17. The Lives in Distant Windows (Part 4)

The hours stretched on. Cindy came back from her break to find Erika was still coding, still implementing her ideas, and getting closer to a working model. Erika had to work on the new concept from Cindy even as she was trying to find solutions for the bugs that she had been given by Andy. When Cindy’s idea brought new problems, she would find solutions for them too, working out the bugs even as they presented themselves.

When Erika encountered something she didn’t know, she would quickly go online and search for a solution. She loved that part of her job. It felt like she was expanding her toolbelt. Making herself even more useful for the future.

Eventually, the office grew darker, and darker, and progressively more quiet. Cindy left, telling Erika to ‘take it easy’ as she did so. Andy left, seeing that Erika was still engrossed with wrapping up the work he’d given her. Finally, there was no one there, but Erika and the single glowing screen.

She was pleased with herself. She believed that she had discovered a way to implement Cindy’s idea into the code without it breaking anything else. It was an elegant piece of coding, something that Erika felt that she had something a talent for. It was one thing to find a solution to a problem, anyone could do that. Erika excelled at finding solutions that were concise, simple, and graceful.

The thing she had done here was one of the most beautiful pieces of code she felt she had ever written. It was not only elegant, but dynamic. The code would alter and rewrite itself based on the needs of the user. It would change the application on the fly, creating new codes and deleting old ones as necessary.

Feeling pleased, Erika scrolled through the code, leaning back in her chair, admiring her work.

Then she realised what she’d done.

Her eyes went wide. Then, without hesitation, her hand snapped forward. Precisely highlighted the code she had created. Deleted it.

She breathed out.

The next half hour she spent writing a code that was less elegant, more clunky, but still functional.

When it was finally finished, she emailed her results to Andy, along with a small explanation of Cindy’s new ideas, and another to Cindy, to let her know that her ideas had worked. Erika hoped that they would be impressed.

She sat back in her chair, stretching a little. Her fingers felt slightly stiff, so she tried rubbing some life back into them. She was finished. The day was done, and she got to go home.

With a sudden spike of tension, Erika remembered her last task of the day.

She quickly opened up the pending folder on her email, she saw Christopher’s message. Clicked it. She read through his words again, trying to figure out what to write.

Tension, that had vanished from her stomach for the last ten hours, suddenly returned.

She stared at the empty response window for six and a half minutes. Finally, hesitantly, her fingers began to type. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, and finally a frantic energy.

Christopher I don’t know how to respond to what you’ve written because I don’t know where your glasses are and I don’t know how to say that in the simplest possible way that will communicate it to you without being too formal or too informal and I don’t know how everyone just does this how do people just know what to write how do they know how to respond to each other is there a guide is there something that I can read to learn and I’ll just know how people speak and how they talk I’m scared that if I say the wrong thing you’ll know that I’m

Erika’s eyes were blurry. For a heartbeat filled with nightmarish fear, she thought she was going blind. Then she realised.

She took a few shaky breaths, and rubbed her eyes, thankful that she was by now the only one in the office.

Without reading what she had written, she selected all her text and deleted it.

She typed again.

No, sorry.

– Erika

Erika sent the email without another thought.

She looked around the mostly dark and entirely empty office. It was 8:24pm. Slowly, she packed her things away, relishing the peace and solitude. For the first time since she had awoken that morning, she needed to be nowhere. She had to answer to no one.

The last of her things packed away, she headed to the office door and left down the hallway.

Erika pondered for a moment whether to use the elevator. It would be scary, certainly. But it held a benefit she craved after days like this. Erika made up her mind just as she reached the elevator doors. She tapped the button, congratulating herself on her bravery.

With a small ping, the elevator arrived. Like the curtains parting on the greatest show on Earth, the doors slid open, and New York presented itself to Erika.

She stepped inside without so much as turning to look at the button panel. After a few moments, the doors closed, cutting out the harsh fluorescence of the hallway leaving only the soft glow of the elevator’s bulb. Without people, with just herself in here, the window seemed the edge of a cliff that opened up onto the cityscape. Erika forgot the enclosed space. She walked across the elevator and leant two slim hands on the railing before proceeding to drink in the view.

Even she couldn’t count the myriad of buildings that forested the land, stretching off infinitely. The light from the streets beneath her only reached so far up their sides, making the skyscrapers islands of darkness in a sea of warm, electrical light. The flow of traffic and people beneath her added a liquid quality to the light of the city. A lot of the windows were dark or darkening by now, but some of them still had the odd bright point like a tiny square star.

