THE BLUE SKY BENDS OVER ALL
On my way to Layla's apartment I beat up three guys and met one of the world's richest men. In the early morning I stepped out into Central Park and the light sunshine. I hadn't gotten much sleep last night, but my senses were still sharp enough to notice the three casually dressed guys following me.
I walked for a bit, letting them slowly gain on me. Then I suddenly took a turn into one of the wooded areas. My followers chased after me. By the time they entered the woods I was ready for them.
I was a quick fellow, and I had spent my youth exploring the park. That's why I was able to climb a tree like a squirrel. I watched my pursuers from above. I held a lengthy tree branch that I had scooped from the ground before climbing. The three men were looking in all directions, except up. Just as they passed my tree in a widely spread triangle, I attacked.
I hit the center man with the branch just as my feet met the ground. Then I flung the branch at the right-hand man. It spun through the air like a baton and crashed into the man's face just as he turned.
As he fell backwards, I turned left and dove forward to the ground. I tucked in my arms, did a somersault across dirt and leaves, and rose to a kneeling position right in front of the third man. He had pulled out a gun, but it was pointing above my head.
I punched him in the groin with all of the forward momentum I had gained. He dropped his gun, then fell to the grass. I picked up his gun as he moaned. Then I passed the unconscious man in the middle and walked up to the man who had taken the branch in the face. The daze cleared from his bruised face just when I pointed the gun at him.
"Tell Bradbury," I said, "to keep his people away from me."
The man with the bruised face quickly said, "We don't work for Bradbury."
"Who, then? One of the Nobles?"
"Yes. And he wants to talk with you."
My prisoner led me to the edge of the park. A limousine was parked next to one of the surrounding sidewalks. The sidewalks were still thinly populated in the early morning. Nobody noticed me pushing the bruised man against the limo, or the gun inside my jacket.
One of the dark-tinted windows rolled down. I saw a face I had previously seen on magazine covers before seeing it at a meeting I wasn't meant to attend.
The passenger looked at my prisoner and me. He sighed, then said to the bruised man, "You can go."
The man left without even giving me a dirty look. That's some nice professionalism.
"Let's talk, Jacob," the limo passenger requested. I considered making a more much obscene request in return, but decided that if he went through this trouble just to talk...
I nodded, and the passenger moved to the other side of the car. I stepped into the limo, took out the gun, placed it on the floor and kicked it under the seat.
The passenger touched a button. It must have signaled the driver, because the limo moved away from the curb. I couldn't see the driver behind a darkened glass partition.
"Was that necessary?" the passenger asked. "Did you have to beat up my men?"
"Nah, but it was good exercise."
One of the world's wealthiest men grimaced. This particular billionaire had ridden the computer boom of the late twentieth-century to his fortune -- and to a place among the Nobles of the High Tower.
"By the way," I said, "I would tell your boys to stay out of the park. That's a little too close to the Tunnels."
"It was just this one time. I needed to see you."
"Then you should have sent a message along the pipes."
"Bradbury is using the pipes. I didn't want word of this meeting to go back to him."
I looked at the Billionaire's bespectacled, youthful face. "What's going on?" I asked.
"The power struggle that you witnessed two months ago didn't go away. Its nature has changed."
"I'm not going to tell you everything, Jacob."
"Oh, of course not."
"I will tell you that the Tower is at a crossroads. Which way we go depends on Alexandra."
"Does this have something to do with Masilela?"
The Billionaire waved his hand in dismissal. "Masilela was nothing. Her next move could be much bigger and important."
"And that move could be...?"
"That's one of the things I can't tell you."
"You should know this -- she wants to protect you and the Tunnels. She never stopped being on your side." He paused, then said, "I'm on your side as well."
I laughed briefly.
"Well," the Billionaire said, "I'm not against you, at least."
"As I recall, you didn't do anything to protect me two months ago."
"It wasn't in my interest back then. It is in my interest now to tell you that Bradbury has a spy in the Tunnels."
I stared at the Billionaire, then blurted out, "Who?" Before he could answer, I added sarcastically, "You can't tell me that, right?"
"I've already risked enough just telling you there is a spy. You'll have to figure out the identity on your own."
I closed my eyes and pressed my head against a window. "Why," I asked, "do you people have to make the world so difficult?"
"We never made the world. We just respond to it."
I opened my eyes and turned to the Billionaire. "You don't play games with the world," I said in a flat voice. "The world plays games with you."
"That's another way of putting it, but yes."
