser juke. Gina shrugged dismissively.
“Do you know how long it takes to hitch a ride back? They’re adding feeds to my console this week. I’m still not done with the new Subject Inventories.”
And then there it was. The Look. The Look had endless occasions and permutations, but it was most infuriating now, at the end of a long day, when all Woodbern wanted was the well-appointed lethargy of his subsidized bachelor suite. The Look was never direct, but self-contained. The Look was given assuming that Woodbern would never notice it, that it was too subtle to escape his surveillance. But he saw it every time: the clockwise eye roll tracing the quadrant from noon to three o’clock; the slight shake of the head dismissing Woodbern in all his predictability; the wistful smirk indicating that for all his faults and frailties, she had determined that he was worth it. He had been determined to hold his tongue, raising his pint glass to obscure the sullen curl of his mouth. That was until she got to the smirk. Then, he was prepared to do or say anything to unsettle the expression on her face.
The laser juke cut off in mid-song. The bar went dark. Outside, cars slowed to intersecting diagonals. The street filled with an orchestral version of the national anthem, signaling the start of a stay-in-place drill, during which the populace was instructed to do just that, from the first magisterial blare of horns to the tympanum roll summoning the brave home. The stay-in-place drill was more for posterity than public safety; should any bodies survive the assault of agents chemical, biological, and/or atomic, they would be found in positions of unperturbed routine. In the feeble light of the smog-blinkered moon, figures assumed their roles in eternal tableaux, hoisting tumblers and cigarette lighters, dabbing at the screens of hand-held Toggles and Prizms, pointing a customer toward the plenitude of choices chalked in cursive overhead, reaching for the lid of a cocktail shaker, sacramental in the glaze of ambient pearl. Woodbern heard the buzz of L4L drones as they descended to assess the ensemble’s performance. The L4Ls were the lightest class of civil defense drone. Modeled on the hummingbird, they were used to survey areas where recovery was deemed unnecessary. They monitored pulse, blood pressure, and muscle movement via a thermal algorithm patented by Escutcheon Enterprises when Woodbern was still trying to bluff his way into keg parties as a freshman. He had met one of the operators at a staff happy hour. The operator introduced himself with the air of someone Woodbern should have already known and recognized, by a first name Woodbern instantly forgot as he looked for the buxom feed librarian that had invited him. “Stay-in-place is no big deal,” the drone operator had explained over a mouthful of stale popcorn. “Just remember to relax. Cool as a cucumber. Breathe slowly. Through your nose. Never through your mouth.” In the ensuing pause, Woodbern spotted the librarian laughing hysterically, propping herself against the sleeve of a dark blazer festooned with the silver armband of an Interpreter. “You hear me?” goaded the operator. “Never talk or breathe through your mouth around the L4Ls.”
“Why not?” Woodbern asked indifferently. He had been through his share of stays-in-place, always following without the slightest curiosity the protocols announced in advance by Subscriber Override.
“I shouldn’t really say. But you look truss-worthy. I truss you.” He lubricated his syllables with a slug of beer. “It’s actually pretty stupid. But you didn’t hear me say that.” He chuckled over another sip. “They’re afraid it’ll look like screaming. They ran focus groups for months. They showed video stills to archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic…experts. They all agreed. I mean, I do this for a living even I’m surprised how seriously they take this shit. It’s all on file.” The operator’s eyes darted briefly down to Woodbern’s copper armband. “Stay with us long enough, you’ll see it all.”
A pair of L4Ls flanked Gina’s head. Their eyes cast amber light on her ponytail and cheekbones as they processed her biometrics. This was their first stay-in-place as a couple. In another frame of mind, Woodbern would have noticed the earnest posture she had assumed for the excavators who would find her. She was only missing the signage edifying tourists of a future age: Young Woman Reading. Clinician at Her Studies. Woodbern would have pitied his descendants for never sleeping in next to her some late weekend morning, never smelling her orange facial soap, never running a thumb under her chin to part the scrim of disheveled morning hair.
