He was bleeding through, the black fabric even darker over his forearm. He shifted, and the pistol suppressors clanked together in the paper grocery bag dangling at his side
Castle Heights prided itself on its security measures, not least of which was that the elevator was controlled by the security desk. Evan gestured at the guard reclining before a bank of screens behind the high counter.
‘Twenty-one, please, Joaquin,’ Evan said.
A voice came from behind him. ‘Just say “penthouse”, why don’t you? It is the penthouse level.’ A clawlike hand closed over his injured forearm, squeezing, and Evan felt a surge of burning beneath his sweatshirt.
He turned to the stubby, wizened woman at his side – Ida Rosenbaum of 6G – and produced a smile. ‘I suppose that’s right, ma’am.’
‘And besides,’ she continued, ‘we have our Homeowner Association meeting in the conference room on ten. Starting right now. You’ve missed the last three, by my count.’ To compensate for hearing loss, her volume was prodigious, acquainting the entire lobby with Evan’s attendance record.
The car arrived with a ding.
Mrs Rosenbaum’s grip intensified. She fixed her imperious stare on Joaquin. ‘He’ll go to the HOA meeting.’
‘Wait! Hold the elevator!’ The woman from 12B – Mia Hall – hip- checked her way through the glass front door, heavy purse swinging in one direction, her son in the other, iPhone pinched between her cheek and shoulder.
Evan released a weary breath and gently twisted his arm free of Mrs Rosenbaum’s grasp as they stepped into the elevator. He felt the blood running again, causing the sweatshirt fabric to cling.
As Mia hustled toward them, dragging her eight- year-old by his arm, she finished singing into the phone in double time: ‘Happy late birthday to you, happy sorry-my-car-broke-down-and-I-went-to-the-mechanic-who-told- me-I-needed-new-brake-disks-for-an-arm-and-a-leg-and-so-I-missed-picking-Peter-up-from-school-and-he-had-to-go-to-a-friend’s- which-is-why-I-forgot-to-leave-you-a- message-earlier biiirrrtthday, happy birthday to you.’ She lifted her cheek, letting the phone drop into her capacious purse. ‘Sorry! Sorry. Thanks.’ Rushing into the elevator, she called across, ‘Hi, Joaquin. Don’t we have an HOA meeting right now?’
‘Indeed we do,’ Mrs Rosenbaum said pointedly.
Joaquin raised his eyebrows at Evan – Sorry, brother – and then the doors were closing behind them. Ida Rosenbaum’s perfume, in close quarters, was blinding.
It did not take her long to break the relative silence of the car. ‘Everyone with their phones plugged into their faces all the time,’ she said to Mia. ‘You know who predicted this? My Herb, may he rest in peace. He said, “One day it’ll be so that people talk to screens all day and won’t even require other humans”.’
As Mia took up the conversation, Evan glanced down at Peter, who was staring up at him with charcoal eyes. His thin blond hair lay lank, aside from one lock that swirled up in the back, defying gravity. A colorful Band- Aid had been applied to his pronounced forehead. His head tilted as he peered down at Evan’s foot. Slowly, Evan became aware of cool air on his bare ankle. The missing sock. He took a half step, sliding the offending ankle out of the boy’s line of sight.
Mia’s voice floated over him.
Clearly she had asked him a question. He looked up at her. A scattering of light freckles, not visible under weaker light, covered the bridge of her nose, and her glossy chestnut hair was a lush, piled mess. He’d grown accustomed to seeing her in frantic single-parent mode – runs in her stockings, slightly out of breath, juggling Batman lunch box and satchel briefcase – but the glow from behind the panels cast her now in a different light.
‘I’m sorry?’ he said.
‘Don’t you think?’ she repeated, mussing Peter’s hair affectionately. ‘Life would be boring if we didn’t have other people around complicating everything?’
Evan felt the fabric of the sleeve wet against his forearm. ‘Sure,’ he said.
‘Mom? Mom. Mom. My Band- Aid, it’s coming off.’
‘Case in point,’ Mia said to Mrs Rosenbaum, who did not return her smile. Mia fussed in her purse. ‘I have some more in here somewhere.’
‘The Muppet ones,’ Peter said. He had a raspy voice, older than suited an eight- year- old. ‘I want Animal.’
‘You have Animal. On your noggin.’
‘Kermit was this morning. Miss Piggy?’
‘No way. Gonzo.’
‘We have Gonzo!’
As she smoothed the new Band-Aid into place with her thumbs, kissing Peter’s head at the same time, Evan risked a quick glance down at his sleeve. He was bleeding through, the black fabric even darker over his forearm. He shifted, and the pistol suppressors clanked together in the paper grocery bag dangling at his side. A wet splotch had appeared on the bag – the bloody sock leaking through. Gritting his teeth, he spun the bag around and set it on the floor with the stain facing the wall.
‘It’s Evan, right?’ Mia had directed her attention at him again. ‘What do you do again?’
‘Oh? What kind of stuff?’
He glanced at the floor indicators. The elevator seemed to be moving glacially. ‘Industrial cleaning supplies. We sell to hotels and restaurants, mostly.’
Mia shouldered against the wall. Due to a missing button, her knockoff blazer gaped wide at the lapels, providing a generous view of her dress shirt. ‘Well? Aren’t you gonna ask me what I do?’ Her tone was amused yet stopped shy of flirtatious. ‘That is how conversations work.’
District attorney, Grade III, Torrance Courthouse. Widowed five years and change. Bought her small unit on the twelfth floor a few months ago with what remained of the life-insurance money.