I shook my head. "Let me out of this car."
The Billionaire pressed the button again. The car found the nearest place to park. I stepped out of the car.
"I gave you some free advice," he said. "Appreciate it."
"Get bent," I replied and slammed the door. I joined the pedestrians on the sidewalk, not watching the limousine pull away.
I quickly realized that the Billionaire had been telling the truth -- or part of it. The High Tower was headed for a big shake-up, and the Tunnels had a spy.
A spy working for whom? Bradbury, it seems. So who was the spy?
Layla -- that was the first obvious candidate. But if she was a spy, she had chosen a rather risky way of getting my confidence. Besides, why would she work for the people who killed Joe?
What about Alexandra?
I was chilled by the thought. Then I realized that Bradbury wouldn't need someone to gain information on the Tunnels -- he needed someone to watch me and Alexandra.
As I thought about it, I concluded that it could be any of the Dwellers except for those in the top echelon like Father, Grandfather or Jamie. How many of the Dwellers had made a visit to Above for business or just some amusement? How many times did Bradbury's goons have a chance to grab a Dweller and scare him or her into being a fink?
Shit, I thought. Grandfather is going to love hearing this.
I also thought about the High Tower and its inner politics. What was happening in there? And what did Alexandra have to do with it?
There was an obvious person to ask these questions. But would I get an answer?
As I raised my hand to knock on Layla's door, I heard the familiar sound of a bass playing an infectious melody. Voices chanted over the bass --
"I'll never go back to Georgia! I'll never go back to Georgia!"
And then brass erupted with one of the funkiest, most joyful melodies ever written for a jazz band. I smiled, then knocked on the door.
The door opened a few moments later, but just a couple of inches. Layla looked at me through the small opening.
She said, "Hey."
"Hey. Alexandra still here?"
She paused, then said, "M-hm."
"Uh, can I come in?"
She opened the door for me, just wide enough to allow me into her apartment. I stepped inside. She quickly closed the door behind me.
I suddenly found that I couldn't move. I could only stare at the sight before me.
Layla's stereo was providing the music. In front of the stereo Alexandra was dancing.
That's right. Alexandra was dancing to Dizzy Gillespie. And her scarves were off her face. Her cloak was lying on a sofa. Despite the constraints of her blouse, her movements were graceful and exuberant. She kicked at the air and waved her arms like...
Well, like any teenage girl.
I remembered the last time I had seen her this way. It had been the only other time. She had been dancing on a stage with fifty other women and a Boston punk band. I had coaxed her out of her gloomy shell and seen a young woman who could actually enjoy life.
Now I was seeing that young woman again, dancing to one of Layla's CD's.
I wish I could say that I was glad. Instead, I was confused -- and a little frightened. How many Alexandras did I have to account for? Who else did I have to know besides the powerless girl, the daughter of privilege, the poet, the lover, the recluse, the victim, the killer?
I became aware of Layla standing next to me. I turned to her, and we looked at each other again. Here was a woman who expressed herself boldly, but I wondered if I understood her any more than Alexandra.
She pointed at the kitchen. I smelled bacon and eggs.
I followed her into the kitchen. She walked up to the oven and tended to the cooking breakfast. I stood on the same spot where we had talked yesterday.
With her back turned to me, Layla said, "She is given to interesting mood swings, isn't she?"
I made no reply. Layla glanced at me, then said, "She told me why she attacked me."
I still kept quiet. Layla turned completely toward me with a spatula in her hand. "Funny, you never really let on. You never seemed scared of me."
"I don't have any reason to be scared of you. Do I?"
Layla rotated the spatula in her hand. "I'm not sure."
"Well...just so we both know why she did it."
Layla nodded, then turned back to the oven. I left the kitchen.
I walked up to the dancing Alexandra. "We need to talk," I said.
She kept on dancing. She didn't even look at me. I reached over to the stereo and turned it off. Her scaled face showed surprise -- a rare emotion for her. She looked at me as if she had just realized that I had been standing there.
Then that beautiful, hideous face adopted its usual expression of somberness. She reached into a pocket and pulled out her scarves. "Yes, Jacob," she said, "what is..."
I grabbed her hands and kept them away from her face. I was partially conscious that I was forcing her to do something; I had never done this before. I was also dimly aware of some anger inside me. I couldn't explain why I was angry. Or maybe I did know, and I just didn't want to admit it.