But Woodbern noticed none of this. He only saw the Look, assumed for an eternity, a monument to all his failings.
“I’m not blind, you—” His riposte was interrupted by the wattage of an L4L’s beak, run directly into his temple.
Knocked unconscious by the drone’s admonitory stab to his frontal lobe, Woodbern fell into a deep sleep. While the L4L generated an incident report and scanned his features into facial recognition, Woodbern dreamed.
He had never before stood barefoot on a lakeshore in summer, but here he was, in shirtsleeves and swim trunks, the sand damp as clay at his soles. The sun had already burnt his arms to the hue of tangerine flesh, but he felt no pain, no panicked urge to run for shelter or don the reflective ponchos distributed as a precaution at the summer solstice. The ultraviolet rays penetrating the planet’s withering atmosphere would not hurt him, nor would the roiling dun wavelets lapping tepidly at his toes. A gauze of primary colors approached, bearing a platter of roast meat. Through the elliptical opacity of her glasses, he recognized his mother. He felt her lips at his cheek, her breath humming in his ear. Before him, she set a plate of beef frankfurters, dressed in condiments of a vividness he had forgotten since the start of civilian rationing. Woodbern hesitated at the lure of contraband; looking up, he saw his father give a reassuring wave with a pair of barbecue tongs. His mother joined him at the grill. Woodbern squinted through the smoke, where her face obscured itself in the crook of his father’s shoulder. She was saying something into his father’s ear. He could almost make out words in the curl of magenta lips. The pearls at her neck seemed to rattle with laughter. Mother and father looked together across the water. Woodbern turned in the same direction. He saw a city beyond the lake, traced its familiar skyline, the beads of traffic threading tunnels and overpasses. There was Escutcheon Control, the stone lions guarding the steps of the public library, the steam of bao stands at the entrance of the central park. He recognized the reticulations of the park’s topiary maze and the entablature of the stock exchange. He followed a mosaic of awnings toward the arcades of the Coliseum, lit with spectators. He looked deeper still into the proliferating perpendiculars of boulevards and alleyways, avenues and dead ends where nameless figures crouched at improvised fires. He was on his way to Headquarters, the otherwise nameless, nondescript building driving in plain sight the entire apparatus. At any moment, he would reach its proscenium, show his credentials to the humorless guard behind bulletproof glass, and vanish into the cavernous dark where secrets were born. He had the directions memorized. He recognized the nearby landmarks. Every step brought him closer.
The blue of Gina’s curtains recalled to Woodbern something of the previous night. He set this vague impression aside at the tautness in his skull. The bed was suddenly sweltering. He cast aside the thin blanket covering him but shivered so violently he could barely work his fingers to draw it back up to his chin. When Gina knocked at the door, he could feel her knuckles’ cadence against his forehead. He rose, stumbled to the shower, and scalded himself to consciousness. When he returned, he found a fresh shirt and tie, next to a bottle of aspirin. Woodbern poured two pills into his palm, adding a third before tossing them back dry. His tongue felt bolted to his palate as he tried to swallow. He opened the bedroom door and made his way to the kitchenette.
Gina said nothing as Woodbern poured himself a glass of juice. The aspirin passed sluggishly down his throat after several gulps. He took a seat across from Gina, reaching without appetite toward the cereal carton. He listened to Gina set aside her Toggle and get up. Her bare feet padded toward the bedroom. He winced at the touch of her lips to his temple, where a greenish purple bruise had formed. Discoloration was to be expected, according to the triage scroll deposited into his hand from the L4L’s cloaca. Consult a doctor if pain persists more than 48 hours, or if wound shows signs of infection.
Gina nuzzled around the wound, her flannel robe billowing loosely against his face. He felt the backs of her knees, warm and smooth against his fingers, before she turned away quickly to get ready for the lunch shift. First offenses are not prosecuted. Any and all subsequent offenses will be subject to Threat Reassessment.
