Maren is a complicated person. Let’s see where she lived when the world was whole
The truck entered the shadow of an elevated road running parallel to the Potomac River. Not for the first time Captain Stakan muttered, “It’s so weird.”
“Yes,” Maren agreed.
“The cars are all still parked nice and neat, not as many as I would expect during the week, but still. If it wasn’t for all the overgrowth this would look like a normal Sunday.”
Maren turned left on Wisconsin Ave and immediately parked against the curb under the elevated road. “Here we are,” she said looking out the windows all around them for threats.
[This is an excerpt from Ciphers: Departure Day Book III]
“Seriously? You lived here?”
“Yes,” she replied looking at him in confusion. “Why?”
“In this building?” he asked pointing at the limestone base of the apartment building across the sidewalk. Thirty feet above the ground the rock ended and the structure was all glass and brick with the length of the façade facing the Whitehurst Freeway, the Potomac, and the concrete bulge of downtown Arlington, Virginia, sticking out of the trees across the water.
“I don’t know. Georgetown? You were in the Marine Corps. This place is kind of elitist and really expensive.”
“There’s a metro station a few blocks away. I used to ride my bike over or walk in bad weather and then it was only two stops to the Pentagon. I was accepted to Georgetown for grad school, but…” she did not bother completing the sentence. “So it was good place to live. You see anything?” she asked looking around the street.
“Come on,” she said opening her door. As they walked she explained, “As for the money, that’s what Kyle was for. He was always a little afraid of me, maybe a lot afraid of me, as I guess he told you. When I was little he used to tell my mom, ‘Nobody does angry like Aubrey does angry.’ He said that a lot. When I was a teenager I was a holy terror to him. On one of our few overnight visits I stole his toothbrush and kept it and then, when I got really angry at him I would threaten to get a DNA test and expose him to the world.”
“Would you have really done that?”
She smiled with sad eyes and said, “I might have. Kyle hurt my mom pretty bad. She made incredibly stupid decisions, but her pain was real enough. Part of her I think wanted him to suffer, but…”
“The gravy train was too good. Mom worked, she always worked, but she did it to show me what it was like to work. Kyle gave us plenty of money, and Kyle’s money bought this apartment in Georgetown with a river view. She was a little crazy, but she wasn’t stupid and she would never have allowed me to jeopardize that.” She led Stakan under the bridge to one of the steel supports and maneuvered him behind her. “Bend down, grab me around my thighs, and lift,” she ordered and he did. She felt around the girder and said, “Down.” They walked to the next one and repeated the process.
As they walked to the third Stakan, panting slightly, asked, “What are you looking for?”
“My collection of National Geographic Magazines. What do you think I’m looking for? A key!”
“Do you really not know where you left it?”
She scowled and said, “I know exactly where I left it: on one of these supports. Which, by the way, all look exactly the same. Pick me up, Stakan.”
“I’ve enjoyed your special brand of humor and venom for several days now. How about you call me Lake?”
She turned and looked at him, the corners of her mouth already in ascent. “Your parents named you Lake Stakan?” she asked beginning to laugh. He frowned and bit his lip, putting his hands on his hips. He had heard this routine before.
“They spelled it Scottish, L-O-C-H, like Loch Ness, but nobody ever pronounced it right, so I go by Lake.”
Maren was really going now, snorting air in and expelling it in gusts of laughter. “Your parents… named … you…” She paused to stop the laughter and managed to blurt out, “Loch Stakan?”
“Yes. Why is that so funny?”
“Lock, Stock, and Barrel,” she said exploding with laughter.
He nodded and closed his eyes and even allowed a chuckle. When she calmed down he said, “Would you believe I’ve never heard that? No one’s ever put that together. So good for you.”
“Are you shitting me?” she asked incredulously.
“Seriously. Loch Stakan Barrel. Jesus. Looks like I dodged a bullet there. Anyway, shall we?” he asked pointing at the support.
She grinned as she turned around. He lifted her up and could feel her moving her arms but she was taking a long time. “Anything?” Stakan asked.
“I’m just rifling around up here,” she joked.
“Okay, okay, just find the damn thing.”
She felt around again and exclaimed, “Aha! Third time’s a charm!”