Erika breathed easy for the first time all day. She adjusted her vision, and let her eyes draw the city towards her. She focused on the windows.

Someone five miles away was writing a report in an otherwise darkened office. Peering over his shoulder she saw that it was a marketing campaign for a bank. Her gaze slipped towards  another window three miles away and saw a couple arguing. She couldn’t hear them of course, but from the movement of their lips, she picked up that it was about money. In another window, she saw a mirror, and reflected in it she managed to see a living room. Curled up on a couch, a man was crying. She felt guilty and uncomfortable about that one. Using the mirror felt like an invasion of privacy. She hoped that he was okay, and then turned away to a different window.

Erika stayed like that for ten minutes, letting her enhanced vision trail across the city, getting brief flashes into people’s lives. Two teenagers in a park were professing love for each other. A woman in a kitchen was dancing and singing while cooking spaghetti. An old man was clutching a sleeping dog close to his chest. A thousand little stories were taking place throughout New York. And Erika was the only one who could watch them.

Finally, reluctantly, she tore her gaze away from the constellation of lives. Feeling calmer than she had done all day, she tapped the button and watched the numbers go all the way from twenty-nine to one with their pleasing regularity.

She left the building into the cool, March evening and began walking towards her bus stop. People were still on the streets, but it wasn’t nearly so thronged as it had been when she’d arrived.

Erika was lost in thought as she walked down the road.

Until something caught her eye.

Someone was following her.

The figure was twenty-four metres behind her, on the opposite side of the road. It wasn’t looking at her, in fact it was barely glancing around at all, but there were slight tells. Occasionally the figure would walk faster or slower, but on average it matched her own speed completely. Though it didn’t look at her, its bearing was entirely focused on her. It’s torso was slightly tilted in her direction, and there was a barely perceptible pause in its stride sometimes when it took a step, as if trying to judge if its pace was long enough to keep up with her.

The figure was curiously anonymous. Erika was unable to make out a gender, and its height and build just seemed average and unremarkable. The only thing that she could make out was that it seemed to wear opaque sunglasses. Unusual for this late in the evening.

Erika put all this together through glances into car mirrors, shop windows, and other reflective surfaces. She tried to make sure that her head never turned unexpectedly, keeping her face tilted towards the pavement, as if lost in thought.

Erika took the next left, and continued walking.

Her pace didn’t alter, but she glanced at her watch, using the reflection in the face to see behind her.

Seven seconds later, the figure rounded the corner.

There was something odd about the it. Something that made Erika feel uncomfortable. The figure seemed to blend in to its surroundings in a way that almost seemed unnatural. If she let her gaze drift, the edges of it, the boundary between it and the street behind, seemed to blur. It was somehow fundamentally unnoticeable. But then Erika would refocus her vision, and it would snap back into view.

All this, Erika discovered in the two seconds of looking at her wrist.

She put her watch hand down, and continued walking. At the next intersection she took another left. Immediately after doing so, she crossed the road. Looking left and right for cars gave her an opportunity to glance behind her.

The figure rounded this corner too.

She took an alley, one completely devoid of people and walked at an even pace down it.

The figure followed, leaving the lights of the city behind it.

Erika rounded a corner in the alley, walked for twenty metres. Stopped. Turned.

The figure rounded the same corner in the alley, and stopped too.

The gun in Erika’s hand was a silver revolver and its barrel pointed unwaveringly at the figure’s head.

‘What do you want?’ said Erika.

‘And good evening to you too,’ said the blind man from the meeting. He smiled wolfishly, and took a step forwards, ‘Erika, was it?’

‘What do you want?’ she said again, in the exact same tone.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I am blind. You might at least tell me that I’m being threatened by a gun, because I’d have no way of knowing otherwise.’

‘Then how did you know I have a gun?’

The man grinned, ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I was recently granted superpowers and had my mind controlled,’ he tapped the cane on the ground absently, ‘Same as you.’

Erika didn’t move. The gun was still levelled at his head.