When his attention returned to breakfast, he found his cereal bowl occupied with a folded print-out in black and white. With effort, he made out the tiny text wrapped around the image of a large bottle. He struggled to pronounce the name on the label. He brought the letters closer, almost touching the tip of his nose. Something slipped from the sleeve of paper, a cloth gunmetal envelope buckled tightly over a rigid square that fit neatly in his palm. DON’T FORGET YOUR FOIL! Gina had written at the bottom of the print-out. XXXO.
Nikita’s, from a distance, looked closed. The deli’s interior had the washed-out, grayish hue of businesses abandoned before Curfew to security lighting and drone patrols. As he neared the glass doors, Woodbern saw that, in fact, every table was crammed with soldiers swathed in camouflaging pixels. Legs level with tabletops, they shoveled borscht and spaetzle with brusque efficiency. A few looked up as Woodbern made his way to the cash register. Their appraisal lasted the length of a bite or a swallow.
Woodbern ordered chicken noodle soup and a fresh cricket roll, more out of habit than hunger. The pressure in his head had spread inexorably from his left eye to his right. He had never needed spectacles for all the reading he did on the job; now he felt the thickness of cumbersome frames and ground glass filling both eye sockets, spilling to a burning point against his septum.
He had emerged that morning from the train pulled toward the apex formed in his vision by receding walls of traffic and opaque glass. He could read the text unfurling over the entrance of the AgroBank at City Centre, some twenty blocks ahead. The vista vanished behind a horse’s rump crossing at eye level. Woodbern watched the white bow fixed to the tail twitch slightly before lifting to let pass several fresh turds. Mindful of his shoes, Woodbern stepped back and saw a void where his feet should be. The tips of his brogues reappeared—pristine—before he could understand the surge in his chest and throat as incipient panic.
The smell of broth drew his attention to the tray in front of him. He unwrapped the plastic cutlery and gave the soup several perfunctory stirs. On the screen above the cash register, a pew soiler was being led away from the entrance of St. Odile’s. She was stopped by a rank of microphones at street level. She seemed to listen to something off-screen, shaking her head and pushing back her mantilla to reveal a fringe of pale hair rising and falling against the dark lace. Captions relayed her response to the noisy deli: PLEASURE IS NOT A TERRORIST ACT, SUSPECT SAYS. DIVINITY COMES IN MANY FORMS. She was pushed out of frame by a pair of officers; the one on the left gripped the suspect by the elbow with his right hand, while from the other, an evidence bag swung with the apparatus discovered under her clothes at morning mass. One of the soldiers at the adjoining tables whistled at the implement’s girth and length.
Woodbern bit into his cricket roll. His tongue slid against something sharp. He tasted blood as the pain of abrasion entered his sinuses. The bread crumbled to paste in his mouth as he gagged. The foreign object was caught between molars. He worried it hesitantly towards his front teeth, opening another cut in his tongue and cheek. He swallowed a mouthful of rusty saliva and reached for a napkin. He was discreetly preparing to spit when he recognized the file photo being broadcast onscreen. DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEE FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT SUICIDE. The Zackster stared out at Woodbern over the foam of a beer glass.
The cricket’s leg, having escaped the sieves and steel rollers of Aggregate Comestibles (“Homeland Raised, Homeland Reaped”) was now expelled with the force of Woodbern’s dry heaving cough. Clearing his teeth, it rose at a modest incline of roughly fifteen degrees, gathering lift as it spun counterclockwise around a weathered wooden post. The tarsal claw, embedded briefly in a bill soliciting the public’s help in controlling the spread of food-borne illness, was detached in a stiff breeze admitted from the street by the opening glass doors. Its trajectory, now straight, sent it speeding in the direction of the cash register until intercepted by the shoulder of a private, stuck with his table’s bill. Reaching reluctantly for his wallet, he did not notice the leg clinging to his unit patch, rendering the stitched numeral one into a four, vague but discernible from where Woodbern stared in his seat. Already, the leg looked as if it were about to detach itself yet again, but Woodbern did not stick around to see where it would go next.
