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Authors: Eliot Peper

Cumulus (8 page)

BOOK: Cumulus
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AS THE RINGING
in her ears began to recede, other sounds slowly worked their way to Lilly’s brain.

“Put your hands behind your back!” a voice yelled. “Put your hands behind your back
now
!”

It took a few moments for her to realize the voice was addressing her. She fumbled, trying to push herself up on her side.

“Don’t move, or it’ll be the Taser this time. Just slowly put your hands behind your back.”

She did as she was told and then coughed as something heavy pressed painfully into her lower back and knocked all the air out of her. Rough hands grasped her forearms and plastic zip ties cut into her wrists.

“You picked the wrong house to burgle, Slummer cunt.”

Before she could inhale, she was yanked to her feet from behind. Blinking away the last of the lingering purple dots, she gasped for breath and tried to see what was going on. Two Security
SUV
s sat at an oblique angle just inside the gate. In addition to the guy frog-marching her toward the vehicles, two other Security officers stood looking on with hands on their holsters. Three small drones hovered above the scene with micro-spotlights and cameras constantly adjusting to keep her in focus.

“Hey,” she said, finally finding her voice. “What the fuck? You can’t just grab me and take me away like this.”

“The hell we can’t.” His voice was gruff, his breath huffing from the exertion of pushing her along.

“My camera’s back there, on the bench. It’s my personal property.” She wrestled to escape his grasp, but he just tightened his grip until it hurt. Coming into the Green Zone on a whim had been a bad idea. Trespassing on some estate had been a worse one. But the view had been impossible to resist. Angles she couldn’t ignore. She couldn’t lose the camera. She couldn’t lose the film.

“Fuck your camera.” On the next step he thrust his knee up into her ass, and she grunted as it bruised her tailbone. “And shut the fuck up. Bitches like you don’t know what’s good for ’em.”

Lilly tried not to think about the stories she’d heard. Petty thieves caught in the Green Zone beaten to within an inch of their lives before being kicked out of unmarked Security vans in nameless Slum industrial areas. Girls raped by Greenies enjoying a night on the town beyond the Fringe. Neighbors placing frantic calls to OPD even though they didn’t have the resources to follow up on any of it. Security’s private enforcement within the Green Zone ended at its borders, but their surveillance didn’t. If a Slummer assaulted a Greenie anywhere, it was recorded from five angles, and a strike team arrived within minutes. Justice was a premium service available only to
VIP
members of society. She dug in her heels to slow the inevitable.

Beyond the waiting goons, a deck light flicked on in front of the house. The reflection off of the windows had deepened from amber to violet. One of the French doors slid open, and a figure slipped onto the veranda. It was a slim woman with jet-black hair shot through with gray. She wore baggy blue shorts and a loose white T-shirt that was soaked with sweat. She stepped forward to get a full view of the scene, crossed her arms over her chest, and cocked her head to one side. Her almond-shaped eyes bore directly into Lilly with the enough horsepower to upgrade the Land Rover. Lilly tried to hold her gaze as long as she could, but it was like holding a finger in a candle flame.

“Stop.” She didn’t yell, but the woman’s voice rang with the polished steel edge of authority. She moved down the stairs and walked toward the waiting
SUV
s with measured steps.

Lilly’s captor’s pace faltered. “What the fuck?” he murmured to himself.

The other Security officers turned to face the woman, looking equally unsure of themselves.

Lilly, the guy pushing her, and the woman from the house all arrived at the
SUV
s at the same time.

“Ma’am,” said one of the officers, “I’m Sergeant Chadwick. We’re sorry to disturb you this evening, but the system picked up this perp trespassing on your property so we responded immediately. No pass.”

“Sergeant.” The woman was half his size but somehow made him appear small. “Lilly Miyamoto,” she gestured toward Lilly, who jerked in surprise at hearing her name, “is a dear friend of mine and a registered Green Zone guest. I think I would know if she’s meant to be here or not. If you hope to keep your job, I suggest you check the system again, release Ms. Miyamoto, and apologize to her immediately.”

The piercing eyes flickered over to Lilly.

“Are you hurt?” asked the woman.

Lilly was struggling to catch up to reality. She was about twelve steps behind whatever was happening here. “Umm, no,” she said. “No, I’m fine. It’s okay, I’m fine.”

“Good,” the woman nodded as if an important box had been checked.

The sergeant’s eyes unfocused as he checked the dashboard on his contact lenses. He muttered a low string of profanity.

“Uncuff her,” he said to the man behind her back, his tone seething.

“Sir?”

“Uncuff her or I’ll have your damn badge.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cold steel pressed against her wrists, and the plastic zip ties popped off.

“I’m so sorry for the mix-up, ma’am,” said the sergeant. “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen. I have no idea what could have gone wrong. It was tracking her as a potential suspect all afternoon and tagged a red flag when she entered your property. But now it says she’s been your registered guest the entire time.”

“Apologize to her, not me.”

The sergeant turned to Lilly. He was a hulk of a man, protein-powder physique wrapped up in uniform. Barely contained rage smoldered in his pale-blue eyes. “I apologize, Ms. Miyamoto. We mistakenly believed you were illegally trespassing on the premises. I sincerely hope we have not unduly inconvenienced you. If you have any concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out.”

He reached into a pocket and fished out a Security business card, offering it to Lilly. She flexed her fingers to regain circulation and accepted it.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice smaller than she wanted it to be.

With that, the men leapt into their vehicles and peeled out of the gate and down the hill. The drones had already disappeared.

In their wake, the silence was surprising. A garden restored to its usual tranquility. Lilly realized she was trembling.

“I believe you left your camera on the bench,” said the woman in a low, casual tone. “Fetch it and come up to the kitchen. It looks like you could use a stiff drink.”

