I make it a rule to always leave the client’s house in the darkest part of the morning, the half hour before dawn, when the night’s at its thickest and the Agency officers are at their slowest. This is the time of day I fear the most, out of all the hours in the day that pass me by like flies crawling in front of my face. The Client, a man whom I only know as Joseph – none of us uses last names in this business – nods impatiently at all the rules as I set them down; he’s done this many times before, and not always with me. To my relief, he behaves himself, wrapping his arms around me and contentedly sighing every few moments, not attempting anything more intrusive than those chaste embraces.
Within a half hour, I can tell by his regular breathing that he’s fallen asleep. I never sleep when I’m with a Client. Insomnia is a lifetime’s curse without a night’s reprieve, even though it’s precisely what makes me so good at what I do. I slip away from the bed, find the armchair in the room and sink down in it. I match my breathing to mimic Joseph’s as he shifts from left to right and back again. Normally I don’t think, or daydream; I just sit there waiting for morning, knowing that the slightest tension in my body would be enough to wake him from his slumber. I don’t want that.
But towards the early morning, when the alarm on my wrist begins to glow, and I come close for a last embrace, Joseph tightens his arms around me again.
Although it’s not allowed, sometimes I bend the rules and allow a Client a moment or two of comfort before extricating myself gracefully and heading for the door. Lin always tells us to be wary about who plays by the rules and who pushes the boundaries. Joseph’s expensive watch on the nightstand, his plush bedroom slippers by the door, the black silk sheets on the bed, and the low glowing lights sunk into recesses at regular intervals across the floor, making a chiaroscuro of the ceiling, all tell me that this is a man to push boundaries wherever he can.
“Joseph, I’ve had a lovely time with you. But now I have to leave.” I turn around to smile at him, the smile that manages to smooth things over with anyone. I’ve spent hours staring into the mirror, perfecting that smile. It doesn’t come naturally.
Joseph raises himself up on one arm. His body was once powerful but now it’s on its way to fast decline: heavy, untoned shoulders, a neck that wrinkles and crepes around his throat, white hairs outnumbering the black ones still dotting his chest. “Stay. I can afford to keep you all day if that’s what you want.”
I grimace, my back to him. “I’m sorry, Joseph. The rules are the rules. I have to be out of here before dawn.”
“You know why,” I say, momentarily nonplussed. We all know what’s at stake if we’re caught: the Agency has made sure to publicise all crimes well in the Flashes on the display, the Bulletins, even through door-to-door visits, something almost unheard of in this time where almost everything is done remotely and anonymously. All the more ominous when an Agency car is parked outside someone’s house and two officers, with their immaculate uniforms and unreadable faces, are educating someone inside about the repercussions of associating with illegals like me.
Joseph rests his hand lightly on my forearm. “I know people. Nothing is going to happen to you or me. If you knew who I am – “
“It’s too dangerous for me to know who you are. Or for me to stay any longer than necessary. Now would you please let me get dressed?”
Joseph sighs. But he doesn’t give up. He follows me to the bathroom, standing in the doorway, turning his head away as I coat my skin in gold silicon powder, then put on my clothes. He studies my face as I cover my body with as much cloth in as little time as possible. He follows me to the door of his apartment, his forefinger lingering on the security button, circling it, taunting me with his nonchalance. “Are you sure you’re not going to change your mind?”
The sun’s starting to rise, the sky shifting from black to smoky grey. In a few more minutes the blanket of night will start to lift from the horizon and the next Agency patrol will be on the street. Our cars are programmed to keep a two-hundred-yard distance from the patrols, and to abort the pickup if a patrol is on the same street as a Client’s house. My car will simply never arrive. Stranded, I’ll be spotted and my presence immediately messaged to the officers. I’ll be arrested and taken in and my life, as I know it, will be over.
“Joseph, let me go. Please.”
My fear is an animal I can’t hide – I’ve never been able to completely control my expressions – but for some reason my vulnerability assuages something in Joseph.