He had walked ten dark blocks before suspecting that, perhaps, DJ Punir had been full of shit. Gina had made sure to ask before her set, when Jackie Kennedy’s suit was still fresh and pressed, unbesmirched by cigar smoke and the desperation of wandering hands. It was obvious that Punir had a thing for Jackie or Gina or both; all you had to do was turn your head sidewise before Shirley Manson’s first tear through the chorus of “I Think I’m Paranoid.” You would likely miss Jackie’s glove-play, the insinuation of index and middle fingers between lips a slightly darker hue than her Chanel knockoff, the grip and pull of teeth as one hand emerged, at once desperate and slow, to undo the straining wrist clasp. But you got the idea, from the look Punir gave her as he cued the next record, blind fingers just as coy and eager at the knobs of his console.
Punir liked to talk big, leaving Woodbern to navigate under a feeble moon. A mile and a half east of Potosí Station, practically a straight shot, so he told Gina at least. There were motion-sensitive lights at regular intervals along the storefronts and vacant lots at either side, so Woodbern would have to stick to the middle of the street and hope that he made it before the first drone patrols.
He saw movement ahead. The high brush behind a chain-link fence parted at the incursion of something low to the ground. Woodbern thought he could make out the fetal, segmented tail of a rat. Fucking Punir. While he held his breath for the patrol that would process his next move closer to becoming an active threat, Dreamland’s DJ got to play big shot to his girlfriend. Gina got off on Woodbern’s irritation, mistaking it for jealousy. It was only now in the opacity that absorbed him that he recognized Gina’s mistake. He would have felt guilty had he not noticed the figure that appeared in the distance just as the ground beneath him began to rise. He had reached the base of the off-ramp leading to the highway.
The higher he rose, the more distinct the noises of conversation and gas generators. He took the fork north to the interstate, where a man in a camo jumpsuit stood behind a pair of plastic buckets. “Two for ten,” he said, raising a tangle of straps in each fist. “Nothing gets through these.”
Woodbern, winded by his climb, flashed the foil in his coat pocket.
“You’re asking to get caught without thermal cloaking.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Woodbern couldn’t make out the man’s response as he sped through the stab at his side toward the last several hundred feet of rising ramp.
At the top, he could make out the reflective paint of lanes lit by distant headlights. He could just make out the dark iridescence of the outer pens. Without ground-level lighting, the entire encampment would have appeared as just another blank quadrant to snoops overhead. The Market resembled a toppled monolith at first, but closer on, Woodbern saw it split into parallel aisles radiating from the median. He had heard that the better foils dampened noise as well as heat signatures, which might have explained the layers of sound that deepened at his approach: laughter, applause, pontification, expletives, a summoning whistle, the priming of instrumental strings, arrhythmic drums or power tools or both, the chorus from a popular song, the spill of outmoded currency, a porcine squeal, a galline flutter, the percussion of an equine’s steps. The smell hit next, fecal and sodden, alternating with waves of gamy smoke. Woodbern felt a gathering dampness at the corner of his mouth, brushed it aside, and made his way to one of the change stations.
NO CREDITS ACCEPTED BEYOND THIS POINT, admonished the sign overhead. Woodbern extended his wrist under the dome of the scanner, which sliced at his skin with filaments of green light. “How much?” asked the attendant, keeping her eyes studiously on the screen of her Prizm.
“Two-fifty,” Woodbern answered. Gina had insisted on a minimum of 300, especially given Woodbern’s living rent-free for the last two months. He immediately regretted the paltry withdrawal when he remembered the transfer and laundering fee. His cash emerged from an unseen slot. “That’s 98 and a quarter US2K,” the attendant said, handing him a stack of paper bills. “No refunds. No exchanges. No liability. Cross at your own risk.” She indicated the rusty turnstile to her left without looking and turned to the next in line.
