Chapter 4: Ten Months Later
Lenora dutifully entered the seemingly endless streams of information being repeated to her over the comm. Mr. Crustack was in his office, as per usual, and Mr. Sandal was the one on the phone, somewhere in Mid-level and too busy to come down.
When the stream of numbers and names and addresses ended, she looked at the time.
She felt the familiar patter in her heart.
She took a deep breath and slowly collected her things. She returned her mug to the office kitchen and rinsed it out. As an after thought, a way to delay the time, she knocked tentatively on Mr. Crustack’s door.
“Yes!” He called. “Come in!”
Lenora took a steady breath and carefully pushed the door open. She slipped inside and shut the door behind her.
Her hair fell into her face, and she took comfort in the shield it provided. She had taken to wearing her hair down since… the bad times. It was long enough to trail just between her shoulder blades, and it was flaxen and ebony. She liked to feel that she could hide behind the wispy locks and peer out from time to time. Like a shelter.
As she entered she pushed some of it over her shoulder and approached the desk.
“Lenora, right?” Mr. Crustack, who was a very attractive man by many standards, also had a horrible memory. That would be why Mr. Sandal insisted that he hire someone for the office. The fact that she had worked in his offices for almost four years, and that he had visited her in the hospital did not improve his memory, it seemed.
“Yes, Mr. Crustack. I was –“
“How are you doing?” He fixed her with a meaningful stare.
She felt heat crawl up her neck and settle in her cheeks. It wasn’t fair. “I’m fine, thank you.”
And suddenly she was a china doll.
“Good. You look great. Heading home?” He looked to the side, where a great big black and white clock hung, a blaring reminder of how time will continue no matter what happens to anyone else.
“Yes, I was wondering – “
“Do you need a ride? I have my car here.”
Lenora flinched and tried to hide it. The last thing she wanted was to go through her neighborhood in Mr. Crustack’s very nice, very clean and very expensive car. Have more eyes on her as she walked up the steps to her house.
“No, thank you. I –“
“Oh here, I forgot to take this to the sink, do you mind?” Mr. Crustack extended his hand to her and in it was an empty coffee mug.
Lenora took a few steps forward and accepted it, slender fingers careful not to touch his hand.
She didn’t like doing that. Touching people. It never used to bother her.
“Of course. But there was something else?” Lenora breathed.
Mr. Crustack looked at her expectantly, and for a moment she thought he had gone back on their little arrangement.
And then it occurred to her for the hundredth time why he had to have an assistant.
“…Your paper? Newspaper?” Lenora prompted.
Mr. Crustack rolled his eyes with a wide grin. “Of course, of course, I’m so sorry.”
He reached under his desk and pulled out a rolled newspaper. He slid it across the desk to her and she swiftly took the paper in her free hand. She gave her employer a fleeting (yet ultimately empty) smile.
“Thank you, Mr. Crustack.”
“You’re welcome. Be careful on the way home!”
Lenora nodded and inwardly cringed at the words.
A bit late for that, she felt.
Regardless of the butterflies in her chest and the tremble in her hands she finally made it out the door.
She wore black slacks and flat shoes that didn’t click on the pavement. She had also taken to wearing dark colored button up shirts. Long sleeved. She used to wear really nice knee-length skirts and sandals and high heels. Fetching bits that she had purchased with friends who didn’t know how to handle her now.
But they weren’t practical for an office setting.
Lenora did her best, as she did every day for months, to ignore the wretches that lurked at every bus stop. Their rotten teeth and greedy eyes still frightened her, but she liked to think that she looked less frightened than she used to.
When the bus finally did arrive, she paid quickly and took a seat near the front. It used to be a ten minute bus ride to her old stop. That route had dropped her two blocks from her home, and at the time she had liked to get the exercise after work. But after...
Now it was a thirty minute bus ride that dropped her right across the street from her complex.
She unrolled the newspaper. Whenever Mr. Crustack finished with it, he would give it to Lenora. (After he was gently reminded to do so, that is.)
She couldn’t get a subscription for a newspaper on her salary. (Print was a very narrow up-scale niche, besides, she had the complete standard CoreComm membership, so anything she really needed to find she could search for online.) However, Mr. Crustack didn’t mind sharing – not when he just threw them out when he was done.
