Christmas Eve, 2015
It had been a particularly dry year for the state of California, but all of that seemed to be changing for the city of San Francisco now as slate precipitation drizzled onto the streets, accompanied by the pall of fog that rolled with the tides into the Bay Area.
Chase Devineaux snapped shut the fastens of his black Rimowa and slipped the handle up. Checking his watch, he waited — and then, a sudden text message popped up on the screen of his Alpha V9 communicator, two minutes before due. He opened the front door of his current residence (a temporary bedroom with an attached kitchen on the twenty-sixth floor of the Accolade tower) and took the elevator down into the main lobby.
Usually, he would make his own way to the ACME Airfield, but his silver-shaded Toyota Camry Hybrid was in the workshop — for the third time this month.
He should just get normal tyres.
Thus, it became that his ride into Alameda Island would be via a blazing-red MINI Cooper S.
Doctor Sophie Conrad lifted a small package of brown-coloured paper from the leather seat of the passenger side as the Director of Operations climbed in. “Good morning, and...” she pushed the paper-bag into the hands of the man before disengaging the handbrake, “Happy Birthday.”
Folded in waxed paper was a generous portion of dark-chocolate covered walnuts, sea-salt lightly sprinkled over the homemade product. Chase studied the misshapened nuggets for awhile before popping one into his mouth.
“Walnuts,” he spoke without stopping to think, “I like walnuts.”
Sophie smiled, the heel of her palm pressed against the steering wheel as she made a quick turn along the still-deserted streets and accelerated, “I know.” She had found out about ten months ago, watching him pick out the specific from a bag of mixed nuts.
After he had moved into the ACME campus following the destruction of his apartment and, after he had decided that the hotel suite was much too much of an expense on his account, Sophie had discovered Chase in his office one early-morning, quite unshaven, his dark-grey tie lost and the buttons of his white shirt half-undone. Nursing his fifth shot of espresso, he was rummaging through a metallic packet that his assistant had left behind.
From then on, even as she now handed him the iPad that had been lying on her dashboard, she had taken up the mission of finding him a new apartment. “Here,” she unlocked the touchscreen, “I have found just the place.”
Without waiting for a response, she continued: “It's just around the corner from Headquarters, on Long Bridge Street. Look at the views,” she paused to insist, “Look.”
“On the east-side, there's the waters of the Bay, and… from the south-facing window, you can see Accolade,” she continued, not without a hint of triumph, “It'll be like you still live onsite.”
Devineaux manipulated the slim device in his grip, zooming in and out with his index and middle fingers. Something felt off, “Looks a little… I don’t know, inconvenient.” He put down the iPad, “Besides, I’m only a few floors now from my office. If I lived there, I’d have to walk further to get to work.”
“You cannot live in Accolade forever,” familiar exasperation following in a short huff of breath. “Besides,” Sophie matched his tone, with a slight tilt of her head, “Medical will need those rooms eventually.”
“You mean you’ll make sure Medical consider those rooms heavily,” Chase chuckled as the Accolade tower retreated from the rearview mirror and the Oakland Bay Bridge approached before them.
She smiled, concession masked by a nonchalant reminder, “We were given Level 26.”
“I’m a fan of efficiency.”
“Oh…” the doctor extended the vowel emphatically. It was not the first time she had heard that line, “You can try efficiently fitting a Steinway into that little cell you've taken up...”
She turned to him, a nod towards the now-darkened screen of the iPad: “The east-facing living room has enough floorspace for a grand piano.”
There was a pause, and then brisk acquiescence from the director as he shifted in his seat. “Maybe I can stow some decent alcohol again,” he spoke in a tone that hemmed sensibility and wistfulness, “always did feel strange bringing a bottle of anything more than flavored beverages through the Accolade lobby.”
“Are we in agreement?” the amusement was quick, as was the triumph, “You can view the apartment right after New Year’s. I have made the relevant checks.”
The rim of his mouth formed a slow smile. This would be the eleventh property she showed him, “You have seriously thought this out.”
“Mm-hm,” the sound was inordinately chirpy, “I am as stubborn as you are.”
“Okay. Then,” he affirmed, “when I get back, I’ll check this place.”
The sentiment of approval settled upon her features, and comfortable silence came upon the city compact as Chase bit into another walnut.
Along the early-morning roads, the MINI made rapid progress into Alameda Island. A blanket of humidity spread across the Bay area and shrouded parts of the airfield. Yet, there remained enough visibility and such promises of clear skies later. Chase paused to enjoy the view.
“I love that fog over the uncertain shadows of metal birds,” his comment punctuated the quiet, unstrained, “They’re frozen until jolted to life, massive beasts.”
Sophie tilted her head at him, slowing the car as they approached the security checkpoint. She granted him a warm smile, “You, Director, are such a romantic.”
He gestured agreeably, then ate another walnut, “You’re still calling me Director?”
The reply was serious, even if her focus remained on the road: “Always.”
Then, he chuckled, somehow satisfied.
They paused at the well-lit gantry, Sophie rolling down the window at her side. The guard recognised her passenger with ease and Chase greeted him with a question on where he was heading after the holiday rush. John Barrett, an ACME employee for almost six years now, was to be in Hawaii from the second to sixth of January. Saluting the director, he wore a laid-back smile as he pointed the car towards its parking spot.
“If you don’t mind,” Devineaux peered over at Sophie as he unloaded both of their carry-on bags, “I’d like to borrow the car for a few days after I get back.” The request and its following suggestion were logically planned knowing that Sophie would agree, “I’m not sure when the Camry would be done, and I can pick you up when your return flight lands.” He paused to add, “I’ll even get it waxed.”
She laughed, low and short, coming around to his side to hand him the keys and take her luggage, “It’s the third time to the workshop this month. Have you yet convinced the mechanic to turn it into a starship?”
“Maybe some sort of hovercraft will do me good against…” he was wry, seemingly considering, “that other group we don't talk about.”
Sophie turned to give him a puzzled frown. She remained thoughtful before gently speaking again, “She will come back… one day.”
Considering her sympathetic tone, he reassured her with a flat, “Or, not.”
Moments passed before Devineaux noted the keys in his hand. Then, holding up the object, he raised his left brow, “This can't get cuter,” he added with mirth, “a little red car for a mini red car.”
With mirrored amusement, Sophie amiably accepted the comment as they began walking towards the flight line.
Pocketing the keychain, he addressed another concern, “Your… family, still wants you to find something in Maine?”
“No,” her reply was straightforward, having discerned the edge of his query. She smiled, and stretched to inhale, the wind laced with jet fuel, “I like it here.”
“How is your grandfather?”
There, his expression stiffened slightly, a resentment he rarely betrayed. He had always felt a level of insufficiency when it came to his maternal grandfather. But finally, he smiled as if in mock-defeat to the facts of life, “He’s well, for 92. Sometimes he remembers me, sometimes he calls me by my father’s name, other times he thinks I’m a stranger, but at least we communicate.”
The doctor slowed her steps as Chase continued, looking at him with open kindness as she touched his forearm, “Did he ever learn to use that iPhone you bought him?”
“I think he’s making use of it,” he exhaled, calmer, “He’s been playing with that talking cat app…”
She paused, “Do you think you'll ever be so old and content?”
Chase assessed the question as they walked. Then, he smiled before answering, “I don’t know, I intend to live forever.”
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