Woodbern checked his watch. 02:12. No patrols since he’d left Potosí. So the runs were going to start later tonight. Later starts meant more frequent runs, so it was likely that the Market would close within the hour. Woodbern made his way to the start of the furthest aisle, determined not to stop until he found the sommelier. The paper currency in his pocket felt like an extra appendage around which he tried to step without limping visibly. He withdrew the packet, shuffled the stack straight, and was repositioning the bills in his front pocket when MK Ultra appeared on the midway.
“Ultra.” Woodbern waved her over. The bulk of the currency stuck to his damp hand as he gestured. Bills spun in the air between them. “Shit,” Woodbern sighed. Ultra saw what Woodbern saw. Her eyes widened in sympathy and amusement. She caught a pair of fluttering bills in one hand, then turned to search the gravel at her feet. She wore the slate gray skirt and jacket of a Peristalsis hostess; the sans serif P on her lapel pin winked as she scrabbled between booths. There was something familiar in her movements, a lightness that he recognized from a memory or dream. She could have been picking wildflowers from the banks of a somnolent pond instead of squatting in the shadows of the Night Market. She stood looking toward a black horizon beyond the edge of the encampment, one hand around a swatch of recovered bills, the other hooked into a pair of dark heels. She approached Woodbern on bare feet. He traced her steps then noticed the bills bent feebly in her fist. “Shit,” Woodbern repeated, this time sounding like an expletive.
“How much you got?”
Ultra grabbed his hand and folded the wad emphatically into the meat of his palm. “Sixty-two and a quarter.”
“Not counting my commission.” She lifted her skirt. President Andrew Jackson peered quizzically over the gag of Ultra’s garter. Relieved, Woodbern reached out. The bills vanished under Ultra’s skirt. All at once, their fingers were linked. Ultra’s head lolled against Woodbern’s neck. She crooned wordlessly into his ear, her cheek hot against his skin. Woodbern let her lead him down the aisle like this until he remembered his errand. He stopped at the end of the aisle and began to extricate himself, mumbling apologies.
“Don’t you like me, Woodbern?” Ultra propped herself in his arms, swaying in the diminishing circle between them.
Woodbern felt the slack in her neck as she rested a cheek on his wrist. “What are you on?” he asked.
She laughed softly into his hand. “A little of this. A little of that.”
Woodbern lowered his hand. Ultra remained upright. “You’ve been moonlighting a lot lately.” He straightened her lapel pin. “Is JB OK with that?”
“He’d better be.” Ultra hesitated at the sudden insistence in her voice. She smoothed the lapels of Woodbern’s coat. “Big date coming up.”
He caught both her hands between his. “Where does he take you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!” She turned away into the next aisle.
“I’m going to need the rest of that cash.” There was no reply from the dark corner into which Ultra had vanished.
The sommelier was a short distance in, next to the menagerie. As he reviewed potential selections, an elephant’s trunk would insinuate itself through the opening between foils and curl around the neck of a sample bottle. Woodbern didn’t need the sommelier’s catalog of textures and flavor notes as he tossed back slugs from his tasting cup; all he could discern were accents of hay, sawdust, and elephant shit.
He was set on an ultra brut until the sommelier named his price. Woodbern set what he had between them. The sommelier counted the total wordlessly, tossing it aside and pointing with a practiced motion at the scrawled sign hanging above: PRICES NON-NEGOTIABLE.
“Pardon me? Sir? I’m looking for a bottle of bubbly. Very dry.” Ultra pointed at Woodbern’s bottle with the cash in her hand. Woodbern snatched the bills and set them down with the rest. The sommelier looked at them both in turn before collecting his payment and drawing a length of butcher paper from the large roll behind him.
“This gentleman here?” Ultra continued. “He’s been following me around since I left the currency exchange. I would like to speak to your supervisor. What kind of Night Market is this, letting just anyone through?”
Woodbern grabbed his parcel and started for the exit when he heard a cry from one of the adjacent stalls. “Snoops!” The cry echoed intermittently through the encampment. He could hear nothing overhead as he took the foil from his coat pocket. He only had a few seconds before the lights were cut.
