Merope, Maybe : 10 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 10 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


 

Thankfully, the rest of our trip passed without incident. Even so, Femke was thoroughly spooked by our brush with the law, and carefully stayed five miles below the speed limit. It was a quiet trip: neither of us felt in the mood to talk. In spite of my goofing and joking after the trooper drove away, I was quite shaken by the fact that we'd been pulled over. It was the first time I'd ever been locked in the back of a police cruiser, and the first time I've had to submit to a search. Although the trooper was friendly and kind afterward, the experience left me with a sense of powerlessness, vulnerability, and fear. We'd had a narrow escape: if it wasn't for Femke's sudden intuition about Stan's "presents" the two of us would have ended up behind bars. The police would impound Rowan's car, and he'd no doubt suffer some fallout as well.

Neither of us commented on the obvious fact that Stan had called in the anonymous tip, either from revenge or to put us in a state where he could "rescue" us. Who knows how far his corrupt tentacles could reach?

As the miles piled up behind us, I came to feel the same desire Femke expressed earlier: to put some miles between me and that place... and that man.

Femke once again surprised me by her navigational skills. Harmish isn't that big a town, but it has five exits off I-60, and she got off at the last one, the exit least familiar to me. She expertly negotiated the tight network of streets that brought us into the heart of Teteree, also known as "Old Harmish." I'd visited this part of town, but I clearly didn't know it half as well as Femke.

Here the streets are paved with cobblestones and lit by wrought-iron gas lamps. The entire neighborhood is a historic district; a throwback to the early 1800s. Streets are narrow. Buildings are constructed of brick and stone, packed densely side by side.

Femke threaded the car through an awkward corner into an alleyway that led to a parking garage, built before any of of the landmark restrictions were imposed.

We carried the duffel bag between us, each taking a handle. Femke's apartment was four blocks away, in an old brick row house. She lived on the boutique level, meaning her front door was a few steps down from the sidewalk, cut into the side of a short staircase that led upward to the building's real front door.

Not that I've known her very long, but until this moment, I hadn't given a thought to what Femke did, or does, for a living.

But... just let me say — that, as Anson, even at the peak of my earning power, a home in Teteree was decidedly out of my reach. A few years back, Cleo and I calculated that our combined incomes could give us a toehold in that neighborhood, but at the loss of our front and back yard, and more than half of our square footage. Worse still, the homeowners association fees for all the places we looked at would equal (or exceed!) our mortgage payments.

A place in Teteree is more than a status symbol: it's a luxury few can afford.

So, to see Femke, a woman in her twenties, here — it set me back on my heels.

"How big is this place?" I asked her.

"85 square meters," she answered. When I scratched my chin, not having any idea how to work out the equivalent, she grinned and added, "900 square feet."

"Okay," I said. "And do you mind if I ask what the rent is here?"

"Rent?" she asked, as if unfamiliar with the word. "My father *bought* this place for me."

"Oh! nice!" I exclaimed. (It was nice that her father bought her place — that's what I meant. I consoled myself by noticing that the apartment itself was fairly basic. It was okay. Everything was good, but nothing was showy or obviously expensive. In Teteree, what you pay for is location.)

"There is a second bedroom," she informed me. "You can stay for a while. I'll show you."

Femke gave me a quick tour of the place: her bedroom (which was dark and close to the front), the living room, the washer and drier, the kitchen...

She touched a laptop that sat on the dining table. "My computer," she announced. A yellow Post-It note read merope / changeme. "Courtesy of Rowan," she explained. "He set up an account for you. You can use this computer to look at your USB drive and do all your Merope research. Until you get your own computer, of course."

She pushed open the door to a small but well-appointed bathroom. "There is only one bathroom," she pointed out. "So, no dawdling."

Before she opened the final door, the door of the second bedroom, she informed me, "I warn you: this room is very small. Also, Rowan told me that he found a bed for you. So, no guarantees! Let's see how well he did." She pushed open the door, a tall door like the others, with five horizontal panes of white frosted glass, and revealed a camp bed: a sad metal thing, with a mattress about four inches thick. The bed's main feature was obvious at a glance: the two ends could be folded up to meet vertically in the middle, making it about the size of a bureau. Like a bureau on wheels: it could be rolled to a corner when it wasn't needed.

"Ah," was her only comment.

