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The New City (Stephen Amidon)


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  At first, the image didn't look that bad. There was a jagged crack running through the front door's glass, but that could have happened in a hundred innocent ways. And the lobby's disorder--sand spilled from an upright ashtray and a scattering of drug awareness pamphlets--looked like the usual by-products of teen rowdiness. As Austin Swope stepped onto the metal staircase that helixed up into the converted silo, he began to think that maybe the security people had exaggerated when they spoke of a riot.

Hope disappeared when he reached the second floor. Unmistakable signs of violence were everywhere. Shattered glass and wads of bloodied toilet paper littered the pale carpet. A modular chair had been splintered and the crusted discharge of a fire extinguisher patterned the wall. There was an angry divot on the pool table's baize, partially covered by a forsaken sneaker. Swope sighed audibly. This would be impossible to whitewash. Chicago would hear about it, if they hadn't already. And they would not like it.

The third floor was even worse. He stepped gingerly through the debris, careful not to sully his custom-made wing tips. The wood paneling up here was pocked in several places by indentations, one deep enough to expose a cluster of electrical wiring. The Ping-Pong table listed on two bent legs like a camel ready for dismounting. Several windows had been smashed. A broken pool cue impaled the ceiling's acoustical tiles and the door to the director's office had been kicked off its hinges. Swope righted a toppled stool and perched gingerly on its edge. It's always the kids, he thought. They start, and then we have to finish.

He closed his eyes, suddenly wishing himself far away from here, deep in some distant election year, when his name was a household object and the dirty work of clearing up petty messes was left to lesser men. As a means of solace, he called up one of the imaginary commercials he deployed in times of stress. This one opened with him striding purposefully through some blasted urban landscape, a wasteland of smoldering storefronts, roof-scouring National Guardsmen and clusters of wary locals. He is moving with such resolve that his advisors must double-step to match his gait. Those churning opening bars of Mahler's Sixth provide the sound track. Suddenly, fearlessly, he peels away from his escort, heading toward a clutch of angry black faces. The camera circles as he engages them in direct dialogue. His tone is stern but compassionate. Snatches of the exchange can be heard through the swelling music. Words like renewal and responsibility. Citizenship. Hope. Those furious faces soften. He shakes a proffered hand, pats a young head. The music reaches a crescendo as the camera freezes on his face.

Austin Swope, the bass voice-over says. Because in a crisis, we need a leader.

Or maybe:

Austin Swope. Tough decisions for tough times.

He still hadn't decided which was better.

His reverie was interrupted by a scuffling footfall. He turned to see the EarthWorks security guard who'd admitted him, a young man with long, greasy hair tucked inconclusively into his cap. His uniform was a couple sizes too big, making him look like an inmate of some underfunded prison. In keeping with company policy, he was unarmed. He eyed Swope with a slack, vaguely defensive expression.

"Yes?"

The man recoiled slightly at Swope's stern voice. No wonder these kids run riot, Swope thought.

"I just wanted to see if you needed anything."

"The National Guard."

The man's brow folded in confusion.

"I don't suppose you know what happened," Swope continued, realizing wit was not on the guy's agenda.

"I came on duty at seven. They said keep an eye on the place 'til you got here, was all." The man sensed that Swope found this answer unsatisfactory. "Though from what I hear there were cops everywhere."

"Any idea where the center directors are?"

"They called in sick."

"Sick? When?"

"Last night."

"You mean the place was without any supervision when this happened?" Swope asked incredulously.

The man shrugged. He hadn't been on duty. Swope took one last disgusted look around, then led the guard back down the spiral stairs, feeling an unwelcome suck at his soles from a pool of stickiness cascading over the risers. In the lobby he paused in front of the portrait of the city's designer, benevolent old Barnaby Vine. A crudely drawn penis now tickled his jugged left ear. The guard awaited orders a few feet away.

"All right," Swope said eventually. "See if you can find some poster board upstairs in that office, a Magic Marker. Make a sign--closed until further notice. Then lock up. I don't want anyone in here until I decide what to do."

The guard nodded with what he must have thought to be sober professionalism. Swope took one last look around the lobby, then strode through the cracked front door. All evidence of trouble disappeared the moment he left the silo. The covered walkway leading to Fogwood Village Center was perfectly placid. Muzak wafted sourcelessly through the trellised clematis and potted rubber plants. Citizens hustled past, searching out morning papers. Most nodded bright hellos, a few spoke his name. It was impossible to imagine that this place was full of brawling kids just a few hours earlier.

Swope walked back to his Town Car, parked in the fire zone at the curb. He shook a Tiparillo from the pack and fired it up, savoring that first mentholated drag as he leaned against the passenger door and stared at the converted silo. At least there was no sign of wreckage from out here. The broken windows were invisible in their deep-set wells, the cracked door masked by foliage. Not that he worried all that much about the physical damage. Company builders could have the place as good as new by the weekened. It was the damage this could do to all those unsold lots that worried him.

When the call came at six that morning he'd first assumed it had been no big deal. After all, security would have phoned right away if it was serious. Or so he thought. It turned out the night duty man was new and didn't understand procedure. That was the problem with this place--everybody was so damned new. Swope wasn't contacted until the day supervisor arrived. The fight had in fact been a doozy, with a half dozen county prowlers responding. Five young men, all black, had been picked up on public disorder charges.

It wasn't until he'd hung up that Swope remembered his son had been at the silo. Terrified that something had happened to his beloved boy, he'd raced across the house to Teddy's room. But he'd been fast asleep, his concave chest rising and falling peacefully. His face had been unmarked, the clothes piled next to his bed free from bloodstains. Swope had considered waking him to get a report, though he knew it would take a half hour to get a coherent sentence out of him. Instead, he'd instructed a groggy Sally to have him report to the office as soon as he woke.

