Chapter 36 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

A few weeks fluttered past. One morning in late September, the Four stepped briskly onto a brown line subway train, headed for the Mayor's office. They had received an official summons and were dutifully reporting, as ordered.

The Mayor lived in a marble mansion downtown, in the heart of the City. This region, once a decrepit, ruined monument to the haphazard, random design of cities of the past, had been completely reborn under the Mayor's careful hand. The small, narrow streets and sad old buildings had all been swept clean away, and modern, well-planned, futuristic towers had been built to replace them.

The Mayor was immensely popular. He had been elected many years ago and had always been re-elected.

His Plan, undertaken years ago, was bold and innovative. The entire downtown area was, one piece at a time, evacuated, demolished, and rebuilt. The small, worn-out old buildings and the tiny, narrow, traffic-clogged streets were all destroyed. In their place sprouted a true City of the Future. Homes, offices, shops, government agencies, mass transportation, and public parks were all combined and intertwined in the new City.

You could take an elevator from your apartment in a towering condominium down to the subway, ride the train across town to your job, work in a sunny office, and return home via the supermarket, all without ever once stepping outside. The towering office and apartment buildings were linked together by a vast underground system of shops and subways. And when you did go outside, you entered a land of beautifully landscaped parks and lush gardens. No roads penetrated the downtown area at all, and in much of the outlying regions, cars were only permitted by special pass. Everyone relied completely on the complicated, comprehensive mass transit system.

Since trucks were not permitted in the downtown sector, an additional network of subways had been built to provide shipping of goods into and out of the center of the City. These "freight subways" rumbled back and forth, very deep below the surface of the earth, bringing cargo in from depots on the outskirts of the City that could be reached by truck. Large freight elevators brought the shipments up to the surface from the freight subway stations deep underground.

The freight subways did not overlap with the normal subways at all, and few people other than employees ever saw them. Everyone knew they existed, of course, and those who lived and worked downtown relied on the freight subways for everything-but they never saw them, which was just as well. The freight subways were darker, mustier, and far more utilitarian than the normal subways. The station's didn't even have names, they were simply numbered. However, the people who drove the freight subways did have names for the stations, names like "The Abyss," "Hell's Crossover," and "The Armpit".

The Mayor's mansion was the only building of the original downtown area to survive the Plan. It had originally been a library, with a marble facade resembling the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome. The insides had been gutted and remodeled to serve as the offices of the City government as well as the Mayor's private residence.

The Four had not been told why they were being called before the Mayor. Ever since the previous evening, when the courier had delivered the summons, they had been speculating about it.

"I just can't think of anything the Mayor could want with us," said Peter.

"Maybe it isn't the Mayor Himself," said Paul. "It could just be the Mayor's Office. That could be almost any branch of the City government."

"No, no," said Peter. "The thing said that the Mayor wanted to see us. Not So-and-so, in the Mayor's Office. It said The Mayor."

"Well, look," said Dave, "it obviously means one of two things. Either we are in trouble, or we did something good and we're going to be thanked. The only question is, which? Now, do you guys remember doing anything good?"

Silence fell upon the Four.

"Me neither. But it doesn't make sense that we'd be called before the Mayor if we were in trouble. We'd just be arrested, right? This is like going to the Principal's office in grade school. But it doesn't make sense. In real life, there is no Principal."

"Then it must be something good," ventured Bert. "Maybe he wants to give us the Key to the City."

"For what?" scoffed Dave. "What could we have done? It just doesn't make sense."

The others had no response to this, and so the conversation lapsed into silence. The Four leaned back against the subway train benches and let their minds wanders.

Bert looked at the other people on the train. It was relatively crowded, though not as jammed as it must have been an hour earlier. A woman across the isle from Bert was reading a newspaper, and the headline caught his eye. The paper was the Weekly World News, and the headline proclaimed in big bold letters, "ELDERLY COUPLE DIES OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION WHILE WATCHING TELEVISION." Bert rolled his eyes.

At seven minutes before ten, the subway arrived at the Government Square station, and The Four disembarked. The escalators took them right to City Hall's main entrance. Their appointment was at ten, but it was a quarter after ten by the time they finished wading through the thick layers of security paperwork.

They sat in the outer lobby of the Mayor's office, each wearing an ID badge. Up until that point, they had been casual and unconcerned about the whole thing. But once they were actually sitting in the waiting room, they began to worry. They each fretted in silence, and the minutes dragged by. Finally, at 10:45, the door opened and an attractive blonde secretary said "The Mayor will see you now."

The Four filed silently into the Mayor's office and sat down in the row of chairs arranged before his desk. The Mayor sat reading some papers, and did not look up at the Four until almost a minute after they had gone in. He was bald, somewhat overweight, and quite old. But he nevertheless seemed friendly.

"Ah," he said, noticing the Four and standing up. He leaned forward over his big desk and shook each of their hands. "Hello."

The Four murmured various greetings. They were nervous, but they were also cool. Outwardly, they all seemed calm and relaxed.

The Mayor leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his broad stomach. "No doubt you are wondering why I've asked you to come here."

Three of The Four murmured affirmative statements. Dave simply nodded slowly.

"Well," said the Mayor, "It's like this. Now that the Plan is finished, I'm finding myself with time on my hands. In fact, I'm even thinking of retiring. So, I'm getting back into some of my hobbies. And one thing I really enjoy is a good game of Icehouse. However, I'm not particularly good at it, and I could use a few pointers. So I asked my staff to locate some experts, and, well, here you are. Now... what do you say?"

The Four felt a little bit flattered and more than a little bit relieved. They made a show of modest refusal, but then agreed. The Mayor removed a wooden box from his desk drawer and dumped Icehouse pieces out of it and onto his desk blotter. It was a very nice set, carved from various exotic types of wood: Purple Heart, a wood with a natural purple color, Mexican Rosewood, which had an attractive striped pattern, and also Red Cedar and Ebony. He and the Four thus spent the next several hours playing Icehouse, right there on the Mayor's desk. Every few minutes, his phone would ring, and his secretary would say, "I'm sorry, but the Mayor is in conference." The Four taught the Mayor various strategies, and also showed him some exercises he could do to improve his skill at handling the little pyramids. At around one o'clock, they sent out for pizza, and the Mayor picked up the tab.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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