What a waste.
As the bus moved through the tunnels and overpasses, through the wide abandoned squares and over the encased bridges and scaffolds, Lenora scanned the pages.
’Scabs banned from Public University’ was not a title that interested her. She'd already read about those poor kids on the screen at her apartment.
Besides, the politics between normies and scabs was old news. Lenora never showed any signs of alteration, so she never had to worry about how others would view her. She couldn’t hurl objects with a thought, and she didn’t have radioactive blood, or gills, and she certainly wasn’t special in any other regard.
However, Scabs did scare her, in a way. They did things people shouldn’t be able to do; inhuman things. She did know though, that if something scared her the last thing she wanted to do was learn about the bad side of them in the news. That sort of thing would just make it worse.
Lenora was afraid of enough in this city.
During the first few minutes of her bus ride, she was afraid that the paper would disappoint her again today. And then a headline popped out at her.
’Bordello of Blood: Mysterious Vigilante Kills Dozens.’
It rang with the flavor of the very first Vigilante article she ever read.
It had been three days after she had woken in the hospital. Nurse Getty had greeted her with juice and had helped her eat. (Lenora still hadn't been able to keep the face of that other older woman out of her head during their interactions, and ended up acting rather coldly towards the well-meaning nurse. Sometimes she felt bad about it.)
Mr. Crustack had visited earlier and he had left a newspaper on the chair. Nurse Getty, unknowing of what else to provide for her patient’s entertainment, had retrieved it from the chair and placed it next to her juice.
Not many people in Cellar City had the interest or money for a real newspaper, so it had surprised Lenora that Nurse Getty hadn’t just taken it for herself. Perhaps Lenora had felt poorly about how stand-offish she had acted towards the matronly nurse, so she thanked her. At first she skimmed it to distract herself from everything.
Then she had seen the headline:
’Pussycat Club is Road kill: Vigilante Justice Paints the town red.’
Lenora’s fingertips tremble even now at the name. Pussycat Club.
The current article, Bordello of Blood, described in minimal detail the events that took place the night before last. She had seen the original brief, a small sampler of the event before the police did a press release. But with the full article out, their details (though not graphic) were thorough.
Twenty Five people dead in under an hour. Several prostitutes plead to the city for protection from their pimps. (Whichever pimps survived.) Eight people in critical condition. Wounds ranging in type and severity from grievous gunshot wound to shallow lacerations and abrasions. Authorities have yet to gather concrete evidence suggesting the identity of the mysterious vigilante, but theorists connect this case to the others plaguing Cellar City over the past ten months.
Will he strike again?
She felt a weight lift from her chest and she took a deep breath.
He’s still out there.
After that, the bus stopped four more times before it released Lenora. Once free, she dashed across the street and hauled herself inside. She bolted up two flights of dilapidated stairs, passed a flickering CoreComm ad-screen and hi-tailed it down her hallway. Every day it seemed like a marathon run.
But it was easier now.
When she had first been released from nurse Getty’s care, every move made her jump, every sound sent shivers up her spine. When she had finally made it back home, the simple act of unlocking the complex’s front door had made her hands tremble.
What if they’re out there? What if they’re watching me? What if someone grabs me again? Get in, get in, get in!
And with heart pounding and hands clammy, she would fling open the door, whirl about and slam it shut, pushing her weight against it as if the security locks weren’t good enough.
They weren’t. But the one on her apartment had much improved since her return. And now she didn’t break into a cold sweat when she had her back to the streets.
Lenora was careful – but she couldn’t look too fragile, too skittish.
Some people liked that.
It had taken her these past few months to realize that and try to adjust. She went to work, came home, and tonight she even had the nerve to accept an invitation to go out with some friends. A bold move. But she needed to do it, to at least pretend… because on the inside she still felt as delicate as spun glass.
She inhaled deeply once she settled the double bolts in her apartment door. Taking a moment to soothe the still trembling nerves inside her, she rested her forehead against the cool polycarbonate material of the door. Lenora let the chill settle her before she resumed the daily routine.
