The blue car wiggled out of the thin streets of the student section and out onto the wide, four lanes plus of University Drive. The street denoted the end of the University and the beginning of the rest of the town. As soon as he caught a decent street, Commissioner Painter turned into the University, the life blood of the town he had sworn to serve and protect.
Brick and stone halls lined the street behind generous easements to allow for the foot traffic. Though they were of different decades, some stretching back a good century or more, they all shared a common theme of permanence, of scholarship and of grandeur. Many were modeled after the universities of England, but each had subtle concessions to the stifling heat of Florida that taxed even the Commissioner’s Police issue automobile air conditioner. Everywhere around campus, bright green trees soaked in the moist air and basked in the blazing sun.
The campus was completely devoid of people this early on a Saturday during the summer session. The normal throng of freshmen were confined to the summer dorms down the hill near the frat houses, but that wasn’t on his way so he saw no one but the stray faculty member and foreign transfer student. This was how he liked it. Safe and orderly. Contained. Chaos compartmentalized. For just this fleeting moment, the campus reflected the small southern town that wrapped around it. His town.
After a few moments he drove through the unheralded back boundary of the campus where it slid quietly into low rent apartments. He skipped one block over and turned out onto a four lane street that connected the hospital with the interstate and the mall beyond. He hated this part of town. It looked like any other truck-stop-laden highway siding, but beefed up to also service the apartment dwellers and their all night fast food needs. Sure, there had always been kitch and kitchens along this stretch of Arbor drive ever since the highway was built, but the eighties had seen an explosion of every kind of chain store food meccas and those prefab fat factories didn’t age well. The whole thing was depressing, even the bright and shiny new Blunderbuss Coffee franchise right off the exit.
He went past it and all the other places and ducked under the interstate. After a few more miles of baking asphalt, he passed the LandMill mall. He could have counted the cars in the lot as he waited for the light but he didn’t have to. He knew that there were few and that was all that really mattered. The light turned green and he drove down the road, smirking.
The high grade commercialism quickly thinned and after a flange of homes became sandy lots of pine trees and palm scrub. An unmarked gravel road snaked into the lot to the left and the unmarked police car turned into it leaving only a trail of dirt and dust.
Rusty and in need of paint, the gate stretched across the dirt road. A padlock and chain hung to one side, but the chain did not actually go through anything important. The only thing that kept the gate across the road was inertia and friction. The fence that split the forest on either side was equally worn but not as obviously useless and it kept the gate in reasonable company as it slowly oxidized in the hot and humid atmosphere.
The Commissioner’s blue car approached the gate and slowed. He got out of his car, careful to shuffle his feet in the loose dirt so as not to make any prints of his running shoes, and pushed the old gate. Inertia was overcome with enough force to also beat out friction even as the gate converted the energy from the push into an audible squeak of protest. Painter got back in his car and drove it past the gate then got out again to close it. Though he left no prints, the sandy dirt got into his shoes and slowly began to rub him raw.
A minute more had him approaching the reason for the gate and the fence, a quarry pit sank down into the ground. Sheer limestone walls with the blotchy complexion of a sunburn dipped down in white, yellow and red. From a distance it would look like any one of a number of gravel mines along this stretch, but this one was different. Half way down the cliff face, a fake bottom reached across the football-field sized hole. It was anchored by bolts all the way around like a trampoline and rested on a lattice work of steel supported by wide spaced metal columns. Only the hole that allowed for car and truck passage up the side of the pit was exposed. To make this invisible from the air, the roof was painted to look like the bottom of the quarry. There were even some fake boulders and real sand heaped on top of it.
He slowly made his way around the lip of the quarry and down the ramp. As he passed the fake bottom, he could see that it blocked out only half the light, leaving the true bottom twenty feet below in a dim shade. This bottom was much different than the empty scene painted on the roof for any observant helicopter pilot to see. Rows of trailers waited in the yard while others were pressed up against loading docks that had been carved out of the face of the quary wall. Unlike the university and the mall, this place hummed with people engaged in the business of business. Had everyone, from the guard down to the lowest dock worker not been armed, the place might have looked just like any other warehouse.