"It's fine," I declared. "I'm thankful to have someplace to stay."

"Okay," Femke replied, in a doubtful tone. "I have words for him."

The two envelopes that I'd left with Rowan lay on the bed: the one with the money and the other with the fake IDs.

"He was supposed to make you a set of keys," she observed. "Well, that is for later, then."

 


 

Femke dug into the duffel bag and put together an outfit for me: a pair of casual white sandals, denim shorts, and a sleeveless top in a color I want to call "mustard green": imagine the muddy yellow color of mustard, but green instead of yellow. That's the color I'm talking about.

We each took showers, dressed, fixed our hair, and — in the interest of time — she quickly did my makeup again. "Last time," she cautioned me. "From now on, your face is your job."

We drove Rowan's car downtown, to the City Hall area, and parked in the big underground garage. Femke drove around for a bit, even though there were plenty of open spaces. At last she gave a soft, grunted ha! and pulled into a narrow space between a dirty yellow car and a concrete wall. I had a little trouble squeezing out on my side, and was more than a little puzzled. What was so great about this parking space? It was nothing but inconvenient, as far as I could see.

When we got out of the car, Femke stood behind the yellow car next to ours and laid her hand on its trunk for a moment. When she lifted her hand, she left a perfectly clear handprint, five fingers splayed. She glanced at her palm, then showed it to me. Naturally, it was brown with dirt. Grinning, she clapped her hands against each other until the dirt was mainly gone. Then with her finger, she wrote on the trunk, MAAK ME SHOON.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Can't you tell?" she cackled. "It means CLEAN ME! Do you think the owner will get the message?"

"I would think so," I agreed, still more than a little bewildered by her antics. Grinning, she took a few steps back, away from the car, and pointed to its dusty license plate.

"Nebraska," I read. And a bumper sticker: "We Don't Coast." I frowned, not understanding. Then a light came on in my head. "Oh! Is this *my* car?"

"Yes it is!" Femke exclaimed, laughing and clapping her hands. "And please: your first job as owner is to wash your car. Wash it, before you bring it anywhere near my house!"

As we walked toward the elevator exit, she took a handy wipe from her bag and used it to clean her hand. "You would think that Rowan would have felt the need to drive through a car wash. A simple thing, but no. He doesn't do it with his own car, as you can see. Well! You know how men are! You will also find it low on gas, I have no doubt."

Somehow, in spite of her words and her tone, I felt sure that Femke was joking or teasing — and even expressing affection for Rowan, in her own way. In any case, it was good-natured. I had that feeling.

"By the way," Femke told me as she selected the button for ground level, "We won't talk about Stan during this lunch of ours. Or any of the unpleasantness at the center. We can save all that for later, as a private matter, and enjoy our lunch together now. Okay?"

 


 

In case you haven't guessed, we were meeting Rowan for lunch. Rowan and his partner, Javier. Today they were both required to testify in a criminal case being argued in Municipal Court. The court building, like several other official buildings, were decoratively clustered around City Hall Square Park, a lovely little park with an ungainly name.

Rowan told Femke to meet by the fountain — he meant the newer fountain, the cooler fountain. The old fountain, which was almost as old as Harmish itself, is a sprawling, ugly affair: three concrete bowls, each with a heavy-handed floral design. The smallest was uppermost, spilling into the middle one; the middle spilling into the massive, bottom one. On a hot day, people will dangle their feet in the water, or even wade into the lower pool, but it has to be a REALLY hot day; even then, you won't see any children in there. The fountain is that uninviting. It gives off a weird vibe, as though it was built from pieces of an atomic bunker, or carried from the bottom of a gloomy lead mine. The benches that surround it are nearly always empty. Or if not empty, they're occupied by sad, silent people.

The smaller fountain, the newer fountain, on the other hand, is always crowded, surrounded by people. It's affectionately nicknamed the Shower, and you'll quickly understand why. There's a thick circular band set ten feet up, atop four pillars; all formed of brass and thick white glass, lit from within. The band is equipped with nozzles that send thin jets up and in toward the middle, forming a dome of water that falls into the vertical center of the four pillars. The ground is paved with gray, brick-sized stones, set atop a grill to receive and drain off the falling water.

There's no puddle. There's no spray. It's all life and fun and positive ions.

