Prose Header


by Mark Eller

Harris frowned at the pollution-stained facade of the residential apt building. He reluctantly pressed the call on his hand-held.

“Central Purification,” the mainframe computer said.

“I’m here,” Harris said.

“About time,” Central snapped. “You were supposed to arrive two hours ago.

“I was busy,” Harris said.

Monitoring cameras mounted on three separate poles instantly swiveled in his direction. “You have been drinking.”

“Everyone has a hobby. Are you going to let me in?”

The door unlatched. “You know I like professionalism in my employees.”

“Yeah,” Harris said. “Ask me if I care.”

He opened the door, stepped inside, and closed it gently. The door sucked into place with a sloppy thunk. Not surprising considering the building’s age. The place was practically primitive. Cracked walls, worn carpet, it did not even possess security cameras in its halls and apartments.

Harris shrugged and studied his hand-held. It beeped a warning. The oxygen level was extremely low. Toxic gasses were high. He would have to keep his mask on.

“The main scrubber is faulty,” Central said. “Is it close to failure?”

“I checked it out a few days ago,” Harris said. “This place won’t become another Harcourt Manor.”

“It better not,” Central warned.

Harris frowned and stepped into the elevator. Harcourt Manor had been a disaster. Two years earlier, at midnight, the building’s central air scrubber system had failed. Two hundred and sixty-three people had died from air poisoning. Seven had survived, useless vegetables sucking up precious resources. A government investigation had uncovered poor maintenance and the use of knock-off parts. It had been a seven-day sensation.

The elevator worked smoothly despite its age. Its doors opened. The hall lights were already on. Harris walked over worn carpet until he reached apartment 341. Its door looked just like the doors on apartments 339 and 343. Nothing set it apart from the others except the number. Harris raised his hand and knocked on the steel security door.

“The motion sensors have been jimmied. The hall lights shouldn’t have come on until after you entered the hallway.”

“Low voltage. They don’t eat up all that much power,” Harris pointed out.

“A little here. A little there. It soon adds up to a new power-plant, and then another, until it takes me fifty extra years to get the air clean. I will have somebody investigate this in a few weeks.”

The door to 339 opened a crack. A wizened, disapproving face peered through the opening. The woman sniffed and closed the door.

“Mrs. Walcutt,” Central explained. “I intercepted her complaint three months ago.”

The door before Harris opened. A man, Fred Rolls, filled the opening. His dowdy wife, Virginia, was a hunched shadow behind Rolls’ right shoulder. Harris eyed the man warily. Rolls was one of those overgrown men he still occasionally encountered despite the government’s genetic restructuring programs.

According to the records, Rolls had started life in the projects and pulled himself up to respectable middle class by the strength of his will and hard work. His wife was a lower-class aggressive whose intelligence had been stunted by a childhood spent in poorly sealed buildings like this one.

“Environmental inspection,” Harris said. A hint of pressurized air came out the door, indicating that their apt’s auxilary air scrubber was working.

“I didn’t call for an inspection,” Rolls said suspiciously. He leaned toward Harris, using his height and bulk to push into Harris’ space.

“Don’t let them in,” his wife ordered.

Harris held out his badge. “DEC. Do you want me to cite the section of law that says you have to let me in?”

Rolls slowly shook his head. “Department of Energy Consumption. There’s no need to cite that law to me.” He stood back from the door, barely giving Harris room to pass. Rolls closed the door. Harris removed his mask.

Virginia scowled and hugged her arms tight to her body. “Just leave,” she ordered.

“Thank you,” Harris said to Rolls, ignoring the man’s wife. “Show me where your scrubber is?”

Mrs. Rolls scuttled away, muttering to herself. She entered a room that Harris assumed was a bedroom.

“You have a daughter?” Harris said, looking around. The room lights were commendably dim, almost too dim. The apartment was shrouded in gloom. The temperature was wrong, too cool to be comfortable, a sure sign Rolls conserved energy dollars by keeping the heat turned off.

The only warmth in this apartment came from Rolls’ surrounding neighbors, a too common practice. Though not illegal, it did cause friction with people who resented paying to heat another’s apartment. That resentment often led to complaints and then to Harris’s doing an investigation.

“Melody,” Rolls said curtly. “Eight years old and registered. Do you need to look her over too?”

“No need,” Harris answered. “I have complete records on her.”

Rolls growled angrily. “This way.”

Harris followed him into the kitchen. The equipment room turned out to be the standard oversized closet common to these types of buildings. It held the electric furnace, the air scrubber, converters and transformers. There was also a full rack of storage batteries. The scrubber sounded a tad noisy, caused by a bit of grit in the rotational cylinder, Harris guessed, or maybe the drop-out bearing was slightly worn.