“All right. But keep a night free for me sometime next week.”
I nod, wishing I never had to see Joseph again. His eyes search mine for some sign of disappointment that I have to leave. My gaze is fixed steady on him, and his finger depresses the security button. The door slides open silently. I step out, exchanging the calculated danger of his apartment, and the greed that furnishes it, for the open territory of the illegal and the hunted.
I move down the stairs, pause, then creep to the doorway of the luxury apartment building where Joseph lives. My footsteps echo like gunshots in the giant marble-floored hall.
The robotic doorman hums quietly at the left of the entrance. It’s just a computerised desk, where residents punch in for security and to collect messages, or to leave their own messages to complain about a malfunctioning cooling unit or request an extra display to be installed in the second bedroom, but Joseph likes to pretend it’s human, and makes fun of it for being stupid.
I’m grateful for the desk’s stupidity. The gold powder that I’m coated in will prevent the security systems from picking up my DNA on the scanners. The video camera won’t get activated and I can’t be identified as I walk into or out of any building in Green City.
As for the other humans: most of the residents are asleep this early in the day. If anyone does see me, they’ll keep their head down and pretend they can’t see me either, like the doorman. No matter how many good-citizenship sessions they attend, now matter how much of the Handbook they’ve memorised, nobody really wants to report me – the filling out of voluminous forms, the interrogations; it’s just not worth the trouble.
My eyes scan the road for the unmarked car, and with a spasm of horror I see a dark blue Agency car with hologram plates sliding down the street toward the building. My heart starts to pound. I pull my head back in. For a moment I’m afraid I’m going to lose all sense of reality. I tremble as I stand in the doorway, counting slowly backward from a hundred.
The Agency car stops directly opposite Joseph’s building. I flatten myself against the wall as the two officers emerge and stand at the side of the road. I’m ready to run back to Joseph’s apartment and beg for his protection. My own car will have sensed the Agency car and gone straight back to the Panah. My only hope is Joseph’s generosity.
If the officers come into the building, they’ll easily see me from across the hall with its cavernous ceiling and absence of greenery; the large hall is as open as an airplane hangar.
I might be able to duck down behind the doorman and crouch into the space beneath the counter. If they only glance into the hallway to look for suspicious activity, there’s a chance they won’t catch me. They might be tired, their senses and instincts not working at their best. They will conduct only a perfunctory search, and I can hide, then signal for a new pickup from a different location.
My body lowers, instinctively assuming the stance of a sprinter. I’m a good short-distance runner, but I lack the stamina to go long distances. A sudden burst of energy is all I need now to get under the desk. In my peripheral vision I can see the officers kneeling down, examining the ground for traces of something. I hate the very sight of them, their close-cropped heads and their authoritative, well-developed shoulders. Why have they sent Officers to do what a security squad could take care of? Where’s their electronic equipment, the sniffer bots, the handheld scanners that can trace a drop of blood in a ton of dust?
One of the officers shouts out to the other, and reaches out in front of him to pick up something small that glints and sparkles in the morning sun. I realise that this is no murder investigation. It’s not even a sweep for illegals. The officers don’t look like they are on active Agency duty. They’ve spotted something valuable that someone dropped as they walked by – a gemstone, perhaps, or a currency stick. They’re not exercising their official powers. It’s good old-fashioned greed that’s made them stop, get out of their car, and acquire the trinket to keep it for themselves. I almost laugh out loud in relief.
They get back in their car and drive away. I bend over, trying to regain my calm. My mouth tastes bitter and I reach into my purse for a mint strip that contains a small calming agent embedded in the freshness crystals. My skyrocketing pulse immediately comes back down to earth. As I stand up, the unmarked black car sweeps in to pause in front of the building.
The Panah is waiting for me.
Excerpted with permission from Before She Sleeps: A Novel, Bina Shah, Macmillan.