The blue car drove past the trucks being loaded and went around to a normal sized garage. The car stopped in that garage and the commissioner reached into the back seat for a gray sweatshirt to cover his scrawny shoulders. He pulled it over his head as he wandered up the stairs up from the garage floor and encountered a huge man with a sub machine gun draped over his shoulder.
Commissioner Painter stared down the barrel of the gun and flinched, fearing the worst. “Mr. Loveless is expecting you.”
“I’m sure he is,” the commissioner replied, feeling a little vulnerable with his jogging shorts revealing his scrawny-yet-muscular old man legs.
The man scowled, examined his gun then asked, “You want a Pumpkin Scone and a White Chocolate Mocha like usual, Harold?”
The gray haired man sighed. “Yeah, sure. Alexi’s in his office?”
“You know the way.” The armed man smiled and extended his arm with a flourish to let the older man pass.
Putting on his sweat shirt, the commissioner traveled through the expansive underground warehouses and climbed up steps. Soon he found himself walking through a dimly lit and thoroughly abandoned department store. In the distance he could see the large, shuttered doors that led out to the rest of the mall and the light weekend traffic it still attracted. He went up the frozen escalators to the third floor and approached the door marked office.
Goldberg juggled the newspaper, coffee and bag of bagels as he walked down the street. The world was soft and fuzzy now that his glasses were lost under one of the two destroyed buildings, possibly both. Molly, the girl he rescued from the collapsed building, had been walking with him ever since. The two made an odd pair, tall and thin with short and fat, but the fine layer of building dust and soot marked them equally.
Taking a shallow sip from her coffee mug, the fat girl said, “My crap is all gone. This kind of thing doesn’t really happen to people. Does it?”
“Well, we were there.” The newspaper started to slip from under Goldberg’s armpit and he had to squirm to keep it from falling to the pavement. The bag of bagels started to teeter precariously, and he was afraid that he was going to spill the pot of coffee. “A little help here?”
She pushed the newspaper into his armpit. He looked longingly at the free hand she flapped in the air as she spoke. “I never did ask you what you were doing that got you shooting into my living room. I mean, you were in the actual, real building that blew up. What the hell were you doing in there?”
He gave up on waiting for her to volunteer to carry something and shifted the bag to get a better grip. “Wrong place, wrong time, I guess. Honestly, I’m trying to figure that out myself.”
Molly nodded at Goldberg’s non-answer. “Well when you figure it out…I mean…” She gave up on her sentence and pursued a different track with renewed vigor. “You know, I just got here and in the last three weeks my parents have moved to a condo…” She inaccurately counted on her gesturing hand. “…my supposed roommate that I came up here with just … flakes! Completely! And it’s not like I’ve had any time to make any friends or anything.”
“Started doing drugs or something I guess. Bad ones. All of a sudden she started talking about how she could hear radio signals. Went to the hospital earlier this week and hasn’t been back since.”
“Yeah, about as strange as you barreling into my living room to save me from a big blast of fire…” She trailed off, then quietly said, “Man, all my stuff is all gone!”
The conversation dried up and after a few more blocks through the still blur of a Saturday morning, they came to the apartment. The empty windows of the downstairs portion of the duplex betrayed its current vacant status.
“Looks like Dan’s not home from the ‘Midnight ride’ to change the billboard. That should be interesting.” She looked puzzled and in answer to the unasked question, he gestured at a tree with his free elbow. “No bike. He’ll probably be along shortly, but he’s nocturnal, so he’s likely to be pretty wasted.” Molly gave him another confused look.
“Don’t worry he’s harmless. Mostly. He usually goes to bed in the afternoon, wakes up for when the bars get hopping and then hits the town. When your job is essentially from three to seven in the morning, you have to make some allowances in your lifestyle.”
They were through the outer gate and were half way up the stairs when realization crept up on him. After their first night together, it might not be too cool to just stroll in on Joy with another girl, no matter how innocent it was.
He unloaded the bag of bagels on the bench with a thump and jangled his keys. “Hey, Molly? I, uh, have company… A new girlfriend, in fact… and, well…”
“You want me to wait out here?”
He winced. “Is that cool? I know this has been a crappy morning and all.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, awkward and not too convincing. “It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go.” Molly sat on the wood bench next to a napping white cat.