“Very clean,” he said approvingly. “I don’t often see that. You wouldn’t believe how many people allow their equipment rooms to get cluttered with dust and waste.”

“I take care of it,” Rolls said. He smiled for the first time. It was a wide smile that transformed his face from guarded to pleased. Harris liked the change. It made Rolls look like the responsible family man he really was. “My dad, he kept ours in good order, and he taught me to do the same.”

“He taught you well.” Harris said approvingly. “I’m going to do a full inspection. That means a complete teardown so I can run a test on all the individual parts. I’ll inspect the alarm system too, so don’t be concerned if you hear it wail.”

“How much is this going to cost?” Rolls asked. “I never been inspected before.”

Harris smiled reassuringly. “You paid for the service with your taxes. There won’t be any charge.”

“Good. Good. Well, I’ll leave you to your business then.”

Harris set his hand-held on the floor just outside the closet’s doorway. It could monitor air purity, sound, dust composition, and a dozen other factors from there. He pulled his tools from his back pocket and set to work.

The scrubber’s pre-filters were clean and the activated cartridges still had weeks of use left. The amp draw was well within the acceptable range, and the motor felt cool to Harris’ touch. He tore apart the scrubber and added a bit of oil to the drop-out bearing. The bearing quieted immediately. Whistling happily, Harris reassembled the scrubber. He realigned the motor and adjusted the belt. The decrease in excess noise made the room as quiet as it ought to be. Rolls would approve.

He was almost finished checking the various safeties when he heard a baby’s muffled cry. His hand-held beeped softly just as Rolls returned, a look of concern on his face.

Harris frowned. “Mr. Rolls, I have no trouble at all with giving you a Certificate of Approval.”

Rolls face lit with relief. “Thank you.”

Harris glanced at his hand-held, stomach churning. “I need another twenty minutes and then I’ll be out of your life.”

Rolls accepted the reassuring tone. He gestured toward the back room. “I’ll go see what Melody and Virginia are up too.” He turned and left.

“Violation,” Central whispered.

Harris sighed. “Jesus God, I hate working for you.”

“Finish your job,” Central ordered.

Harris nodded and bent back to his work. He reattached wires to the safeties and opened the alarm circuitry. The alarm was pristine. Its wires were clearly labeled. The insulation was not cracked, and he could see no corrosion at all. He made his tests and changes, slapped the cover back in place and dusted off his hands.

Harris took one last look at his work. If anything, it was cleaner than when he had arrived. Good.

“Leaving already?” Rolls called when Harris headed for the door. He entered the living room with a huge grin on his face, eight year old Melody in his arms, Virginia trailing at his heels. The girl laughed when he bounced her.

“Yeah,” Harris said. “I got rid of that rattle for you.”

Rolls’ huge face broke out in a grin. “Well, that’s just fine.”

“I do need to ask you one question,” Harris added. “Do you have any neighbors I should investigate?”

Rolls shook his head. “No, I got one nosy neighbor, but she isn’t doing anything wrong. Even if she was, I wouldn’t rat on her. That isn’t my way.”

“There’s a reward for all pertinent information,” Harris said.

“I ain’t no rat.”

Harris smiled and put on his mask. “I didn’t think you were. My job requires me to ask.”

Rolls opened the door and held it until Harris exited. Harris looked back once before the door closed behind him. Rolls stood there, the little girl in his arms, and as Harris watched the narrowing opening, he saw Virginia Rolls come stand beside her husband, her tight face still suspicious.

“Too bad everyone doesn’t feel the way he does,” Harris said when the door finally closed. “There’d be a lot less grief in this world if people tended their own business.”

He tossed his fake DEC badge into the hallway’s central incinerator, walked to the elevator, pushed the call button, and tapped his foot impatiently until the elevator arrived. He stepped inside and pressed the button for the first floor.

“What time did you set it to fail?” Central demanded.

“Midnight,” Harris answered.

“As good a time as any other,” Central said. “I’ll send out a cleanup team to collect the bodies and change records to show that they moved.”

“Make sure they finish between one and two,” Harris said. “I jimmied the main scrubber system a couple days ago, so most of the building’s other occupants will be unconscious about then.”

“I don’t want another Harcourt,” Central warned. “It was very difficult keeping the press ignorant of this aspect of Purification after that fiasco. Another one like that would uncover us, and that would be just about enough to make this shaky government fall.”

“I’ve gotten better since then,” Harris said. He was quiet a moment. “I hate this job.”

“The planet is dying,” Central said. “Its water is foul. Its air is poison. People like them, all they do is add to the problem.”

“Yeah,” Harris admitted, remembering the baby’s cry. “One child. No more. I know the law.” He pushed open the building’s main door, stepped outside, adjusted his filter mask, and ached for the oblivion booze would soon bring.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Eller

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