The Power of Good and Evil

The stars are extinguished, and the drowned moon floats just under the surface of a translucent lake of clouds. Rats breed in the crowns of the phoenix palms, flea-tormented trespassers that mostly keep to their high nests and are seldom seen in this illustrious community where the masters of art and industry live sequestered on guarded estates, in denial of vermin.

At 3:10 in the morning, as Michael Mace moves briskly through an elegant residential neighborhood, a plump long-tailed rat freezes in its descent of a palm bole, oil-drop eyes filmed with a yellowish reflection of the streetlamp light. He is no threat to the creature, but it decides otherwise and retreats at speed into the cascade of fronds from which it had ventured.

Less than ten miles to the south, streets that were once as stately as this one are now dangerous to rat and man alike.

The filthy sidewalks and parks are impassable in places, obstructed by ramshackle encampments of the addicts and mentally ill who give an undeserved bad name to the smaller number of sober, sane, genuinely homeless people whose needs authorities ignore.

Those farther precincts crawl with feral cats that know where to find rodents, cockroaches, and other delectables in abundance. By contrast, this monied community has no tolerance for such dreary bacchanals. The city council recently added officers to the police department in response to a sharp increase in crime, which spills across borders from adjacent jurisdictions where those in the ruling class see themselves as admirably tolerant and enlightened.

A Dodge Charger, the choice of police in this city, turns the corner half a block away. Shadows expand and arc and then contract as headlights sweep the avenue, which once carried frequent traffic at any hour.

Now the lanes are deserted. The sidewalks accommodate but one pedestrian. Illuminated, Michael neither seeks the cover of shadows nor breaks his stride. He has an urgent task ahead of him, one that might remain urgent for as long as he walks the Earth. Past midnight, a man alone on foot is inevitably a subject of interest to law enforcement in a city as encrusted with wealth as this one.

Yet the lightbar on the roof of the patrol car remains dark. The vehicle gains speed as it approaches him. Perhaps the man behind the wheel is distracted and sleepy as he nears the end of his shift. Or maybe he has received a call to go to the immediate assistance of a fellow officer.

In the light of the car’s computer terminal and digital citation printer, as he flashes past, the driver seems like an apparition, less fact than form, his face a pale oval, spectral and without features. Two blocks later, Michael arrives in a commercial district.

The engine noise of unseen trucks and other vehicles arises, perversely reflected through the ranks of tall buildings, so that it seems to issue from mysterious machinery deep underground. Here lampposts stand unlit.

The city obtains its electricity from a regional power company that, in this time of shortages, has restricted usage by both the implementation of penalties and high prices. In the interest of suppressing burglaries and home-invasion robberies, outdoor lighting is largely reserved for residential neighborhoods.

In these storied streets of restaurants and high-end shops offering luxury goods, businesses that once glittered from dusk to dawn are now dark after closing time. A plague of smash-and-grab robberies has been largely cured by installing display windows and doors of bulletproof glass backed up by hidden stainless-steel shutters that slam down with pneumatic force if the glass begins to give way under attack.

The shutters thwart even vehicles used as battering rams.

While still on the sidewalk, potential customers are scanned for weapons—guns, knives, hammers, whatever—even as they approach the doors, which can instantly lock if a threat is detected. Regular, valued shoppers and clients are unaware that they are identified by facial-recognition programs and thus are admitted, spared from the indignity of having to explain themselves if they are carrying firearms for self-defense.

Because of these precautions, the shops with the priciest merchandise can maintain an illusion of timeless glamour and riskless privilege. A surprisingly clean brick-paved alleyway offers doors to rear entrances and merchandise-receiving rooms that are as secure as the doors to munitions bunkers and presented with simple elegance rarely found in the backstreets of commercial districts.

Even the dumpsters are in good repair, freshly painted, and discreet. In gloom that the veiled moon little relieves, preferring light but well adapted to darkness, Michael proceeds to a five-story brick building on the right. A man-size door and a double-wide garage roll-up are matte black and bear no street number or business name.