Stakan set her down and Maren held in her hand a simple key box with a magnet on the back and slid it open. She took out the three keys on a ring, closed the box, and snapped it back to the girder.
Stakan asked, “Why would you hide keys on a public street? That’s stupid.”
“Well, Lake,” she began, suppressing another round of giggles. “It’s for emergencies. And anyway, that’s why it was up high. You couldn’t possibly find it. The only way to know it was there was to see me putting it there and if someone saw me he wouldn’t know where I live and anyway it was for emergencies, like for example, now.”
“Fine,” Stakan said and followed her up the hill.
“Hey, when you drink do you get really loaded?” she asked and laughed some more.
“That’s great, thanks,” he replied as they walked up the side of the building. “Your father said your name is Aubrey. Should I call you that?”
When he looked at her she was not smiling and said only, “No. Call me Maren.”
At the rear of the complex they found a plain door, an emergency exit. Maren tried two keys before it opened and then entered a dark corridor. She walked back outside for a second and returned with a hefty stone that she used to prop the door open.
She pulled out her pistol and said, “Let’s go.”
They walked up four flights of stairs and the light from the door illuminated most of steps up but was too dim at the very top. Maren fumbled with the keys in the dark until she managed to get one in the lock. The door opened on a hallway lit at one end by a window to another outside stairwell. They began walking to the last apartment door and Maren explained, “This was the Saudi ambassador’s residence for a short time. They were renovating the official residence in the early 2000s and they moved him here during construction. Even though it was only for a few months they still reinforced this whole section of the building.” She worked the key and the lock opened. She pushed the door open. “The windows are ballistic glass, this door is steel with eight locking bolts on the side. See those holes?” she asked pointing at a three-quarter inch hole in the threshold and one at the top of the door. “Locking bolts on the top and bottom. This place was renovated in case of a very, very bad day. Kyle picked it up in a down market in 2009. He bought the whole building and when the economy rebounded he sold all but two flats and made a killing. He kept one for himself and at some point put this in a blind trust which then sold it in cash to a private development company headed by…”
She pointed at Stakan for him to answer and he said, “Pinky.”
“And Pinky signed it over to me. Kyle made some serious upgrades too,” she said flicking a light switch. The room was already lighted by the floor-to-ceiling windows but the foyer brightened from some LEDs overhead. They walked further into the apartment.
“You have power?” Stakan exclaimed.
“Solar grid on the roof. It’s not enough to power everything but we won’t be using TV, air conditioning, or the refrigerator. If we keep our use low enough it should be plenty.”
“What about at night?”
“It has batteries. Again, you have to use even less energy, but the point was to make this apartment self-sufficient in an emergency.”
She nodded. “Roof-top water collection with filters and solar heated tanks. Hot showers!” she exclaimed with wide eyes. She made her way to a utility closet and turned a crank. “There, that should take us off city water and on the rain water tanks. The stove and water heater are propane for the same reason. One tank was always kept full as a reserve, about two months of regular use but we could make that last longer if we’re careful.”
“Food?” he asked hopefully.
She opened the pantry and he looked inside and saw an array of airtight containers holding flour, sugar, tea bags, snack chips, crackers, cookies, even a colorful column of M&Ms, and five or six different kinds of pasta all organized on shiny wire mesh shelves. There were unopened cans of peanuts, two kinds of almonds, and a jug of syrup alongside neat rows of canned soups and other goods. Five lazy Susan’s held spices and herbs. Every single container was labeled by a label-maker, which rested on the lowest shelf. “Obsess much?” Stakan asked.
“I like things neat.”
“Is this exactly how you left it five years ago?”
“It looks like it. I don’t know if Kyle ever sent Pinky or anyone else over, but it looks just like I remember. I unplugged the fridge and other appliances before I left.”
“This is a beautiful display, but there’s really not much here. Surely anything that was opened is stale by now, which I guess is okay, but this won’t last but a couple weeks at most, and a lot of it has no nutritional value.”
“Hey, don’t judge. Come on.” She grabbed a key from the top of the inside door trim of the pantry and led Stakan to what he guessed was a guest bedroom from the sparse, generic decorations and furnishings. The closet had a combination and a key lock and on second look the door was far more substantial than one would expect on a bedroom closet. She punched buttons and then turned the key and the door opened. She turned on the light revealing columns of neat, vacuum-sealed foodstuffs that extended from floor to ceiling. There was barely four square feet of floor space in a hundred square foot walk-in.