Ultra still stood in place. She didn’t seem to hear the retraction of awnings or the sprint of steps toward the nearest enclosure. Instead, she scanned the skies, her profile pivoting ever skywards. Before she could assume perpendicularity, before they were all left to listen in the dark, barely breathing, for the All-Clear signaling sunrise, Woodbern dragged Ultra beside him to the ground. He pressed the release tab. The tensile mesh formed a dome just high enough to accommodate their prone bodies. Ultra continued to follow an unseen trajectory overhead, even as she spooned against him, whispering in gratitude. Someone threw a switch and cut the last lights. Woodbern listened to himself breathe into the dark.
The Supervising Reader did not remark on the wrinkled condition of Woodbern’s suit, or the damp, fermented smell that he exuded as he entered the conference room. She did not order a diagnostic, even though Woodbern could barely keep his eyes open. If he had managed to sleep the previous night, it was only long enough to allow Ultra to escape unnoticed, sometime before dawn. Only when he was alone under the foil did he allow himself to think of possibilities denied as they lay entangled beneath the obscuring mesh.
He had hitched a ride in the sommelier’s truck as far as the first security checkpoint at Carcasonne. With the lifting of curfew, he could blend in with traffic on the interstate, but Woodbern would have to ride in the covered bed. Woodbern looked at the patches of rust revealed by the lowered hatch. “Can’t you just say I’m your assistant or something?”
“Show me your hands.” The sommelier laughed gruffly at their pallor. “It’s the bed for you. Or detention for suspicious perambulation.” Woodbern surveyed the now vacant segment of arterial. Headlights approached from the west. He got in.
The alley where they stopped at the city’s edge was still dark. Through the opened hatch, Woodbern could see the top of the escalator at Carcasonne Station three blocks away. The sommelier lifted the cover of the bed. Woodbern made sure the street was empty before getting completely out. Strands of twine clung to his coat sleeves; a damp patch on his elbow smelled of rancid wine.
“Sometimes, I wonder if they really are watching.” The sommelier had lit a cigarette and was now blowing smoke towards the lightening sky. “Or is it just easier to hide?” Woodbern counted three more damp patches on his coat. Reluctantly, he handed over the last of his cash to the sommelier’s meaty fingers.
He would have had enough time to shower and change if not for a delay on the Granite Line. He reached City Centre with five minutes before Escutcheon’s morning lockdown. He would have to sprint to the admissions window, holding a bottle of contraband that security would have no trouble seeing through its scrim of butcher paper. The paperwork for a late admission would take at least two hours for processing and clearance, and he knew, even if it wasn’t obvious, that he was under close scrutiny since the business with the oxblood satchel. He could muster enough devotion to Gina’s engaged friends to maybe get a hand search from one of the less stringent guards.
The guard at the security conveyance looked at the image on his screen, then looked up at Woodbern. “My good friends are getting married this weekend.” The guard waved him through.
He was summoned immediately to Conference Room A before he could leave his bottle and sodden coat at his cubicle. The Supervising Reader’s grin belied any notice of his dishevelment. She shut the door behind her and proceeded to the head of the long conference table.
“My good friends—” Woodbern gulped back the rest of the sentence when he saw the Reader remain standing.
She opened an orange file folder and began to turn its contents. “You’ve been with Escutcheon now for…seven years?” Woodbern nodded. “I see you have a bachelor’s degree in Efficiency Engineering, but there is no record of your last two semesters.”
“The Hiring Committee bought out my remaining credits in exchange for time-in-position.”
The Reader nodded. “That’s right. I drafted Escutcheon’s experience reciprocation guidelines with the City University. Nevertheless, it’s an option rarely exercised with new hires. You were certainly a catch, Mr. Woodbern.”
Woodbern nodded hesitantly at her use of the past tense.
“The Board has followed your progress here with much interest. They voted unanimously this morning for your immediate promotion. Overseas.”
“Overseas? Where specifically?”
