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--as the UPS man leaned against the counter, his brownshirted belly flush against the glass of the food display case. "This neighborhood use to be great," he said heavily. It was lunchtime and his breath smelled of brandy. "Knew everyone. Go on vacation I'd miss 'em. Little kids running around. People ain't the same." The counterman smiled tightly at him and handed Danielle her soy wrap and power smoothie. The UPS guy smiled at her broadly. "I'm retiring today. Thas my pension day. April 15, 2020." Danielle winced and lowered her head in a half-nod.
She swallowed several pastel-colored pills with the drink, and ate her wrap on a park bench in the middle of the 57th Street Market Mall, watching the flow of grey and blue business slacks and skirts, slack and skirts, over the sun-drenched colored tiles. Watching the sunlight move across the matte planes of the Conde Nast building made the blood swim in her head, and she started back toward the office. A shiny piece of metal lay glittering in the grass of Broadway. Danielle crossed the firm turf, adjusted her skirt, and knelt delicately to examine it. It was brass and appeared clean. She turned it over with mild curiosity. Late 20th Century, a pre-DigitaLock key. Embossed on one side was the word "Yale." The unfamiliar brass felt cold and coarse between her pumiced, manicured fingers. On the other side, etched with some crude sharp tool, was the word "Niamh. 111 Bowery."
The rumble of a delivery train passing directly beneath her feet made her look up. The clock on the Siemens Tower read 13:45. On the screen above it, President Giuliani was waving in his senile way from the door of an Airbus. She slipped the key into her DKNY shoulder bag and hurried across the sunny green field towards the glass atrium at the base of the 200-story structure. In the auto lane, a NYPD relocation van passed and Danielle saw the dirty faces of several homeless behind the window grates. Again she felt her nose wrinkle and wondered with disgust in what dark underground place they had been arrested.
Five years after moving into the $10,000 a month apartment which she shared with a friend from prep school, they had several friends in the city, women their age in similar jobs, white and educated at posh New England schools. Potential husbands and boyfriends they met at date sites took them out on friday evenings, and they discussed and compared dates on the net and at the gym after work. They had plenty of time to think about children, though. Several months earlier the four of them had taken a package vacation together to DisneyThaiLand, but Danielle had gotten sick the second day and remained in the hotel room alone while the others enjoyed the city's discreet charms.
Alone now in the solo express elevator, she brushed her thumbnail--for the third time since entering the Microsoft compound--under the laser crosshatches of a DigitAll sensor, and the number 108 appeared on a wall monitor, and then was replaced by the view from a window of a New England beach house, the waves breaking evenly along a blond shingle. Because she was from New England. Beneath the wave sounds, the elevator accelerated in a low hum.
As the Assistant Director of Marketing for ms.com/db/business/admin/ 1006754/map, her office was barely four feet wide, but was almost twenty-five deep, with a window facing southwest across one end. It was completely silent until the lights and white noise generator came on together. She slipped the telephone into her ear canal, said "messages, mauricio" to the PC, and pushed past the chair to stand at the window. Across the river to the west, the tire fires burned in the huge shantytowns of New Jersey. One big one, at the top of a large landfill, seemed to her to have been going for days. Along the riverbank, cosmetic plantings had begun, and the big grey police vans moved like tiny specs, protecting the park workers from nomads. The shuttles were backed at the checkpoint in the middle of the George Washington bridge, and she pictured the guards at their posts high above the steely water, checking drafty cars full of browns and blacks before they came into the city to work. Shuttles going the other way didn't stop.
Remembering the key, she looked south down the length of the island towards the Olde Bowery, as it had recently been renamed for some reason. Her eyes tracked down the placid avenues, empty now that lunch was over. The huge dark hull of the Union Square Police Plaza capped the long glass streak of the Broadway Atrium, a twenty-five block covered retail and conference mall. Guided tour groups from China and Eastern Europe moved down the tiled streetscape--like centipedes, she thought, frightening herself, feeding at the food courts and discount shops.
The Lower East Side was a white-and-tan quarry of low-rise technical centers--training and deobsolescence schools for clerical workers. Bowery was at the border of the the Evening Entertainment Area, the Riese Restaurant/Disney theme park of bars and restaurants and nightclubs, catering to the thousands of business visitors in the hotels of SoHo and Canal Street. In the daytime the faux-cobblestone streets of the EEA were empty, deliveries being made invisibly by subway. A sleek transatlantic shuttle nosed up to the South Street hydroport. "Niamh," she said aloud. Mauricio answered immediately, "Ready for Name." "No," she said, "what is this?" and spelled it for him. "Pronounced Neve," he corrected her. "Irish ethnic given name, gaelic origin, feminine. For a woman," he added flirtatiously, in his new Brazilian accent from MS Office. She turned away from the window and sat down at the terminal to work.
Several hours later, she stood up, with a tension in her back, and returned to the window . From behind the western horizon 100 miles across New Jersey, the sunset came to her as a deep stain of gold though haze of refinery exhaust and burning garbage in the warm air. A draft from the AC vent washed over her face. Suddenly a shudder of melancholy reverberated out of her body, and travelled out into the great space between her and the skyline. "Niamh," she said aloud, her voice--
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