In any case, I was gripping her hands and forcing her face to be naked before me. She did not seem intimidated by me. I couldn't read any of her feelings in her eyes. How could I do that when I was so unsure of my own feelings?
"I just talked with someone," I said. "He told me that the High Tower is in the midst of a power struggle. He said that you were at the center of it."
"This is true," she said calmly.
"He also told me that there was a spy in the Tunnels. Is this true?"
"I didn't know this, but I would not doubt this information. Who gave it to you?"
I told her. She nodded and said, "You wish to know what exactly is happening in the Tower."
"I can't tell you. And there's no point in telling you now."
"Because you won't be able to stop what's happening. You only need to know that you and the Tunnels will be protected."
I squeezed her hands a little harder. "Don't presume anything, Alexandra," I said in a low voice. "I don't like secrets being kept from me."
"Just like you kept secrets from others?" a voice said.
I looked past my shoulder and saw Layla leaning in the kitchen doorway. I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I could drive the bones of her nose into her brain with one punch. At the same time I realized that this fact didn't matter.
"I made a lot of mistakes two months ago," I said. "Alexandra shouldn't repeat those mistakes."
"Why do you think she is making a mistake? In fact, why do you think anybody is really hiding anything from you?"
"Look, this doesn't concern..." I stopped myself. As I looked into Layla's hard eyes I realized that she was no longer a peripheral character to me. She was right at the center of my life now. I had invited her there. I couldn't kick her out.
I turned and looked down at my hands. Alexandra showed no sign that I was hurting her, but I'm sure that I was. I quickly released her wrists, then shoved my hands into my pockets. Alexandra crossed her own hands together.
"You know," Layla said, "maybe we should go out."
"Out?" I mumbled.
"Yeah, you know, the opposite of in. It's a nice day. We should all get outside and enjoy it."
I stared at Layla. "All of us?"
"Alexandra can hide her face. She's been outside before, hasn't she?"
"Well, usually at night and under protection."
"So?" Layla looked past me to Alexandra. "What do you say?"
I turned to Alexandra. She was motionless for a few seconds. Then she began to tie the scarves around her face. I wasn't sure, but I thought that I saw a little smile on her lips before the scarves covered them.
I was a Dweller. Layla was a New Yorker. I had gone Above many times and learned the streets of the city. Layla's knowledge was deeper than that. New York City was her home. For me it had just been a place to visit.
She was the guide on the first day that Alexandra stepped into the light. Alexandra had seen the sunlight before, but only through the windows of apartments and limos. On this day the sun directly warmed the scarves on her face.
And, yes, she did get stares. But this was New York City -- the land of dirty men conversing with invisible people, socialites with stretched faces, street corner preachers with homemade signs and Donald Trump's hair. The teenage girl in black was only one of many strange sights.
Besides, if other people did stare too long, Layla stared back at them. They would quickly look elsewhere.
Layla had been right. Alexandra could walk in the city during the day -- just as long as Layla was there with her.
On that day Layla gave Alexandra the meaning of New York City. Her meaning, just as I gave Alexandra my own meaning of the Tunnels. They passed by the hospital where Layla had been born and her favorite playground. They saw the grade school, high school and university where she had studied. Layla pointed out a building and explained that a different building had once stood on its spot. The old one had burned down and provided the first case that Layla helped to prosecute at the DA office.
Layla also told Alexandra where to find the best hamburgers and pizza in town. She showed her the newsstand where she usually bought magazines and papers. She traced the route that she used to take from her apartment to work.
Then, with a sly smile, she pointed out the place where she lost her virginity. She had been sixteen and in the bedroom of a friend's apartment. While a party continued noisily in the other rooms, she and a boy of her age had used the bed. With another sly smile, she then pointed out the locale of her first lesbian encounter -- a parking lot just two days before graduation.
"Which did you enjoy more?" Alexandra asked.
"Did you enjoy the sex with the male or the female more?"
"Uh...well...I guess I enjoyed them equally. At the time."
Alexandra nodded, then said, "Show me more."
She did. Layla told her about the clubs she had frequented and the theater that had shown the only Broadway show she had seen (and where she had been bored silly). They passed through the courtrooms where she had helped to prosecute cases. Layla had a hundred stories to tell about coffee-fueled lawyers, efficiency-obsessed judges and stony-faced defendants.
A man in a grey suit was sitting on a bench outside one of the courtrooms. He had been reading a newspaper when he heard Layla's voice. He looked up and called out her name.
Layla stopped in the hallway and said, "Oh, hey, George."
