THE MALL OF HEROES – Part VIII
The ad had been placed in the classifieds section of the daily. It would run for five consecutive days. Genuine replies, if any, to Stefan’s fictional peccadilloes were directed to a rented post office box. The actual answer, the one the librarian was waiting for from the people whom he truly wished to contact, would appear in two days’ time in the Nation’s Eye as a seemingly unrelated Casual Employment ad. Even though Stefan was literally wedded to the Underground, there were no shortcuts around its security protocols.
The cloak of plausible deniability embarrassed him: he was cast as a deviant and lovely Magda as a prim, frigid and wronged woman. If this inaugural part of the operation came to light for any reason he knew he’d be a laughingstock and his reputation shredded absolutely. He imagined the manic joy of some of his former and rival colleagues at the Institute and the utter humiliation of his son. Perhaps potential public shame was a small price to pay for truth.
He was struck too by the hidden cost of his past life. His devotion to the arcane and the existing fragments of the Classical World had blinded him to the present, to the subtle and almost invisible undercurrents in his marriage and his home. It was hurtful that Magda had kept her secrets from him. He felt a certain childish satisfaction now that he knew her keeping her secrets had hurt her too.
Despite his recent turn of revulsion at the Mall of Heroes, Magda had simply instructed him, “Business as usual.” The grey man drove. Stefan leaned back in the rear seat, the newspaper beside him. They were en route to a meeting at the statue foundry with Doctor Gingras and the Secretary of Heritage. A routine internal audit of the past six months’ production had revealed a significant creep beyond the acceptable spoilage allowance. He understood the nature of the crisis: the celebration of the Overlord was imminent and they were running out of convicts.
Stefan shifted in his seat. He was aware of his stomach dropping into his bowels. Was it in anticipation of the smell of the foundry or just the everyday horror of his job? He stared out the tinted window and absorbed the vandal signs of resistance he’d never paid much attention to before. The complaints had migrated from back alleys to the streets and avenues. He knew now that the swatches of fresh paint on walls in the city obscured graffiti demands for one man, one vote. That a poster trumpeting the Overlord’s great plan of public works covered previously posted cries for the end of continental partition; that rogue states should not be conquered and annexed but welcomed back into the old fold.
As they passed the prison Stefan looked again at the front page of the Nation’s Eye. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections was publicly musing about transforming the ageing and now almost empty facility into a tourist attraction that would provide visitors with a fully immersive experience or perhaps it could be renovated into luxury condominiums? Research and results had proven that enhanced criminal rehabilitation therapy was far more effective than the archaic punishment of incarceration and the sublimation of one’s constitutional rights.
The librarian folded the broadsheet into quarters. He contemplated the back of the grey man’s head. This is what we want, he reflected, the colourless reassurance of progress. Everything’s okay. Good news. I’m just a man on a train. I read the newspaper. I go to my job. I come home from my job. The Overlord, the government, looks after everything else. My hand is held but the grip is crushing.