I've seen many small children play in the Shower, but I've never seen anyone, child or adult, walk into it by accident, even though it's placed in a spot where four paths intersect.

The paths are lined with benches, and the benches are most crowded near the fountain.

One of the paths, the one that connects the parking-garage elevator to the fountain, is the longest and the widest. It's a smooth arc. When we emerged from the underground, we immediately spotted Rowan and Javier in the distance, before they saw us. The pair were easy to pick out, pressed and dressed as they were: neat as a pin, clean as a whistle, wearing their blue patrol uniforms. I'd never met (or even heard of) Javier before, but I was struck by how closely he resembled Rowan. Their builds were nearly identical: the same spare, muscular frames, the narrow hips and shoulders, the feral-looking head. Of course, their faces were their own, and Javier had a fuller, thicker head of hair. Javier also sported a moustache — which has long gone out of style. He'd be better off without it.

While we still a hundred feet away, both men spotted us. As Rowan raised his hand to wave a greeting, his face registered sudden surprise. He jumped half a step forward, and turned to look behind him. Javier also turned to look down, and right away began to laugh. He crouched to a squat, balancing on his toes.

Rowan turned his back to us, and the moment he did, we saw a large dark spot on the back and inside of his left thigh. It looked as though he'd wet his pants. He bent down, just as Javier had done.

A young woman, a teenager, her face all apologies and concern, came running up to the two policemen, and in an instant it all became clear.

A little barefoot girl stood between them. She obviously had spent a good long time in the fountain's spray, because the child was completely soaked: her face, her hair, her clothes. She looked to be about four years old: dark hair plastered against her little head, framing a cute, chubby, grinning face. In her hand was a small blue plastic cup.

"Oh, look at him!" Femke exclaimed, in a voice so heavy-laden with affection, it caught me off guard. It took me a few seconds to realize she meant Rowan, and not the little girl. I turned to look: Femke's face was full of tenderness and love. It glowed.

I blinked. By now, I'd come to see Femke as a woman with a hard shell; I expected her emotions to be hard as well — stern, nearly masculine. Yet here she was now, all softness and delight.

I'd never seen Rowan in uniform before, and I couldn't help but wonder whether he was dressed this way when Femke first fell for him. The uniform suited him; he suited the uniform. He and Javier might have stepped off the set of a buddy-cop TV series, they were perfectly dressed for the part.

Except of course for the big wet patch on Rowan's inner thigh.

Obviously, the little girl had filled her cup from the falling water and tossed it on Rowan's backside. She giggled, not at all shy. No trace of remorse. Her babysitter, a skinny, exasperated teenager, was clearly frightened by the two policemen. One apology after another came tumbling out of her.

Javier, smiling, did his best to console her, while Rowan, with mock severity, wagged his finger at the laughing child. At last, they broke away and turned to greet us.

"I tried to tell the girl to splash a cup of water on Javier's pants as well," Rowan joked. "But she wouldn't."

"That would be a great look for the courtroom," Javier returned.

"Oh, have you testified yet?" I asked. "I'm Merope, by the way."

"Yeah, I figured," Javier replied, with a ready smile. "I'm Javier. Rowan's partner."

"Yeah, I figured," I laughed, echoing his phrase.

At the same time, Femke, all tentative and doe-like, stood near to Rowan, face to face, her fingers, half-uncertain, seeking to rest on his shoulders.

Confused by her soft, intimate emotions, Rowan gave her an encouraging, but puzzled, smile and opened his arms to her, like a big question. She rushed into him, burying her head in his shoulder, seeming to want to burrow inside of him. Rowan held her close with one arm. His eyes bounced between Javier and me.

While he murmured near-silent things in Femke's ear, Rowan fished in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. Without letting go of Femke, he handed the keys to Javier and, eyes on Javier, nodded toward me. Javier nodded back and mimed a series of gestures that began by pointing behind himself with his thumb, and ended by holding and eating an invisible sandwich. There were some other gestures in-between: pointing at me, unlocking a door, driving a car. Rowan nodded as if the gestures covered everything, and was about to shuffle with Femke to an area with less traffic, when Javier stopped him by holding up his hand and tapping the face of his watch. Rowan nodded again.

"Let's go," Javier said to me in a quiet voice.

"What was all that?" I asked him, once we were out of earshot.