A flick of a light switch revealed her modest living situation. It was a three-room apartment; cheap and off the ground level. The entrance opened into her living/kitchen area – the left side had an assortment of shallow cabinets, a fridge and a ChiMeria-electric stove. There was a little counter space and most of it was occupied by her toaster, microwave and dish rack next to the sink. There was an island with two stools, and that was where the linoleum floor ended, and a rough Berber carpet began, flowing across the living space in a worn out gray-blue.
Lenora turned her back to the front door in order to look around her apartment. Across the open space from the door, Lenora could see the building across the street through her double wide window.
That was the big reason she chose this place.
In the winter, it leaked warmth, and in the summer it leaked cold. But she could sit and watch the street, and if she curled up on the futon beneath it, she could see the great ceiling of the Cellar City, the maze of supports and piping and industrial chutes and machinery. On a clear day she could even see the fog drifting through it, as if she were the one above looking at a warped cityscape shrouded in mist.
She always thought it was the dark twin of Cellar City that loomed over them, protecting them from the bureaucrats and celebrities, and the sun.
Lenora hated and loved its presence.
To the right, she had a small television on top of an oak colored three drawer dresser, a small coffee table in mahogany color, and a ply-board shelving unit next to the window.
Just past the kitchenette was the door to the bathroom, and across from that on the right was the door to her bedroom.
It was painted in a light gray and trimmed (over the course of a week when she first moved in) in ‘dark woodland green.’
She wondered if woods were actually that color.
At the moment, her thick ‘cerulean blue’ drapes were only half-open, but the lights from the street illuminated what the round ceiling lamp could not.
Lenora plopped her side-bag down on the island and unfolded the newspaper. Clipped to the front under the snap-flap of her bag was her new Ident. card and a pack of ‘breathe-rite’ mints for work. As it plopped onto the island, one of the pins on the front of her bag ta-kinked to the floor.
“Not again…” Lenora muttered, chagrined at the distraction.
She had several of these pins on her side-bag. One for a show that she used to watch as a kid; three lemurs with cowboy hats, a blue one with a cartoony- sun, a black one with the moon and stars, a yellow one with a great big pine tree, and a couple others she’d collected.
To remind her of good things.
Lenora reattached her little yellow sun and turned her attention to the newspaper which was folded to the article she wanted.
Gently, she ripped the article out and folded the edges under to make it neater, and she brought her new piece into her bedroom to join the others.
Her bedroom was just as sparse as her living area. In the corner under the window she had a mattress and box spring without the frame – neatly made – and across from that she had a vanity and dresser against the wall. And the first thing that she saw when she walked in was a bookshelf.
It housed very few books, (because they were expensive,) most of it comprised of her personal papers – manila folders with tax information, her birth certificate and work stubs. Then the surrounding shelves had dozens of well-loved photo albums and scrap books.
Lenora lovingly ran a hand over the bindings of all her photo projects. One with happy memories from the Children’s Sanctuary on Alvin street, sector 8; several with school pictures from the 102 public school; A few with pictures and scraps from her few outings with friends.
On the shelves below were more personal projects. Collections of clippings and print-outs. One was bands she would like to see, others were collections of fanciful landscapes with clean rivers and blue sky and healthy clouds and trees. One was full of nonsensical hopes, like how her dream wedding would look, or her house in Sky City.
And then there was the one she took off the shelf, and carried with great care to her kitchen island. The binding was black with gray stripes, and the edges were beginning to fray. It was made of some sort of cheap plastic-imitating-leather, and the front used to be a glossy, shiny black. It was about as big as a standard WorkPad, maybe three inches wide at the binding. It was about ten inches tall and eight inches across, and when she cracked it opened, it still groaned.
“Here you are.” Lenora murmured as she skimmed the growing collection of newspaper clippings and CoreComm news printouts. The first was the first article she collected:
’Pussycat Club is Road kill: Vigilante Justice Paints the town red.’
Following that were her notes. Who the matronly woman introduced herself as – Ms. Kushin. The elderly woman she kept seeing in Nurse Getty's face, and the Madame of the club. The name of the place they had taken her. And from there the collection blossomed into scraps of notations written on napkins, articles in the Brief’s section about muggings gone wrong, a mysterious vigilante wreaking havoc, untimely deaths of Cellar city gang members and thugs in gruesome manners…
And she fastened the latest clip in the book and sat back.
“Where are you?”
It took her a moment to pull some notepaper and a pen from her bag, and then she skimmed the book.