"Been a long time," the man said as he walked over to her and shook her hand. "Haven't seen you since you quit the..."
He stopped talking when he got a look at Alexandra. "This is Alexandra," Layla explained smoothly. "Layla, this is George Preston. He's a police detective."
"Uh, hi, Alexandra," George said and held out his hand for a shake.
Alexandra didn't shake the hand. Instead, she just stared at George through her dark lenses for a moment and said, "Washington didn't do it."
George blinked. "Huh?"
"If you search the apartment of Dave Moore, you'll find the gun you're looking for."
"How do you know..."
Layla interrupted. "Is she talking about a case you have?"
"Um...yeah, I'm just waiting to testify in it. Is she saying..."
"Come over here for a second." Layla and the detective moved to a spot where the two could talk in private. George looked confused, but he paid attention to Layla as she spoke.
When they were done talking Layla went back to Alexandra and said, "Come on." They went on their way through the government building. As I followed them, I looked back at the detective. He looked pissed that his case may have just turned upside-down, but he couldn't ignore what he had been told.
Yeah, I was there, but I might as well not have been. This was Layla's guided tour. I was just along for the ride. As I tagged silently behind the two women, I thought, 'I waited two months for this? To have Alexandra shut me out? What is with her anyway?'
You, my very dear reader, have probably figured out half of it already. All I knew at the time was that I felt distant from Alexandra and Layla even thought they were just a few steps ahead of me.
I never felt more distant than when we stopped on one particular street. When we turned onto this street Layla started to walk slowly. Her pace became more and more sluggish until she stopped completely. Alexandra was at her side. She watched Layla as she stared at the pavement.
I looked around me. It was just another business street in New York City. I couldn't figure out why we stopped.
Then Alexandra placed a hand on Layla's shoulder. Layla raised her head and sighed. She looked at Alexandra.
And, for the first time, Layla really smiled. She had smiled before, but in a way that was restrained or sarcastic or ironic. It was part of her guarded nature. This time, however, she just looked grateful that she had someone to share whatever the hell was going on. This was decidedly a private moment between the two of them, and I might as well have been in Europe.
Then Alexandra pulled back her hand. The two of them started to walk again.
The sun had gotten close to the horizon when they stopped again. This time it was Alexandra who instigated the halt. A poster stuck to a telephone pole had gotten her attention.
Both Layla and I read it. A woman had been drawn onto the poster's center. She wore a white dress that was wide below the waist and tight above it. A white wig towered six inches on top of her head. She played a golden violin resting against her shoulder. Covering her face was a silver mask with a long jutting nose.
Beneath the woman were words written in ornate, curving letters. 'Silver Moon Masquerade -- Share the Fantasy.' The poster named a place and a time -- a hotel ballroom some blocks south of us, tonight.
"Do you know what this is?" Alexandra asked.
Layla shook her head. I took a few seconds to realize that I did.
"It's a costume ball," I said. The women turned to me. They were as surprised to hear me speak as I was.
I cleared my throat and added, "You know...it's...a costume ball."
"I see that," Layla responded. "But what kind?"
"It's basically for people with a fetish for both Tolkien and David Bowie. Kind of like The Lord of the Rings meets Ziggy Stardust."
Layla snorted. "All right."
"I want to go there," Alexandra said.
Now Layla and I were looking at Alexandra. I could see myself reflected in the right lens of her glasses. Layla was in the left. Both of us knew that we wouldn't be able to change Alexandra's mind.
"If that's what you want," Layla said. "But what if the tickets are already sold out?"
"I can get us into there," I said.
Layla turned back to me. I shrugged and said, "I can get into things like that."
She looked me over from my long blonde hair to my slim, fit body and said, "I bet you can."
"Let's go then," Alexandra said softly. So we did.
As we headed to the Masquerade, I became aware that we were being followed. One man was behind us on the sidewalk. On the other side of the street a second walked alongside our path.
I felt very tempted to beat the shit out of both of them or, at least, give them a finger. It wasn't just their presence that angered me. I wanted to do something violent to break myself out of this strange passivity that weighed on me. I was surrounded by events whose nature was being hidden from me (or so I believed.) I needed to do something before the events completely escaped my control.
Then I had the same realization that I had in Layla's apartment -- my strength and my speed counted for nothing here. I would later realize that I was lost in the labyrinth of the human heart, just as Alexandra was. Or as she had been.
The two men followed me. I followed Layla and Alexandra. The city grew darker.