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8 - Paris

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ANDREA LIVED in the Quartier des Ternes, where her ancient building, like the others in her street, awaited sandblasting by the city’s relentless renovators. Beyond the dark entrance, one of Fuji Electric’s biofluorescent strips glowed dimly above a dilapidated wall of small wooden hutches, some with their slotted doors still intact. Marly knew that postmen had once made daily deposits of mail through those slots; there was something romantic about the idea, although the hutches, with their yellowing business cards announcing the occupations of long-vanished tenants, had always depressed her. The walls of the hallway were stapled with bulging loops of cable and fiber optics, each strand a potential nightmare for some hapless utilities repairman. At the far end, through an open door paneled with dusty pebble glass, was a disused courtyard, its cobbles shiny with damp.

The concierge was sitting in the courtyard as Marly entered the building, on a white plastic crate that had once held bottles of Evian water. He was patiently oiling each link of an old bicycle’s black chain. He glanced up as she began to climb the first flight of stairs, but registered no particular interest.

The stairs were made of marble, worn dull and concave by generations of tenants. Andrea’s apartment was on the fourth floor. Two rooms, kitchen, and bath. Marly had come here when she’d closed her gallery for the last time, when it was no longer possible to sleep in the makeshift bedroom she’d shared with Alain, the little room behind the storeroom. Now 4: the building brought her depression circling in again, but the feel of her new outfit and the tidy click of her bootheels on marble kept it at a distance. She wore an oversized leather coat a few shades lighter than her handbag, a wool skirt, and a silk blouse from Paris Isetan. She’d had her hair cut that morning on Faubourg St. Honoré, by a Burmese girl with a West German laser pencil; an expensive cut, subtle without being too conservative.

She touched the round plate bolted in the center of Andrea’s door, heard it peep once, softly, as it read the whorls and ridges of her fingertips. “It’s me, Andrea,” she said to the tiny microphone. A series of clanks and tickings as her friend unbolted the door.

Andrea stood there, dripping wet, in the old terry robe. She took in Marly’s new look, then smiled. “Did you get your job, or have you robbed a bank?” Marly stepped in, kissing her friend’s wet cheek. “It feels a bit of both,” she said, and laughed.

“Coffee,” said Andrea, “make us coffee Grandes crémes. I must rinse my hair And yours is beautiful…” She went into the bathroom and Marly heard a spray of water across porcelain.

“I’ve brought you a present,” Marly said, but Andrea couldn’t hear her She went into the kitchen and filled the kettle, lit the stove with the old fashioned spark gun, and began to search the crowded shelves for coffee.

“Yes,” Andrea was saying, “I do see it.” She was peering into the hologram of the box Marly had first seen in Virek’s construct of Gaudi’s park. “It’s your sort of thing.” She touched a stud and the Braun’s illusion winked out.

Beyond the room’s single window, the sky was stippled with a few wisps of cirrus. “Too grim for me, too serious. Like the things you showed at your gallery. But that can only mean that Herr Virek has chosen well; you will solve his mystery for him. If I were you, considering the wage, I might take my own good time about it.” Andrea wore Marly’s gift, an expensive, beautifully detailed man’s dress shirt, in gray Flemish flannel. It was the sort of thing she liked most, and her delight in it was obvious. It set off her pale hair, and was very nearly the color of her eyes.

“He’s quite horrible, Virek, I think…” Marly hesitated.

“Quite likely,” Andrea said, taking another sip of coffee. “Do you expect anyone that wealthy to be a nice, normal sort?”

“I felt, at one point, that he wasn’t quite human. Felt that very strongly.”

“But he isn’t, Marly. You were talking with a projection, a special effect…”

“Still… “ She made a gesture of helplessness, which immediately made her feel annoyed with herself.

“Still, he is very, very wealthy, and he’s paying you a great deal to do something that you may be uniquely suited to do.” Andrea smiled and readjusted a finely turned charcoal cuff. “You don’t have a great deal of choice, do you?”

“I know. I suppose that’s what’s making me uneasy.”

“Well,” Andrea said, “I thought I might put off telling you a bit longer, but I have something else that may make you feel uneasy. If ‘uneasy’ is the word.”

“Yes?”

“I considered not telling you at all, but I’m sure he’ll get to you eventually. He smells money, I suppose.”

Marly put her empty cup down carefully on the cluttered little rattan table.

“He’s quite acute that way,” Andrea said.

“When?”

“Yesterday. It began, I think, about an hour after you would have had your interview with Virek. He called me at work. He left a message here, with the concierge. If I were to remove the screen program’ ‘she gestured toward the phone’ ‘I think he’d ring within thirty minutes.”

Remembering the concierge’s eyes, the ticking of the bicycle chain.

“He wants to talk, he said,” Andrea said. “Only to talk. Do you want to talk with him, Marly?”

“No,” she said, and her voice was a little girl’s voice, high and ridiculous. Then, “Did he leave a number?” Andrea sighed, slowly shook her head, and then said, “Yes, of course he did.”


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