Billie regarded her for a moment. She gave this new girl a sniff and decided she could share the bench if she would give up some petting. With the least amount of effort she could expend, the white cat scooted next to the girl and waited to be adored.
The wait wasn’t long. Billie always knew a softie when she saw one and Molly began absentmindedly petting the cat.
Goldberg felt bad for the girl. She was right, she didn’t have anywhere else to go. He shook his head, unlocked the door and walked in.
Junior, a huge solid gray cat, looked over his shoulder but his body stayed pointed through the rear door of the living room towards the apartments small center hallway. It was as if he wanted to acknowledge the newcomer but not miss what was going on in the hall and bathroom. The shower ran and it seemed that Joy had captured Juniors imagination. Goldberg could relate. Turning his head back to the center of his attention, the cat left one ear back to listen as his owner closed the door. Once again, Goldberg remarked to himself that cats are weird.
He strolled through the living room, the only common area of the efficient apartment, and wondered what he would do for glasses. His power, which had been quiet since he had left Molly’s, said that there is an almost certain probability that he had old sunglasses that will work in a pinch. The power couldn’t be specific about the location, however, so Goldberg looked around the apartment.
The furniture in the living room looked right out of a 70’s add, but with forty yeas of constant use spilled over it. He dropped the contents of his arms out onto the squat, dark brown coffee table and looked through the cushions of the big brown couch. Nothing. Searching the matching chair at the head of the rectangular table was also fruitless. No sunglasses, and he now really wanted to wash his hands.
He tromped around the transfixed cat and past the bathroom door to search his bed room. A quick scan of his dresser drawers came up empty. “I can’t see well enough to look, damn it. I’m going to need help,” he thought. He would have to let his friends rummage through all his closets and drawers, an equitable trade for eyesight.
Joy’s sharp voice called out over the sound of the shower. “Goldberg?”
Despite the morning’s activity, he tried to sound casual. “Yeah, Joy. It’s me. I got a paper and… Uh… You sleep OK? How were the extra innings?”
“The innings were good, but I had this really weird dream and woke up with my head in the sink.”
He leaned up against the wall outside the door. “Last time I had my head in the sink ‘weird’ only described that nights drinks.” He winced at his own lame joke. “You OK? Was it frightening or just weird-weird?”
“Just weird. I’m all right.”
The water turned off with a squeak of the ancient plumbing. “So what was the dream about?”
“Uh, that I slept with Teague last night, or at the very least, woke up with him.” The shower curtain rattled behind the door and he frowned.
“I see. So you’re telling me you wake up from spending our first night together, and tell me that you had a dream that you slept with a monstrous, muscle-bound black man? Your cradle robbing sister’s boy toy no less?” Junior rubbed against his calf and chirped, looking up at Goldberg with his wide inquisitive eyes.
“Yeah, though I don’t think I’d put it that way, exactly.” A smirk rode her voice. “I hope you don’t think that I… like… well… you know.”
He walked into his room and said over his shoulder. “Hell, at least he’s good looking.”
The door to the bathroom opened and he turned to see Joy, deliciously naked and glistening with water. She had a small towel around her shoulders to catch the drips from her long, dark hair. Her eyes stared through Goldberg as she perched and stretched in the door frame. She was giving him everything she had and it was working. He was stunned by her lovely, fair, and lithe body. “Well he’s got nothing on my paper-fetching hero.” Her sexy look changed to one of concern. “Holly crap! What happened to you? Your hair! Where are your glasses?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I think I might be in trouble.”
Joy pulled his head down and looked at the damage while he admired her small but lovely breasts. “Why’s that?”
Goldberg started to parse the events of the morning, trying to find some logical sequence that made some sense of the whole thing. Distracted by her still naked boobies, he found none. “I… um. Maybe I start from the beginning?”
She picked out some of the burnt hair from his head. “Start wherever you want, but you need to get that stuff cut off your head. Nice excuse to fix that hippie mop you call hair.” She grabbed his face and gave him a moist, exciting kiss that was both clean and dirty. A glowing smile wrapped around her face. “I’m going to make you look so cool! So what’s the story?”