Swope took another drag from his Tiparillo, letting his eyes wander to the village center's sawtooth roof. He cursed himself for not being more aggressive in warning Chicago about this. A memo asking if he could hire an off-duty deputy to sit at the silo's door simply hadn't cut the mustard. He should have painted them a picture. Let them know how overstretched the county cops were. But he hadn't, and so the answer had been no. Cops at doors were not part of Barnaby's master plan. The city was supposed to supply its own order, all that greenery and light washing away any anarchic impulses its recently transplanted citizenry might bring with them from the world outside. How many times had Barnaby lectured him on this very subject back in the days when Newton was nothing more than a stack of diagrams? Explaining how the abundance of public space and the equitable mix of housing would nullify the sort of invidious resentments and social alienation that led to crime. The Cannon County sheriff's department would be more than adequate to look after the occasional heart attack or domestic squabble. Vine was sure of it, as sure as he was that the traffic would flow and the pipes would carry water. And yet here they were, with five kids in jail and a couple thousand dollars worth of property damage, plus a shitstorm of bad press darkening the horizon. The suburban stringers from the Baltimore Sun and News American would be all over this, having become avid students of the Cannon County police blotter ever since last month's seemingly endless article in The Washington Post, "Will Race Woes Defeat New City-Dream?" which cataloged in absurdly apocalyptic tones the recent confrontations between gangs of black and white youths. The scribblers would have a field day now that there had been actual arrests. The teen center, after all, was one of Vine's pet projects. Trouble there was not on the menu. In Barnaby's vision it was supposed to "harmonize and homogenize" the kids, to serve as a place where proximity created peace. Tribal allegiances were to be a thing of the past. The notion of black boys and white boys going at one another with pool cues was definitely not part of the blueprint.

"Mr. Swope?"

A young woman pushing a stroller stood a few feet off. Swope recognized her from the monthly homeowner meetings, though he couldn't come up with a name. She had a freckled nose and bobbed blond hair. Her bib overalls were immaculately clean. The thin strand of saliva dangling from her slumbering child's mouth caught the morning sun like a dewy web.

"Um, what's going on?" she asked, nodding at the silo. "Somebody said there was a riot?"

Swope smiled tightly as he dropped his Tiparillo into a sewer grate.

"No, there was no riot," he said. "Just outsiders causing trouble."

"Hasn't there been a lot of that recently?"

"I wouldn't say a lot," Swope said gently, that smile still on his lips.

"But still..."

Swope knew he had to come up with something here. The woman was worried. Not that he blamed her. Five arrests just yards from where she bought her formula was unacceptable.

"I'm thinking about instituting youth ID'S," he said eventually. "You know, to restrict access to Newton kids only."

"That would be a start."

"You get a nice new facility like this, you're going to get your share of undesirables in the early days."

She nodded vague agreement. He could tell she still wasn't satisfied. These ex-hippies could be surprisingly testy about security.

"Well, I better get to work," he said, reaching for his door handle.

She continued to stand her ground, looking like there was one last thing on her mind. Swope waited. He wasn't about to slight a homeowner. They were his core constituency. The launchpad to a stratospheric future.

"You know, Mr. Swope," she said eventually. "After incorporation..."

"Yes?"

"People wouldn't mind seeing a few changes around here."

Swope held her eye for a moment before nodding. Nothing more needed to be said. That was one thing he could guarantee come summer's end, changes would be made. Satisfied at last, the woman smiled pleasantly and walked off, her child slumbering on.

Swope piled into his Town Car and fired up the big V-8. It was time to get to the office and manage this mess. He made a left onto Serendipity Way and joined the light traffic. After groping for his Foster Grants he rolled down the window, letting in some sweet morning air. The forecast said it would be hot later, but now, while the sun was still low in the salmony sky, it was mercifully cool. He moved through Fogwood's quiet streets, passing neatly sodded yards from which splintered saplings and preantiqued gaslights rose. The houses here were aluminum starters, three-bedrooms with modest garages and redwood decks. Unblemished phone booths and sturdy concrete mailboxes stood at regular intervals. The paved bike paths that ran among the houses like a nervous system were busy with dog walkers and joggers. A fine summery mist--not really a fog--shrouded low-lying areas. Barnaby's celebrated streetscapes were in full bloom. Planned and perfect, right down to the last blade of gross.

Swope joined Newton Pike, the four-lane arterial road that cut through the city from north to south. It wasn't long until the half dozen squat brown buildings of Renaissance Heights appeared, spread across a hill like the fecal leavings of some great beast. Swope's mood soured even further at the sight. Despite what he'd told the woman, he knew that it was kids from here, not outsiders, who'd been hauled off by the Cannon County sheriff's deputies. He pulled into the minibus bay across from the complex's entrance. Two black women waiting to clean houses up in Mystic Hills stared at him from the provisional shade of the nearby shelter. He nodded a general hello, then turned his attention to the parking lot, filled with dinged sedans, tarped pickups and a fetid-looking colony of overflowing Dumpsters. A dozen residents strolled wearily toward the minibus stop. Janitors and cafeteria ladies and landscapers. Minimum wagers. Barnaby's improvable masses. Their children no doubt sleeping off last night's fandango in the cinderblock boxes behind them.

Swope lit another Tiparillo, his fourth of the still-young day, realizing he'd better come up with a plan before arriving at the office. Nobody would be satisfied with "I'm working on it." He'd been given this job--and promised the big one to come--for one simple reason: He was a problem solver. The man they turned to in a crisis. The fire jumper. The late-inning closer. It was up to him to figure out how to keep trouble from happening. To protect the company's investment.

 
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Excerpted from The New City by Stephen Amidon. Copyright © 1999 by Stephen Amidon. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.