“Now that’s a closet for an emergency,” Stakan muttered.
Maren pulled a box off a shelf near the door and set in on the floor. She unfolded the cardboard flaps, held up a bottle with beige label featuring a saint surrounded by leaves and scrollwork. “Damn it,” Maren said.
“What is it?” Stakan asked.
“1982 Petrus Pomerol. This really should have been drunk two years ago.”
“Whatever. Do you have any beer?” Stakan asked.
She shook her head. “It really doesn’t keep.”
Stakan grabbed the bottle from her hands and started back to the kitchen saying, “We’ll make do with this, I guess.” In the kitchen he set the bottle on the counter and started opening drawers to find an opener.
Maren glided into the kitchen, wholly comfortable in her own surroundings, and opened a cabinet. The opener was sitting next to six globular Burgundy glasses and she handed the tool to him then extracted two glasses. She sniffed the inside of the glasses then ran the water in the sink for half a minute to clear the pipes before rinsing the glasses. Stakan glanced at Maren while he worked the bottle opener and said, “I was wrong. You’re perfect for Georgetown.” She ignored his comment and found a towel, wiping out the vessels while he completed withdrawing the cork. She held the goblets up to the light then sniffed them and he barked, “Okay already! I haven’t had a drink in over a year.”
Maren glared at him for a second and then set the glasses on the counter. She gently took the bottle from him and began to pour by holding the bottle at the base, her thumb squeezing the dimple in the bottom. As she poured she raised the bottle a foot above the counter and the wine bubbled as it dripped into the glass. Stakan watched with growing impatience until the second glass was filled to the widest point in the bulb. She leaned over to make sure the portions were the same and Stakan muttered, “For Christ’s sake.” He reached for the glass and Maren slapped his hand. “You are a rube, Lake. I will teach you how to drink this wine.” She picked her glass up and began swirling the red liquid around inside. “Do this, gently.”
He did as he was told and then watched her, eyes closed, plant her nose in the bulb, the sound of sucking air magnified by the glass. Maren’s eyes suddenly popped open and she saw Stakan sniffing the edge of the glass. She pulled her face out to tell him, “Stick your face in it.”
He did and took a deep breath and then said, “Are we ever going to drink this?” his breath steaming the glass.
“You have to do it slowly. Think of it as foreplay with a four-thousand-dollar-an-hour call girl.”
Stakan’s glass lowered to the counter. “Not that I have any experience like that, but are you saying this bottle costs four thousand dollars?”
“Cost. Past tense. No one will buy it now so we’ll have to settle for drinking it.”
“Why would anyone spend that kind of money on a bottle of wine?” he asked and then mumbled, “Much less a case of it.”
“Finally,” he said picking up his glass and taking a sip.
“What do you think?”
He sipped again and said, “I’m not a wine guy, but it’s okay.”
Maren shook her head in disgust. “It’s amazing,” she said, swirled the glass again and took a noisy sip, pulling equal parts of air and wine into her mouth.
“Yeah, it’s really good but still, four grand?”
“That’s the point, Lake. You could buy a very good bottle of wine for thirty dollars and an excellent bottle of wine for fifty bucks. You could buy a fantastic bottle for seventy. For ‘amazing’ it’s four grand. It’s the law of diminishing returns.”
“In other words the price goes up rapidly but the curve on quality is much lower?”
“That doesn’t explain why. Actually the opposite.”
“You don’t save your money to buy a 1982 Pomerol. Nobody does that. You drink it because it’s amazing and because the money doesn’t matter.” She sipped again and said, “That was Kyle’s world. He had it all: a glamorous wife, a handsome son, more money than he could ever spend, even on Pomerol, and then the most powerful position in the world. What does he have now? His wife and son are dead, his money’s useless, and he’s the president of a mountain in Vermont. And his charming, lovely daughter is six hundred miles away drinking his wine.”
“Yeah, well, what do we have?”
“Electricity, water, food, a great view, Washington DC all to ourselves, and two cases of four-thousand-dollar-a-bottle wine, among other, less expensive varieties. I’d say we’re doing all right for now.” She took another sip and released a contented sigh.
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