 

 

 

14

 

 

 

THE FRENCH DOORS
had been left open. Lilly, camera hanging safely from its strap, stepped into the most extraordinary kitchen she had ever seen. It was a tasteful confection of granite and stainless steel, with a layout that would have impressed the original creator of Tetris. She could sell shots of it to house-porn and interior design sites for full-screen spreads.

The sharp smells of ginger and mint wafted through the air. The woman was at the counter facing the window. She was grinding something. The muscles on her thin shoulders and the outline of a green sports bra were visible through the wet T-shirt. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

“How do you know my name?” asked Lilly. Traversing the garden, a thousand thoughts had gone through her head. Relief vibrated within her like a tuning fork. She had thought up half a dozen diplomatic ways to try to find out what was going on, but now that she was here, the words just tumbled out.

“Do you like rum?” asked the woman, not turning around.

“Uh, sure,” said Lilly.

“Good answer.”

Clinking and stirring sounds came from the countertop, but Lilly’s view was blocked.

Then she turned and offered a tumbler of dark liquid to Lilly.

“Does it need anything?” she asked, raising her own glass to her lips.

Lilly took a small sip. Rum. Ginger. Mint. Sweetness. Spice. Carbonation.

“It tastes like a party hosted by Caribbean pirates in a secret cave hideout,” said Lilly. The warmth of the alcohol calmed her frayed nerves.

The woman snorted a laugh and raised her eyebrows. “So you’re a poet as well as a photographer.”

Lilly set her glass down on the center island. The only other thing on the granite surface was a pen resting on a single sheet of paper. It was too far away to read whatever was written on it, but Lilly could see that the paper itself was thick, cream-colored, and handmade. The grain of the woven pulp gave it weight and texture. It was the kind of thing you’d find in an art supply boutique.

“So why did you hop my fence? Looking for a good view of the sunset?”

For the second time that day, Lilly felt childish. What a ridiculous thing to do. She was acting like a teenager ruled by adolescent impulse. Risking a run-in with Security, for what? A pretty picture? Despite everything, she was glad she had recovered both the camera and the film. Those shots were gold and she knew it. She took a swig of the tropical cocktail.

“I know how silly it sounds,” she said, swirling the drink around in her glass. “But that’s pretty much it. It was just spontaneous. I had a shitty day and it was something I needed to do.” She shrugged.

The woman’s eyes locked back onto her, as black and intense as Turkish coffee.

After a moment, they both looked out the window. The wall of fog had swallowed the bay and the western flats of Berkeley and Oakland. The advancing line charged up the hill toward them, ghostly in the twilight. As they watched, it devoured house after house as it ascended the ridge. Finally, it breached the fence, swept across the garden, and broke over the house. Visibility instantly dropped from kilometers to a few meters. The window was nothing but a blank slate.

“Come with me,” said the woman. “I want to show you something.”

Lilly followed her around the island and into a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. A torn blouse lay abandoned on the hardwood floor. The woman opened a door and descended a dark stairway winding down deep below the house.

Lilly paused at the threshold.

 

 

 

15

 

 

 

LILLY STEPPED THROUGH THE DOOR
at the base of the stairs, and out into the dark space beyond. Her heart was pounding, and cold sweat had broken out all over her body. She couldn’t see much, but her footsteps echoed on the polished wood. What the hell was this? Had the woman saved her from Security only to imprison her in some twisted torture chamber? The space felt cathedral, not some cramped basement.

But what was she going to do, just stay upstairs and wait alone in the hallway? Make a dash for the Land Rover? The woman would probably have just withdrawn her pass and had Security pick her up again. No. The only way forward was through.

The cocktail had helped her nerves, but she was still running on a slow burn of adrenaline. Whatever was down here, she wouldn’t be taken by surprise. Goddamn, she had been clueless. Situational awareness. Her Krav Maga instructor would tear her hair out when she heard what had happened. Lilly should have been paying attention to the world around her. She couldn’t afford to just lose herself in photography all the time.

A series of switches clicked and Lilly jumped. Big fluorescent lights snapped on high up on the ceiling. Really high up. The roof of the chamber was at least five times higher than a normal room. A whole house could have fit in here. Lilly turned her head from side to side to take in everything. What the fuck?

She was standing at the edge of a full-size basketball court.

The blond wood floor gleamed. Painted lines outlined the court’s dimensions. Two hoops with big glass backboards hung from metal trusses at each end, just like you’d see on the NBA feeds. Benches lined the sides of the court. Behind them, racks held dozens and dozens of basketballs. The walls of the space were covered in a single massive mural that appeared to illustrate the entire history of basketball. It was as if Diego Rivera had been commissioned by Michael Jordan. The mural was spectacularly colorful, and painted directly onto the cement walls, like graffiti.

Swish.

Lilly twitched and swung her head around just in time to see the woman sink another three-pointer. Basketballs were scattered around the floor around her. She shot with practiced ease, every part of the motion smooth and cohesive. The ball arced toward the basket.

Swish.

She ducked to the side, scooped up another ball off the floor, lined up, and shot again. This time, it bounded off the rim. The woman took three quick steps, caught the rebound, and fired it back. Off the backboard and into the basket.

Lilly watched in stunned silence. The woman fell into a rhythm. Recover a ball. Shoot. Recover. Shoot. Recover. Shoot. The soles of her shoes squeaked on the floor as she changed direction. The sounds of the cascading series of shots reverberated through the space. In an outlandish way, her outfit made more sense now. The baggy shorts, high-topped sneakers, and baggy T-shirt reconciled better with a basketball court than the manicured garden of a major estate. What was this place? Who built a basketball court underneath their house? They must be standing deep within the hill she had driven up only an hour earlier.

BOOK: Cumulus
12.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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