IT WAS A miracle Mission didn’t drop the note as it was passed to him, a miracle that he knew something was amiss, to keep his mouth closed, to not stand there like a fool in front of Jeffery and say, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ Instead, he kept the wad of paper balled in his fist as he was escorted back to the security station. They were nearly there when someone called ‘Porter!’ from one of the offices.
Jeffery placed a hand on Mission’s chest, forcing him to a stop. They turned, and a familiar man strode down the hallway to meet them. It was Mr Wyck, the head of IT, familiar to most porters. The endless shuffle of broken and repaired computers kept the Upper Dispatch on ten as busy as Supply kept the Lower Dispatch on one-twenty. Mission gathered that may have changed since yesterday.
‘You on duty, son?’ Mr Wyck studied the porter’s ’chief knotted around Mission’s neck. He was a tall man with a tidy beard and bright eyes. Mission had to crane his neck to meet Wyck’s gaze.
‘Yessir,’ he said, hiding the note from Rodny behind his back. He pressed it into his pocket with his thumb, like a seed going into soil. ‘You need something moved, sir?’
‘I do.’ Mr Wyck studied him for a moment, stroked his beard. ‘You’re the Jones boy, right? The zero.’
Mission felt a flash of heat around his neck at the use of the term, a reference to the fact that no lottery number had been pulled for him. ‘Yessir. It’s Mission.’ He offered his hand. Mr Wyck accepted it.
‘Yes, yes. I went to school with your father. And your mother, of course.’
He paused to give Mission time to respond. Mission ground his teeth together and said nothing. He let go of the man’s hand before his sweaty palms had a chance to speak for him.
‘Say I wanted to move something without going through Dispatch.’ Mr Wyck smiled. His teeth were white as chalk. ‘And say I wanted to avoid the sort of nastiness that took place last night a few levels up…’
Mission glanced over at Jeffery, who seemed disinterested in the conversation. It was strange to hear this sort of offer from a man of authority, especially in front of a member of Security, but there was one thing Mission had discovered since emerging from his shadowing days: things only got darker.
‘I don’t follow,’ Mission said. He fought the urge to turn and see how far they were from the security gate. A woman emerged from an office down the hall, behind Mr Wyck. Jeffery made a gesture with his hand and she stopped and kept her distance, out of earshot.
‘I think you do, and I admire your discretion. Two hundred chits to move a package a half-dozen levels from Supply.’
Mission tried to remain calm. Two hundred chits. A month’s pay for half a day’s work. He immediately feared this was some sort of test. Maybe Rodny had gotten in trouble for flunking a similar one.
‘I don’t know—’ he said.
‘It’s an open invitation,’ Wyck said. ‘The next porter who comes through here will get the same offer. I don’t care who does it, but only one will get the chits.’ Wyck raised a hand. ‘You don’t have to answer me. Just show up and ask for Joyce at the Supply counter. Tell her you’re doing a job for Wyck. There’ll be a delivery report detailing the rest.’
‘I’ll think about it, sir.’
‘Good.’ Mr Wyck smiled.
‘Anything else?’ Mission asked.
‘No, no. You’re free to go.’ He nodded to Jeffery, who snapped back from wherever he’d checked out to.
‘Thank you, sir.’ Mission turned and followed the chief.
‘Oh, and happy birthday, son,’ Mr Wyck called out.
Mission glanced back, didn’t say thanks, just hurried after Jeffery and through the security gate, past the crowds and out onto the landing, down two turns of stairs, where he finally reached into his pocket for the note from Rodny. Paranoid that he might drop it and watch it bounce off the stairs and through the rail, he carefully unfolded the scrap of paper. It looked like the same rag blend Mrs Crowe’s note had been written on, the same threads of purple and red mixed in with the rough grey weave. For a moment, Mission feared the note would be addressed to the Crow rather than to him, maybe more lines of old nursery rhymes. He worked the piece of paper flat. One side was blank; he turned it over to read the other.
It wasn’t addressed to anyone. Just two words, which reminded Mission of the way his friend’s smile had quivered when they shook hands.
Mission felt suddenly alone. There was a burning smell lingering in the stairwell, a tinge of smoke that mixed with the paint from drying graffiti. He took the small note and tore it into ever smaller pieces. He kept tearing until there was nothing left to shred, and then sprinkled the dull confetti over the rail to drift down and disappear into the void. The evidence was gone, but the message lingered vividly in his mind. The hasty scrawl, the shadowy scratch the edge of a coin or a spoon had made as it was dragged across the paper, two words barely legible from his friend who never needed anybody or asked for anything.
And that was all.