Evan produced a pleasant smile. ‘What do you do?’
‘I am,’ she said, with mock grandiosity, ‘a district attorney. So you better watch your step.’
He hoped the noise he made sounded appropriately impressed. She gave a satisfied nod and produced a poppy- seed muffin from her purse. From the corner of his eye, Evan noticed Peter again staring at his bare ankle with curiosity.
The elevator stopped on the ninth floor. Fresh from the social room, a coterie of residents crowded in, led by Hugh Walters, HOA president and monologist of the highest order. ‘Excellent, excellent,’ he said. ‘A good showing at tonight’s meeting is essential. We’ll be voting on which morning beverages to offer in the lobby.’
Evan said, ‘Actually, I –’
‘Decaf or regular.’
‘Who drinks decaf anyways?’ asked Lorilee Smithson, 3F, a third wife with a face turned vaguely feline by decades of plastic surgery.
‘People with A‑fib,’ Mrs Rosenbaum weighed in.
‘Knock it off, Ida,’ Lorilee said. ‘You just talk down to me because I’m beautiful.’
‘No. I talk down to you because you’re stupid.’
‘I say we offer kombucha,’ Johnny Middleton, 8E, chimed in. A hair- plugged forty- something, he’d moved in with his widowed father, a retired CFO, some years back. As always, Johnny wore a warm‑up suit with the decal of the mixed-martial-arts program he’d been attending – or at least talking about incessantly – for the past two years. ‘It’s got probiotics and antibodies. Way healthier than decaf.’
A few more residents piled in, crowding Evan against the rear wall. His skin prickled; his blood hummed with impatience. Theaters of war and high-threat zones focused his composure, but Castle Heights small talk left him utterly devoid of bearings. Mia glanced up from the muffin she was picking at and gave him an eye roll.
‘We haven’t heard much from you lately, Mr Smoak,’ Hugh said with a practiced air of superciliousness. Probing eyes stared out from behind black- framed glasses so old-fashioned they were trendy again. ‘Would you like to weigh in on the morning- beverage measure?’
Evan cleared his throat. ‘I don’t have a strong need for kombucha.’
‘Maybe if you worked out once in a while instead of playing with spreadsheets all day,’ Johnny stage-whispered, the dig bringing a titter from Lorilee and glares of condemnation from others.
Fighting for patience, Evan glanced down, watching the stain on his sleeve slowly spread. Casually, he crossed his arms, covering the blood.
‘Your sweatshirt,’ Mia whispered. She leaned toward him, bringing with her the pleasing scent of lemongrass lotion. ‘It’s wet.’
‘I spilled something on it in the car,’ Evan said. Her eyes remained on the sleeve, so he added, ‘Grape juice.’
The elevator lurched abruptly to a stop.
‘Whoa,’ Lorilee said. ‘What happened?’
Mrs Rosenbaum said, ‘Maybe your augmented lips hit the emergency stop button.’
The residents stirred and milled about, livestock crammed in a pen. A blur at Evan’s side drew his attention – Peter crouching, his little fingers closing on Evan’s pant cuff, lifting it to reveal the curiously bare ankle. Evan pulled his foot away, accidentally knocking over the grocery bag. One of the pistol suppressors rolled free, the metal tube rattling on the floor.
Peter’s eyes flared wide, and then he snatched up the suppressor and shoved it back into Evan’s bag.
‘Peter,’ Mia said. ‘Get up. We don’t crawl on the floor. What are you thinking?’
He rose shyly, twisting one hand in the other.
‘I dropped something,’ Evan said. ‘He was just getting it for me.’
‘The hell was that thing?’ Johnny asked.
Evan elected to let the question pass as rhetorical. Johnny finally unstuck the red lever, and the elevator continued up. When they reached the tenth floor, Hugh held the doors open. He looked from Peter to Mia. ‘I take it you didn’t arrange child care?’
The eight or so women in proximity bristled.
‘I’m a single mom,’ Mia said.
‘HOA guidelines expressly specify that no children are allowed during committee meetings.’
‘Fair enough, Hugh.’ Mia flashed a radiant smile. ‘You’re the one who’s gonna lose the swing vote on the hanging begonias in the pool area.’
Hugh frowned and moved on with the others into the hall. Evan tried to stay behind with Mia and Peter, but Mrs Rosenbaum reached back and fastened her hand over his forearm again, cracking the developing scabs beneath the sweatshirt. ‘Come on, now,’ she said. ‘If you live in this building, you’ll do your part like everyone else.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Evan said. ‘I have to get back to those spreadsheets.’
He loosened Mrs Rosenbaum’s hand. Her pruned finger pads were smeared with his blood. He gave her hand a formal little pat, using the gesture as cover to wipe her fingers clean with his other palm as he withdrew his arm into the elevator.
The doors closed. Mia folded the remains of her poppy- seed muffin in the paper wrapper, jammed it into her purse, and shot a sigh at the ceiling. They rode the elevator up in silence, Evan holding the paper bag, the top crumpled down to cover the stain. He kept his sockless foot and bloody sleeve facing the wall on the far side of Mia and Peter.
Peter held his gaze dead ahead. They reached the twelfth floor, and Mia said goodbye and stepped out, Peter trailing her. The doors started to close behind them, but then a tiny hand snaked through the bumpers and they jerked and retracted.
Peter’s face appeared, his solemn expression undermined by Gonzo staring out from the Band- Aid on his forehead. ‘Thanks for covering for me,’ he said.
Before Evan could respond, the doors had slid shut once again.