There is an electronic lock he must release and a security-system circuit he must sustain while he steps into a dimly lighted vestibule and quietly closes the door. He is so new to this life and his abilities that he still amazes himself. The law firm of Woodbine, Kravitz, Benedetto, and Spackman owns this building, occupies all five aboveground floors, and employs sixty-one people. To Michael’s left is a door that leads to two floors of subterranean parking.

He pushes through a swinging door directly in front of him and follows a ground-floor hallway that leads past rooms of records and the offices of certain members of the legal-support staff. At the end of the hallway, he passes through another swinging door.

The wealth and power of the firm are implied by the cavernous amount of unproductive space dedicated to the lobby, which at this late hour is revealed only by soft, indirect lighting. Black granite floors. Honey-toned quarter-cut anigre paneling. A domed, scalloped ceiling leafed in white gold.

Millions of dollars’ worth of large, dramatic—and, in Michael’s opinion, tedious—paintings by Jackson Pollock present snarls of meaningless color that distract from the lustrous elegance of the piano-finish paneling. Two elevators feature stainless-steel doors with a subdued Art Deco design. For security reasons, these lifts can be accessed only by entering five digits in a keypad.

Each person who works here has a unique pass code. During business hours, clients and guests are escorted into the elevators by one of two receptionists. Although lacking a code, Michael can obtain that of anyone who works here and use an elevator if he wishes, but even if the pneumatic-rail system is quiet, the sound might alert those he’s come here to see.

An emergency stairwell is required in the event of fire. One is detailed in the blueprints that are on file with the city’s building department and readily accessible to him. The stairs are concealed behind paneling on which hangs a large vertical-format Pollock work that convincingly depicts and celebrates the mental chaos of extreme alcoholism.

A concealed pressure latch in the frame of the painting releases the lock, and the hidden door swings out. The switchback stairs are concrete, not metal, and each tread is cushioned with ribbed rubber to minimize the danger of a slip-and-fall lawsuit. The regularly spaced LED wall sconces operate around the clock, seven days a week.

At the fifth-floor landing, Michael listens to his own breath drawn and expelled, which is such a soft sound that what he hears might be entirely internal, the rhythmic billow and abatement of his lungs. To an observer, his stillness could suggest that he is a dead man standing, but he isn’t dead anymore.

From this side, the door is not concealed, and the electronic lock is released with a simple lever handle. He steps into a room paneled in anigre. The floor is shimmering white quartzite laid in six-by-four-foot slabs instead of cheaper tiles. The receptionist’s desk is a marvel of brushed stainless steel formed into curves, as if it is molten and flowing, with a celadon quartzite top.

Eight comfortable chairs are available to accommodate those visitors who will be made to wait long enough to establish that they are of less importance than the man whose counsel they have come here to seek.

Currently, illumination is provided by only a pair of alabaster sconces that flank a door on the far side of the room. To the left, beyond a wall of glass etched with a cityscape, a conference room waits in shadow—twenty empty chairs around a long table. To the right, windows look out on streets impoverished of light and rich with threat. Michael steps around the desk and goes to the ensconced door.

It opens into the office of Carter Woodbine, founder of Woodbine, Kravitz, Benedetto, and Spackman. Ordinarily, Woodbine schedules appointments only between ten o’clock in the morning and four in the afternoon. On this occasion, however, he isn’t meeting with ordinary clients, and even the great man will bestir himself before dawn when the matter requiring his attention is sufficiently rewarding.

Like the public spaces in this building, Woodbine’s office is an exacting and fastidious marriage of high drama and good taste. The desk is an uncharacteristically large work by Ruhlmann, circa 1932.

The lamp upon it is not from Office Depot, but shines forth from the long-ago studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany; the dragonfly motif is a rare specimen executed largely in gold glass with vivid blue insects and no doubt appeals to Woodbine because it suggests mystery and power, the two cloaks in which he’s wrapped himself throughout his career.

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