Names, names, it’s all in the names.
Dexter’s Clubhouse, Pussycat Club, Meth lab in Remy Stauber’s basement – 22nd street in Sector 3…
She wrote ‘sector 3’ down in her book. Most of the places were in sector 3 except for one set of would-be muggers that had been slain in sector 8.
‘Sector 8?’ went on the paper.
Interspersed among the trail that the vigilante had left, she saw other notes – Things she had looked up on the Comm at work during her lunch break.
Cellar City mobs. Gang activity on the Local Broadcast warning Station.
The local Scab community had only suffered one loss and no one had seemed too broken up about it. But a group who lovingly called themselves the Sect-Rats were really torn up about the would-be muggers, claiming it was some sort of anti-cybernetics group.
During a particularly ambitious lunch break she had accessed the Cellar City housing and Rental Department’s archives via Mr. Crustak’s Mid-Level access codes to try and see if there was a connection between the clubs the Vigilante hit. She copied down the names on the new paper.
Unfortunately the part of the database that she, as a private citizen and public access member, limited her search and she was unable to find any links.
She pulled some loose papers out and went down the lists of establishments now to see if any of these people owned the most recently hit club. It was called ‘Tops Off’, and it was the new ‘Bordello of Blood.’
Her eyes lit up when she saw that it was owned by M. Jones. The Pussycat Club had been owned by M. Jones.
“What are you up to?” And why does he hate you as much as I do?
Lenora jotted an asterix next to his name, and then tacked the new paper next to the recent addition.
I will find you.
A beep from her ad-screen made her jump half out of her skin.
“Incoming call.” A scratchy female voice announced.
“Answer.” Lenora said, as clearly as she could.
“Incoming call.” It repeated.
Lenora sighed, and rose to manually accept it.
The screen had been damaged when she moved in; now the auditory pick up was on the fritz.
A quick poke to the ‘accept’ button on the screen brought up the picture of a very similar apartment and a very different person. Staring back at her was a familiar friendly face. He had shaggy green hair and an ocular enhancement nestled over his left eye socket. The shutter on the ocular device shifted as it focused.
“Geez. Lenora, your screen sucks.”
“I know. It’s slowly getting worse. Hold on.” Lenora tapped the edge of the screen where she new a tight bundle of cables was hiding behind.
“So… where are we going?”
David smiled. His one good eye sparkled with boyish enthusiasm. It was brown.
Lenora had met David four years ago, when she first started at Sandal and Crustack. He delivered their lunch on Mondays and Fridays.
“I was thinking about Crank?”
Lenora screwed up her face in a grimace. “Are you even old enough to get in?”
David rolled his good eye and scowled at her. She favored him with a brief, jesting grin.
David was only nineteen years old. He lived with his sister, Renee. She was 26. They had no parents to speak of, and they both worked hard to keep themselves afloat. But where Renee was responsible and mostly stoic, David got all the jubilant and care-free joy of the family.
Only Lenora and Renee knew the mature side of him. The sneaky, sincere side they knew could get into clubs and not receive a second glance.
It had been more fun months ago, before everyone made Lenora nervous. But Lenora had made a promise – and this step was going to be an important one to take.
David stuck out his tongue at her. “I’ll be fine, it’s not like they check down here anyway.”
“Renee can pick you up when she gets out of work, and then you can swing by our place so she can change and stuff. Probably around 9:30? 10:00?” David shrugged. “She might pick up food on the way.”
Lenora nodded, feeling the brief chill of fear sprint across the skin of her shoulder blades. She hugged herself a moment.
“Hey, it’ll be fun.” David added, the shutter from his eye twisting a fraction. “We’ll be right there too.”
Lenora nodded, forcing a smile. “I know, thanks. See you around ten.”
David waved, and the ad-screen returned to its mindless commercials and tickers. The sound was cacophonous and repetitive.
“Mute.” Lenora muttered.
The sound continued.
“MUTE.” Lenora all but shouted.
The sound died as if reluctantly.
Lenora stood by her front door with her arms wrapped around her. She idly pondered her wardrobe as the hush of panic rattled beneath her skin.
You can do this. Just Breathe.
Setting her chin, Lenora got to work. She had an apartment to tidy before she changed for a night on the town.