Javier gave me a surprised look, as though the meaning of the entire mime was obvious and plain. "He gave me these keys for you. Here—" He put a pair of keys in my hand "—one of them is for Femke's place, and the other is for your car. Did you know you have a car?"

"Yes, Femke parked next to it, in the garage downstairs. It's filthy."

Javier laughed. "Yes, he's been driving that thing the past few days. I tried to get him to take it through a car wash, but he always claimed to be too busy. I was embarrassed to be seen in it — no offense!"

"None taken."

"Oh, and another of Rowan's endearing habits: you're — you'll need to put some gas in it, first thing."

I laughed.

"Okay. The other key is for Femke's apartment. I guess you're staying there? Do you know where she lives?"

"Yes and yes. I'll be staying for a little while at least." I thought about the remaining gestures. "And you told Rowan you'd pick up a sandwich for him?"

"Right." He laughed. "And I reminded him that we have to be back in court in an hour."

"So you haven't testified yet?"

"No, neither of us. God, I hope his pants dry before we go back. Otherwise we'll have to swap."

I grinned.

"You laugh," he told me with mock severity, "but if one of us shows up on the witness stand, looking as though we peed our pants, it won't end well."

"I guess not," I agreed. To make conversation I asked, "What's this case about?"

"Oh," he groaned. "It's... it's boring, believe me. We have to testify to the circumstances of someone's arrest—" He rolled his eyes and waved his hands. "It's tedious, believe me." Then, at a sudden thought, he straightened up. "Hey, uh -- you've spent some time with Femke, right?"

"Some, yeah. Why?"

"What's up with her... I admit, I don't know her well, but I have never seen her... hang on Rowan like that. Public affection never seemed her style. Very stoic and stern, usually. Now she's all kittenish and soft..." He shrugged, and his expression said, What gives?

"Oh..." I hesitated. "I think she needs some... reassurance and, I guess, comfort. The trip to the processing center was not really a very good experience."

He showed concern. "Sometime happened to her up there?"

"Um, yes."

"To you as well?"

"No, I was just bored and confused."

"So... what's the story? What happened?"

"Yeah, uh," I temporized. "Hey, Javier, where are we going right now?"

"Oh, sorry! In the interest of time we have to grab some sandwiches. I hope that's okay with you. If we weren't needed in court we could have driven down to where the food trucks park and had ourselves a real lunch."

"No, that's fine," I told him, but I sighed, disappointed. I couldn't help it. I was really hoping to talk with Rowan.

Hearing my heavy exhalation, Javier gave me a look of concern. "I'm sorry — do you not want a sandwich? They have some nice salads there, too, I think."

"Oh, it's not that," I told him.

"You're sorry you got stuck with me?" he teased.

"No, it isn't that, either. I need to talk with Rowan. I have... questions." I heaved another sigh, but this one full of resignation. "I shouldn't complain: Femke's just been hanging around for days, on my account. She deserves some time with Rowan, especially after what happened."

"What *did* happen?" Javier queried. "I mean, I've heard Rowan on the phone with Femke when you two were up there. I'm getting the impression that something... untoward... went down at the processing center?"

"Oh!" I exclaimed, catching myself. "Yes, the processing center... Well, it's a weird place with... weird people. Some of them are not so nice... but it's not really my story to tell."

"Uh-huh," Javier said. "Well, you know, those places are getting phased out anyway, but if something bad *has* happened, you can file a complaint. I mean, I don't want to guess, but if a crime was committed, it ought to be reported."

"I don't know... I need to think about it... I need to talk with Femke."

"I'm serious," he insisted. "Crimes should be reported. And remember: You can always talk to Rowan... or to me. I'd be — we'd be — happy to help."

I nodded my thanks and followed him into the sandwich shop.

 


 

When we returned to the fountain, Femke and Rowan were nowhere to be seen, so the two of us sat on a bench and ate our sandwiches. Javier prompted me, "So... you said you have questions. Is there a chance that I might have the answers? I spend all day with Rowan, you know. We do talk about stuff."

"Okay, um..." I took a deep breath. "So... I don't know how much you know... how much Rowan told you about me..."

"That you've been switched?" he offered. "Yeah, he told me. I helped him find the old you... Anson Charpont."

"Right! So you know about that?"

Javier nodded, his mouth full of food.