“Of course you deserve to know where the company is dispatching you. But at the same time, you trust us to tell you what you should and shouldn’t know. We can fill you in as soon as you sign the paperwork.”
“What happened to Zack?” The question left his mouth before he could stop himself.
The Reader’s eyes were obscured behind a fringe of copper hair. “Mr. Girard was the most promising candidate we’ve ever put forward. Until now.”
Woodbern waited through the long silence for elaboration that was not forthcoming. “I need to talk this over with my…I mean…”
“Of course. Take the day. Take a long weekend. Your pass has been cleared for an early exit. I hear you have good friends getting married this weekend. What better occasion for sharing your good news.” Woodbern nodded and stood from his seat.
He followed the corridor out to the elevator bank. He pressed the button for next car and waited. Behind him, he traced an expanse of new carpet into the visible distance. But the carpet was the same as always. He had just never seen it cleared of cubicles before—every cubicle, including his own.
The swans having succumbed to an avian gripe, the details of which were not shared by the circumspect All-Mart representative, the wedding party had to do with peacocks. They could be heard at intervals during the ceremony harassing passersby through the latticed barriers demarcating the nuptial arena. Otherwise, they were all business, primping quietly at the fringes of the dearly beloved, displaying plumage at a discreet distance from the bride.
Woodbern wasn’t sure when the headache started. Maybe it was the stab of one peacock call too many during the rote recitation from 1 Corinthians. Or maybe it was during the receiving line. Neither bride nor groom seemed to recognize him until he mentioned Gina. “Oh,” said the bride. “This is Gina’s…” The rest of the receiving line turned aside from her sudden pause. “Nice to meet you,” she said. Woodbern made his way to the escalators between two displaying rival birds. They let Woodbern pass without comment, necks rigid as feed horns.
Gina was in a good mood at the reception. When their table cleared during a mid-tempo number, Woodbern stood with uncharacteristic initiative to take her hand. They swayed in time as Sinatra wrestled with his mentality.
“You having a good time?” Gina asked.
Woodbern nodded. The throb at the ceremony had ebbed after his chicken entrée. “You?”
“I love weddings.”
Woodbern pulled her closer against his shoulder.
“Don’t you want to know why?”
“Why I love them.” They had drifted behind a column of speakers, forming an inlet next to an empty table.
“Why do you?”
“Because none of this matters. The flowers. The dress. The cake. There’s clarity in knowing the difference between what’s real and what’s for show.” She looked at him now, the edges of her eyes catching the light.
“I need to say this.” The throb returned, worse this time. He recognized that Gina was speaking and that she spoke in words, but her words were as cryptic as knots tied along a length of string. He pushed her aside, more roughly than he had intended. She caught herself on the back of a chair as he walked quickly to the entrance of the ballroom.
The nearest bathroom was blocked by an enormous display of plumage. Woodbern made to turn one way, then another. The wall of eyes followed his smallest movement. He took advantage of the bird’s distraction to squeeze behind its parabolic quills.
In the nearest stall, he purged himself of beet salad and prosciutto, asparagus and melon balls, the chicken and the cordon bleu. When there was nothing left in his stomach to flush, he stood and shuffled to the sinks. A string of puke remained in his left nostril and for a moment, he poised to return to the stall. The moment passed. He splashed himself with cold water.
He left the bathroom. The light had softened. He had trouble making out faces. When he heard the alarm, he saw the smoke that thickened overhead. Gina. He made his way toward what looked like a door, but the ingress was solid to the touch.
“Ultra?” Woodbern grasped her before she could retreat.
“It’s Zero Hour.” He heard her voice but he could not see her lips move.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” He felt her tongue in his mouth. His hands were everywhere. He felt a hardness as they kissed. He opened his eyes; Ultra looked back at him, a blur of smoke and brows. He had never noticed her tongue piercing before. As she pulled him closer, he felt the bauble detach and make its way toward his throat. Silhouettes materialized at the periphery of his vision. An up-do resembling Gina’s passed and paused on its way to the emergency exits. He hesitated, considered following, and swallowed.