Bones of the Founders
It was a dead city, street after street of brick buildings, windows boarded over, the tear tracks from their block letter names eroded to near invisibility. Stritmeyers, J.C. Ward & Co., Good Humor. A hot dog shop boasted a few cars parked outside. These were late model vehicles, well maintained. There was money somewhere in this burgh.
The traffic light turned red. Tom eased to a stop. A lemon yellow Volkswagen Beetle puttered through the intersection. He played some options through his head. Giant Eagle had signed on to anchor one end of his shopping center, but he was torn between Nordstrom and Target for the other. Computer projections suggested they go high end. The WalMart three miles out of town was already pulling the low end demographics. But he had a hunch. Something about this bricked-in downtown whispered Target to him, not Nordstrom.
A tap at his passenger window. Startled he glanced over. A young woman was standing impatiently. Her straight blond hair reminded him of his youngest daughter's, but her face was more round, her lips fuller. She motioned him to open the window.
Frowning, Tom buzzed the window down an inch. Her fingers immediately curled through the opening. Her eyes were blue sky under sunshine. Striking. You wanted to trust eyes like that.
"Let me in, okay?" She smiled. Her teeth were as straight as her hair, as bright as her eyes. He hadn't expected this particular demographic in the rundown neighborhood.
"Why?" he said. Cold air leaked in. He took his foot off the brake. The car drifted forward. She drifted with it. "You don't even know me."
"But I do," she said. "You're T.S. Zealous, the shopping mall king."
Did she have a gun? His first impulse was to hit the accelerator, but something held him back. He told himself he didn't want to rip the girl's fingers off. He told himself it was market research. Below his thoughts, he knew better. There was something between them, an energy, a spitting hydraulic of... not lust. Affection?
"I have to talk to you," she said.
He unlocked the passenger door and watched her get in. She wore black pants, a bright blue shirt under a nondescript jacket. That reminded him of the chill outside. He flipped the passenger seat heater to Warm.
She nodded toward the windshield. "Light's green, Mr. Zealous."
"Tom," he said automatically.
"Green light, Tom."
I hope so. He pressed the accelerator. His back compressed the contoured seat. Acceleration and exhilaration had always been closely linked for him. He glanced over, sensing the firmness of the girl's body, the rabid youth of her emotions. He wanted to place his hand on her pant leg, squeeze. Feel.
"So," he said. "How do you know me?" In profile, she had a strong nose, the tip rounded.
"Your license plate," she said.
Tom nodded. TZMALLZ 134 was pretty distinctive, but most people wouldn't know its meaning. One-hundred-thirty-four malls designed and constructed. Soon to be 135. He would need new plates.
"Are you an architectural student?" he said. There was a university branch near the city center.
"I was an artist." She gazed ahead.
"What are you now?" Tom said.
She laughed lightly. "Cindy."
"That's a pretty name," he said. "For a pretty girl." He wanted to call the words back. You didn't call girls pretty anymore, not since the 70's. Not since his first wife.
"Are you going to the Herald property?" she said.
"I was, yes." Tom negotiated a corner. "I have time for a coffee though."
"That's okay," Cindy said. "It's the Herald place I need to talk to you about."
Tom's mood shifted to wary. "What about it?"
"You purchased the property, right? You mean to turn it into a shopping mall."
"It's what I do," Tom said. "Let me guess. You're worried about cultural heritage. I assure you we'll do our best--"
"I'm concerned about the building."
"Oh." Now he did let his hand fall onto her thigh. Maybe he'd been wrong about their connection. If she was just another protestor he would drop her off at the next corner and be done with it. No harm in copping a feel first.
She did not seem to notice. He squeezed, feeling the thrill of taboo. Her body was nicely toned, the flesh delicious in the cup of his palm.
"What concerns you about the building?" he said.
"You have to keep it intact," she said.
Tom moved his hand higher. Much more and they'd be breaking laws. Still, she didn't react. Sighing, he pulled his fingers back to the wheel.
"It's structurally unsound," he said. "We plan to use some of the bricks in the façade, however. It will be tasteful, you'll see."
"Keep the building," she said.
"It's the heart. Destroy it and you destroy the city."
Tom lifted his foot off the accelerator. The car slowed. "The project's been approved by the planning commission," he said. "It's a done deal."
"I have another idea for you to consider," Cindy said. She reached over and touched the back of his hand. Tom felt hot and cold in the same instant.
They stood outside a wrought iron gate. One side leaned from its broken hinges, the other rusted in place. There was barely enough room to squeeze through. A sign arced above. Herald Estates.
"Come with me," Cindy said. Tom still felt the imprint of her fingers on his hand. He frowned. Where was the car? Had he locked it? He did so much driving that he often lost track of time, but this felt different. It wasn't like him to not pay attention to a pretty girl like Cindy.
She led him across weed-infested asphalt. Once, this building must have been an impressive structure. Now it was a pile of bricks fighting a mostly losing battle with gravity. An architectural concept diagram depicting a cutaway of the building had been spray-painted onto a wall. The design showed a circular atrium bounded by walls honeycombed with rectangular recesses. Tom scratched his chin. Am I dreaming?
"It's lit by skylight," Cindy said. "You'll have to take out the upper floors."
"They've mostly taken themselves out," Tom said. He looked closer. "What are these openings? Ovens?"
"Crypts," Cindy said.
"I don't understand."
"We used to make steel here," Cindy said.
"I know that," Tom said. "It's time to move on. My mall will energize the city, Cindy, draw business downtown again, encourage IT employers, Health Care, maybe Green Energy."
"No," Cindy said. "It will kill us completely." She touched Tom's hand. An electric thrill ran through him. In a flash he knew her vision, crypts filled with bones from surrounding cemeteries, layer upon layer of foundry workers and craftsmen.
"The bones of the founders," she said. "They will reanimate the city."
"I don't know," Tom said. It made no sense, yet he could not deny the power of her idea. Tourists would come from around the world to see such a display.
"You do," she said. She leaned toward him. He closed his eyes, felt her lips on his. It was like being sucked through a vortex into some new life. He was inside her, she was inside him.
And then it was over. There was no spray-painted mural, no girl advocating her vision, only him standing alone in the shadow of a crumbling building. He glanced around, feeling embarrassed. He looked again at the brick wall. Did this building want to become a Nordstrum or a Target? That was the question he should be asking.
A cold gust rifled him. He pulled his arms tight. He hadn't even bothered to put on his jacket. Leaves danced along the ground. A black and white photograph dammed against his shoe. He bent, and picked it up.
Cindy's face gazed from the scratched surface, light hair, full lips neutral. He gazed at the back of his hand where she had touched, where he had imagined her touching him. Whatever happened--Stroke? Walking Amnesia?--had left a powerful aftertaste.
A tingling sensation washed through him as he imagined these old bricks rechinked, broken stones replaced with true facsimiles. It would be much more expensive, but what was the purpose of amassing a fortune if not to further passion? He smiled. Time to think outside the box store, T.S. Zealous. He might even go back to using his real name.
He placed the photograph into his shirt pocket, patted it once, and went to find his car.