"Then... can you tell me where the hell is he? and why did it take so long for him to show up? And uh — how did you get the key to my car? Is that some secret police thing?"

He laughed. "No, the car key wasn't a police thing at all. It was actually Femke. When Rowan told her where your car was ticketed, Femke immediately went to have a look. The key was in the ignition, and the rear passenger door was unlocked. She just got in and drove away."

"That's kind of weird and convenient," I said.

"Convenient?"

"Convenient for me," I explained. "Why would Merope — the real Merope — leave her car that way?"

He shook his head and blew out a quick breath. "Any number of reasons! It could have been a mistake on her part... simple inattention. Maybe she was in a hurry, or got distracted. Maybe she didn't realize she'd left the back door unlocked. Maybe she only thought she locked her keys inside. You know? And then, before she could do anything about it, she ran into the Switcher."

"Maybe," I conceded, doubtfully.

Another possibility occurred to him: "Or... this might be a little far-fetched, but she might have hoped it would get stolen."

"Why would she do that?"

"I don't know. Maybe she wanted to disappear. You know, Rowan has this theory about Merope — that she came to town to make a new start, to leave her old life behind. Maybe getting rid of her car was part of that."

"That's pretty extreme," I objected. "She could have sold it. She could have given it to someone. Even if she walked away from it, it's still in her name. Still a liability."

"I don't know," Javier admitted. "Maybe she's like Rowan, and she just got fed up with having to wash it."

We both laughed.

"Anyway, if a person wants to disappear, the best way to do it is to simply walk away. In a random moment, just go. Leave your wallet, leave your clothes, leave everything."

"What sense does that make?"

"If you take your basic documents, your money, your suitcase, then it's obvious that you're on the run. If you leave it all behind, it creates a question: Did someone else take you? Are you even alive?"

I thought about it for a moment, but it still didn't add up for me. "I can't imagine doing that. It leaves you with nothing. Not even your identity." I scratched my eyebrow and thought.

"Okay," I said. "Well, anyway — that's the car key. That's one question answered. My other big question is about my old body. I want to know why Anson Charpont took so long to show up."

Javier smiled. "That's the funny thing. He didn't! He showed up right away! Or at least, as soon as he could. He was registered as a Switcher victim on Saturday morning."

"So was I!" I exclaimed. "But no one at the processing center heard of him. No one!" I stopped for a moment — something floated up in my memory. "And you know what else? They called Cleo — I mean, the processing center did. Cleo is my — is Anson's wife. They called and left a message. Or at least they pretended to."

"No, they really did call her, and she called back! For a couple of hours, there were a lot of crossed wires." He balled up his sandwich wrapper and brushed some crumbs from his moustache. "They called her to ask whether Anson was in a Switcher incident. She called back and asked, Shouldn't you be telling me? You see, all she knew was that you hadn't come home that night. She phoned the hospital — Harmish Memorial — gave your description, and found Anson right away."

"Why was he in the hospital?"

"He got mugged."

"Mugged? By the Switcher?"

"No. Let me walk you through it. You got switched after lunch on Friday, and twisted your ankle just before it happened. At the same time, you got some other injuries, including an ugly scrape on your face. Am I right so far?"

"How is that relevant?" I asked, interrupting.

"Just let me tell it, okay? The Switcher, as Anson, limped off, but he didn't switch right away. He sort of disappears for a couple of hours, and during that time he picks up a briefcase — he didn't have a briefcase when you saw him, right?"

"Right."

"So he sits on a bench in Fulton Park. He takes off his shoe and he's massaging his foot. There's a yoga class in the park, and he sits there watching. The teacher is a young guy, early thirties, name of Mukti Endecott. First name used to be John, but 'Mukti' sounds more yoga-teacher, right? Anyway, class is over, and Mukti — nice guy that he is, walks over to the Switcher and offers to help him with his ankle. He touches Anson's ankle, and boom! now he's Anson, and stuck with the bad ankle himself. The Switcher, now that he's young, fit, and good-looking, grabs his briefcase, and runs off laughing."

I scratched my head. The idea that someone else was running around in my old body made me uncomfortable, and now, knowing that a young, fit person had taken my place as an overweight retiree, was an additional load of guilt. "Have you met this man?" I asked. "Have you spoken with him?"

