Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 4

The hall outside Cal's door duplicated all the features of the one on Franz's floor: black-painted airshaft window, knobless door to disused broom closet, drab golden elevator door, and low-set, snap-capped vacuum outlet - a relic of the days when the motor for a building's vacuum system was in the basement and the maid handled only a long hose and brush. But before Franz, starting down the hall, had passed any of these, he heard from ahead an intimate, giggly laugh that made him remember the one he'd imagined for the imaginary maids. Then some words he couldn't catch in a man's voice: low, rapid, and jocular. Saul's? - it did seem to come from above. Then the feminine or girlish laughter again, louder and a little explosive, almost as if someone were being tickled. Then a rush of light footsteps coming down the stairs. He reached them just in time to get a glimpse, down and across the stairwell, of a shadowy slender figure disappearing around the last visible angle - just the suggestion of black hair and clothing and slim white wrists and ankles, all in swift movement. He moved to the well and looked down it, struck by how the successive floors below were like the series of reflections you saw when you stood between two mirrors. The rapid footsteps continued their spiraling descent all the way down, but whoever was making them was keeping to the wall and away from the rail lining the well, as if driven by centrifugal force, so he got no further glimpses. As he peered down that long, narrow tube dimly lit from the skylight above, still thinking of the black-clad limbs and the laughter, a murky memory rose in his mind and for a few moments possessed him utterly. Although it refused to come wholly clear, it gripped him with the authority of a very unpleasant dream or bad drunk. He was standing upright in a dark, claustrophobically narrow, crowded, musty space. Through the fabric of his trousers he felt a small hand laid on his genitals and he heard a low, wicked laugh. He looked down in his memory and saw the foreshortened, ghostly, featureless oval of a small face and the laugh was repeated, mockingly. Somehow it seemed there were black tendrils all around him. He felt a weight of sick excitement and guilt and, almost, fear. The murky memory lifted as Franz realized the figure on the stairs had to have been that of Bonita Luque wearing the black pajamas and robe and feathered black mules she'd been handed down from her mother and already outgrown, but sometimes still wore as she darted around the building on her mother's early-morning errands. He smiled disparagingly at the thought that he was almost sorry (not really!) he was no longer drunk and so able to nurse various kinky excitements. He started up the stairs, but stopped almost at once when he heard Gun's and Saul's voices from the floor above. He did not want to see either of them now, at first simply from a reluctance to share today's mood and plans with anyone but Cal, but as he listened to the clear and sharpening voices his motive became more complicated. Gun asked, "What was that all about?" Saul answered, "Her mother sent the kid up to check if either of us had lost a cassette player-recorder. She thinks her kleptomaniac on the second floor has one that doesn't belong to her." Gun remarked, "That's a big word for Mrs. Luque." Saul said, "Oh, I suppose she said 'e-stealer.' I told the kid that no, I still had mine." Gun asked, "Why didn't Bonita check with me?" Saul answered, "Because I told her you didn't have a cassette player to start with. What's the matter? Feeling left out?" "No!" During this interchange Gun's voice had grown increasingly nagging, Saul's progressively cooler yet also teasing. Franz had listened to mild speculation about the degree of homosexuality in Gun's and Saul's friendship, but this was the first time he found himself really wondering about it . No, he definitely didn't want to barge in now. Saul persisted, "Then what's the matter? Hell, Gun, you know I always horse around with Bonny." Gun's voice as almost waspish as he said, "I know I'm a puritanized North European, but I'd like to know just how far liberation from Anglo-Saxon body-contact taboos is supposed to go." And Saul's voice was almost taunting as he replied, "Why, just as far as you both think proper, I suppose." There was the sound of a door closing very deliberately. It was repeated. Then silence. Franz breathed his relief, continued softly up - and as he emerged into the fifth-floor hall found himself almost face to face with Gun, who was standing in front of the shut door to his room, glaring across at Saul's. Set on the floor beside him was a knee-high rectangular object with a chrome carrying handle protruding from its gray fabric cover. Gunnar Nordgren was a tall, slim man, ashen blond, a fined-down Viking. Right now he had shifted his gaze and was looking at Franz with a growing embarrassment that matched Franz's own feelings. Abruptly Gun's usual amiability flooded back into his face, and he said, "Say, I'm glad you came by. A couple of nights ago you were wondering about document-shredding machines. Here's one I had here from the office overnight." He whipped off the cover, revealing a tall blue and silvery box with a foot-wide maw on top and a red button. The maw fed down into a deep basket which Franz, coming closer, could see was one-quarter filled with a dirty snow of paper diamonds less than a quarter inch across. The uncomfortable feelings of a moment before were gone. Looking up, Franz said, "I know you're going to work and all, but could I hear it in operation once?" "Of course." Gun unlocked the door behind him and led Franz into a neat, rather sparely furnished room, the first features of which to strike the eye were large astronomical photographs in color and skiing equipment. As Gun unrolled the electric cord and plugged it in, he said lightheartedly, "This is a Shredbasket put out by Destroysit. Properly dire names, eh? Costs only five hundred dollars or so. Larger models go up to two thousand. A set of circular knives cuts the paper to ribbons; then another set cuts the ribbons across. Believe it or not, these machines were developed from ones for making confetti. I like that - it suggests that mankind first thinks of making frivolous things and only later puts them to serious use - if you can call this serious. Games before guilt." The words poured out of him in such an excess of excitement or relief that Franz forgot his wonder as to why Gun should have brought such a machine home - what he'd been destroying. Gun continued, "The ingenious Italians - what was it Shakespeare said? Supersubtle Venetians? - lead the world, you know, in inventing machines for food and fun. Ice-cream makers, pasta extruders, espresso coffee machines, set-piece fireworks, hurdy-gurdies... and confetti. Well, here goes." Franz had taken out a small notebook and ballpoint pen. As Gun's finger moved toward the red button, he leaned close, rather cautiously, expecting some rather loud sound. Instead, there came a faint, breathy buzzing, as if Time were clearing her throat. Delightedly Franz jotted down just that. Gun fed in a pastel sheet. Pale blue snow showered down upon the dirty white. The sound barely thickened a little. Franz thanked Gun and left him coiling up the cord. Mounting past his own floor and the seventh toward the roof, he felt pleased. Getting that scrap of observed fact had been just the bit of luck he'd needed to start the day perfectly.

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