Friday, October 25, 2013

Smoker's Heaven

Smoker's Heaven
Bobby Derie

Intelligence buildings, despite their security and the careful thought that goes into the control of people and information within them, are living spaces. New walls go up and old ones come down; massive offices sectioned off by cubicles, closets repurposed, elevators put in to conform to new safety regulations for the disabled, annexes and extensions added on. Over the long years - for it is far easier to expand a current building than to decommission it and build a new one - they attain their own character, the accumulation of all the strange twists of architecture that have eroded and redefined the internal geography of the structure. Intelligence people live in those strange spaces, and know their paths as intimately as any native tribesman.

So it was that if you went down a certain corridor where the doors to dead offices had been walled off years ago, you came to a little door set in the wall that was never locked, but only secured by a little chain and rod. The door and the chain and rod were painted a pale institutional brown, and where the paint peeled and faded it revealed stratum of white and green from earlier ages in the building's history, and where it had worn away beyond that were dark red splotches of rust. Every hour or so a soul would find their way down that useless hallway, and open that door, probably to shiver at the sudden blast of fresh air, and step through.

It was a roof, though few had the clearance to know exactly what it was the roof of, and any utilities located up there had long since been re-routed. On all sides rose dark brick and concrete walls - the New Annex, now sixty years old on the left; and the high-ceilinged warehouse opposite the door; and on the right the solid mass where the executive conference rooms were. There were no windows anywhere, no safety and health signs. From an administrative viewpoint, the place did not exist; even the engineers would have difficulty pinpointing it on the building plans, provided they had the clearance to access them all and the wherewithal to look behind the iron filing cabinets where the originals had fallen twenty years ago. In the corners, the mounds of cigarette butts rose up almost to people's knees.

There was a quiet camaraderie between those who shared that space, the kind shared when they came back in after a quick puff to find somebody else waiting impatiently to go out, or a shared huddle over a tiny flickering match in the winter when the snow covered the mounds of old tobacco papers, even the still coexistence that came from two or more people standing outside and taking the smoke into their lungs while giving each other space, not acknowledging their presence or even looking in their eyes. It was such a silent conspiracy, however, that it always came as a bit of a surprise to nip out and find someone else. There was always a pause as they regarded each other, if they had not met out there before, a judging glance that often ended with a polite nod or a shift of the eyes.

It was something like this that Stephens felt when he came out, that frosty Friday morning, lungs aching in the cold air. Off the patch for three days and he still had the shakes; a quick coffin nail to keep the edge off was all he needed, and what he got instead was a body lying in the snow.

His first instinct was not to raise an alarm, or to check a pulse, but to take in the scene. A light snow had fallen in the early morning, and there were no tracks in it, so the murder had taken place the night before. The body was still and slightly blue, and there was a gaping bloody hole in the trousers; from the doorway Stephens could just make out the great pool of half-frozen blood that had spread out beneath him, and in one corner was a rather forlorn and deflated looking cock and balls that he assumed belonged to the deceased. Taking all this in with a glance, Stephens pressed himself against the wall - a slight overhang on the roof above the door kept the snow clear right next to it - and made quick work of his cigarette, sucking it down in three puffs, catching the ash and butt in his pocket. Satiated, he carefully rubbed the door handles down with his sleeve and returned to work.

Stephens was the first to discover the body, but far from the last. There was a distracted air in the office that day, a quiet tension as of a disparate group of intelligent men and women working silently on a mutual problem, each alone to their individual thoughts and devices. No one stayed long outside the door that morning, but empty cubicles were eyed carefully by several people, and attendance boards checked to see whether the people they belonged to were on sick leave, holiday, or temporary duty.

Carter arrived early the next morning, an hour before his normal shift, and mumbled something about traffic and flextime to the few fresh-faced coworkers as he excused himself for the bathroom. He found McEvins frozen over the body, having just finished cutting the clothes off with a pair of office scissors. They both wore gloves. Carter felt a momentary recognition as their eyes met, the same gaze they had shared when they had first met out here three years ago, on a blistering summer day. McEvins smoked thin cigarillos, he knew, and carried a box of wooden matches he didn't mind sharing. Without a word, Carter stepped into the snow and grabbed the dead man's ankles. McEvins grabbed the shoulders, and together they hauled the corpse over to the roof drain. Still not talking, Carter produced a letter opener and stabbed a few holes in the body, letting the fluids leak out.

They peeled off their gloves and had a quick smoke, McEvins sharing a match with Carter, then left it as it was.

Stephens came back after lunch, with a garbage bag. He found the snow had been swept into the corners, eliminating any tracks, and the body itself was concealed beneath the mounds of cigarette butts, which had been arranged to cover it. Stephens took a few deep drags and looked at the stain in the middle of the roof. Coming to a decision, he stretched his hand through the garbage bag and picked up the cock and balls, then rolled it over them and tied it tight. Back through the door, he found the nearest trashcan nearly overflowing; threw the bag in, and hauled the whole thing to the dumpster outside.

It was to be a long winter, and at lunch people surfed the internet, checking on rates of decomposition, science experiments on how to dissolve steak and teeth in acid, household odor eliminators. The clothes were already gone, though a "lost" wallet, car keys, wedding ring, and watch would find their way to security by the end of the day. In the parking lot, a Hyundai was gathering a drift of uncleared snow about it. The AWOL announcement came through a mass email; the plain-clothes detective with the visitor's badge clipped to his shirt arrived to toss his cubicle a couple days later.

Office life continued. The car was towed. A middle manager collected his things in a shoe box, IT hauled away the computers; the missing man's coworkers had already raided his better office supplies, leaving a drawer of bent clips, faded markers, and empty pens.

Come spring, Thompson was sucking on her Virginia slim while Clarkson bummed a clove cigarette off of Juanez. When they were done, they carefully deposited their butts on the pile, causing a small avalanche that exposed one mummified eye socket. Without a word, Clarkson moved forward with a brush of her hand to cover it up again.


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