"Oh, yeah. Nice guy! I met him in the hospital."

"Why was he in the hospital?"

"I told you — He got mugged! See, Mukti's a quiet, thoughtful guy, so he sat on the bench for a while, taking stock, trying to make sense out of what happened to him. He understood that he'd been switched. If he had his phone with him, he would have called the processing center, but he couldn't. He tried walking, to find some help or a phone, but the walking was somewhat painful. So he set to work on his ankle, massaging it, trying to un-twist it... and doing some... yoga things to it. I don't know.

"He'd walk a little bit, stop a little bit, work on his ankle a little bit... Lather, rinse, repeat... Soon it got late and soon it got dark. Some kids spotted him, sitting alone on a park bench, ugly scrape on his face, his clothes torn and bloody, he's holding one shoe in his hand, and they figured he was homeless or helpless or whatever, so they took his wallet, his watch, his keys. He tried to fight them off, but he didn't have a chance."

He paused for a moment, then: "A dogwalker found him next morning, Saturday morning, lying in the bushes. They really beat the living shit out of him. So, he gets taken to the emergency room. Cleo — after the call from the processing center, she calls the hospital. They tell her he's there, she rushes over, and she identifies him."

"Identifies him!" I repeated, astonished. "As what — I mean, as who?"

"Well, she figures for the sake of insurance—"

"Insurance!?" I repeated. "Wait — have you spoken to Cleo? You got this from Cleo?"

"Um, yeah. Me and Rowan. We actually gave them a ride home."

"Them?" I repeated loudly, unbelieving. Then I shouted, "A ride home?"

Javier, a little taken aback by my reaction, gave a few quick tugs to the end of his moustache, and glanced at his watch. "Um, yeah. Listen, though: look at the time. We have to find Rowan. The two of us have to get back to court. We can't be late. I'm sorry, but -- here, get up. Come on."

He stood up and reached down for my arm. I sat there, thunderstruck, speechless, gaping.

"Come on," Javier repeated, with some urgency. "I'm sorry, but I can't be late. Anyway, that's basically the whole story." When I didn't respond, he gently took my arm, lifting me to my feet and leading me beside him. I followed empty-headed, shocked, zombie-like.

"Listen, Merope: probably your best next step would be to call Cleo. Find out what's what, fill in the gaps in the story, okay? Anyway, to answer your question, Anson was reported as a Switcher victim some time before noon, Saturday morning. See, the whole switcher-victim-processing thing is being decentralized. You really didn't need to drive all that way up north, but Rowan didn't know. All this decentralizing stuff is very new. Now there's training... there are people at hospitals, fire stations... police stations will be next... you know, people who can register Switcher victims. Those big processing centers are going to get phased out. They're a big waste of money."

"But..." I tried to focus on the topic at hand, I needed answers, even though my mind was utterly blown by the idea of Cloe taking the new Anson home. "But how long does it take before the hospital registers... uh, the uh... until they do the synchronization, right? Does it take days?"

"No, it's actually instantaneous. Real time. Or near real-time, whatever that means. Funny thing, though: the regional center rejected Anson's registration. Some kind of mistake, obviously. Hours later, end of shift, the hospital official noticed the rejection and resubmitted it. Next morning when she came in she saw it got rejected again." Javier shrugged. "You know — new things, new systems, they have to work out the kinks."

"No," I countered savagely. "It wasn't a kink. It was that fucking Stan."

"Stan?" Javier asked, alarmed. "Who is Stan?"

At this point, we saw Rowan and Femke approaching, his arm wrapped tightly around her. Femke was still in her affectionate mood, or affectionate reaction. She clung to Rowan like ivy. Silently, I swore: Goddamn Stan!

I pulled close to Javier, so as not to be overheard. "Stan is an asshole at the processing center. He's the... what do you call it? He's the facilities manager, and he's a crook of the highest order."

Javier stared at me, blinking. Rowan, grinning, looked from Javier to me and back again. He must have thought we were getting along well.

"Javier, hey man! We have to get back to court tout de suite. But good news: I called the station, and one of the rookies is going to bring over a pair of pants in my size!"

"Ah, heh, good news," Javier managed to respond. He turned quickly to me, grabbed my arm, and in an urgent whisper said, "If something is wrong up there, we should file a complaint."

"Just wait," I told him. "For now, just wait."



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