‘The name that you’re looking for, by the way, is Ralph. I’m not offended, you met a lot of people that evening. But that’s not what you asked me,’ as Ralph spoke, he wandered a little side to side, gesticulating with his free hand and his cane. Though he was moving fluidly and seemingly at random, Erika’s gun formed a perfect line to his forehead, wavering in the exact same way that he did, ‘You want to know why I’m here. There are two reasons. The first is that we have something that I need to discuss. The second is that I wished to put to test a theory.’

Erika remained silent.

Ralph paused, his face turned towards Erika. Finally he sighed. ‘You can, of course, do whatever you want. But this will go a lot quicker if you talk as well. I understand that you’re not exactly a social butterfly, but would you at least try to respond?’

There was another pause, and then Erika spoke. ‘What was the test, and what did you want to say?’

‘Thank you,’ said Ralph, ‘I’ll answer the second question first: You remember at our meeting, I mentioned that I was going to be pursuing my own inquiries into the event and what controlled us?’

Erika nodded.

‘Well, I’ve run into a bit of a snag, and I think you can help,’ Ralph spoke pleasantly, but the smile that flickered at the corner of his lips was anything but.

‘I don’t want to help,’ Erika said. Her voice wasn’t necessarily cold, but it was blank, emotionless.

‘You may want to. Because, largely thanks to this test, I know who you are.’

Erika’s heart stopped.

For a moment she had to bite back every instinct in her body to pull the trigger. To put a bullet in his self-satisfied expression.

Ralph’s head titled, as if he was listening to something.

‘I… don’t know what-’ Erika managed to say before Ralph interrupted.

‘Now, I’m not an easy man to spot,’ he said, ‘But you managed to do some pretty neat work in noticing I was following you and cornering me in this alley. That was a bit of a tipoff, though. Of course, I had suspicions before then from the way you acted during the meeting. And…’ he paused, with a smile and a slight shrug, ‘My abilities do lend themselves pretty well to reading people.’

He took a step closer. Erika kept the gun pointed at his head, but it was an automatic movement.

‘I know that you know that you don’t want to know what happened that night,’ he said with a grin, ‘You don’t want any part in this madness, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s the reasonable reaction.’ He was practically standing next to her now. The gun was mere inches from his forehead. ‘But I don’t like it – I really don’t like it – when people mess with my head. So I need you to help me bring whatever it was to justice, and then I’ll leave you alone.’

Erika’s face was blank, but her mind was racing.

Ralph smiled again, ‘It’s your choice. Your secret is safe with me, either way, and I promise that whatever we do to get more information won’t compromise your moral code. It’ll be nice and simple. And hey, you’ll be bringing to justice whoever took your liberty away too.’

There was a buzzing noise that nearly made Erika squeeze the trigger out of sheer surprise. Ralph felt the phone in his pocket.

‘Well, shit, I’m going to have to get going otherwise I’ll be late. You have Wednesday off, right? Me too. I know an excellent cafe on Ocean View, I’ll message you the details – maybe around noon? We can compare notes on what we know, and I can bring you up to speed on what I’m thinking we should do.’

Once more, Erika elected to remain silent.

‘Great. Well, I’ll see you Wednesday at noon then,’ he turned on his heel, and began walking back the way he had come down the alleyway, ‘Get home safe,’ he said.

Erika kept the gun pointed at his head the whole time that he was walking away from her. Even after he’d rounded the corner and disappeared from sight, she found that her arm was still up. She breathed in and out a few times, and finally managed to lower the gun and put it back in her purse. She spent at least a minute more just breathing and trying to stop her heart from bursting from her chest.

How does he know? she thought, What did I do? She wanted to scream as loud as she possibly could. She wanted to run. She wanted to shoot something. She wanted to do anything.

Nothing she could do would change a thing, she knew.

Erika reminded herself that it would be okay. She would now go home. She would take the same route she took to get here, only in reverse. She would climb the steps to her apartment. She would see Nicholas. Tomorrow, she could decide whether or not to see Ralph, or whether she should just leave New York forever. It would all be okay.

She knew that it wouldn’t though. She thought about Mr Tarosovich, Cindy, Andy, and now Ralph. All the people in her life that she needed to help.

As she approached the bus stop, she thought about the thing that had taken her help, without asking for it. That had taken her peace.

Maybe I will help Ralph, she thought, And maybe he and I will find whatever did this to us. And maybe I will plant a bullet in its head.

Previous: 16. The Lives in Distant Windows (Part 3)

Next: 18. The Wild Dog of the Docks (Part 1)

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