Below is the opening chapter of the novel, Sky-Scraped, by Frederic Colier © 2024 (this version is unedited)
Lingorama – Global Headquarters, New York
Friday, 4:15 PM
“There are only two things humans can’t stare at, death and the sun.”
With a clockwork precision the proverb surfaced in his mind as the sun’s blasting light bleached the documents spread over his desk. He did not have to guess the time. The blitz signaled the end of the day, and he was certain that apart from him, no one else remained on the floor. With the summer schedule still in place, the staff was enjoying early Fridays. No concert of blinds thrumming down the floor-to-ceiling windows added proof.
He had anticipated when the sun would slide between the two skyscrapers outside his windows and release its tsunami of brightness within this sliver of sky. Absorbed in laborious documents, he grew tense, knowing he was running behind schedule. Tilting his head away from the documents, he stretched his hand across his desk and fumbled by the lamp for a switch. No matter how many times he flicked it, the blinds would not budge. The motor groaned. He jiggled the blades, pressed on the switch once more. When the shades refused to come down, he sat back down.
They worked fine yesterday.
Fleeing the Westward sun, he relocated his documents to the back counter. Three days already he had been crawling over the complex technical translation, a nuclear submarine device. Thumbing the bundle of drawings and abstracts, he estimated he still had forty pages left. Wouldn’t be done by Saturday evening. Possibly Sunday morning, unless he invested some mighty hours. Negotiation with Caroline would be unavoidable. She wanted to take him out for his birthday and had made him promise that he would free himself for at least an evening over the weekend.
He could not stare at the documents any more than he could stare at the sun. Where had he read this aphorism? Was it the remnant of a French book he had translated? Il n’y a deux choses que l’homme ne peut fixer des yeux, le soleil et la mort. Was it an Italian book? Ci sono solo due cose che gli umani non possono fissare, il sole e la morte. Possibly. Could it have been German? Es gibt nur zwei Dinge, auf die der Mensch nicht starren kann: die Sonne und den Tod. Too sardonic to be German, though it did not have the austerity of philosophical musing. Italian could be a match. But who? He tried Portuguese and Greek; neither felt right. Maybe the line came from an English novel? Why assuming de facto it’s foreign? Blank, his mind refused even a hint of its author. Had he known a word in a title, a distant anecdote, he would have zeroed in on its provenance in no time. It was out of character for him not to remember a straight fact, which could only mean one thing. He was overworked. His depleted mind refused to cooperate. The night had not even begun, and he already needed a break. Two more days of taxing focus laid ahead.
Aware of his failing mind only reinforced his desire to find the answer. The mind had to do its work, without external help. His expert memory had gotten him the job at Lingorama. Developing a hyper-memory required constant practice. A sadistic discipline verging on pleasure. He knew he would solve the mystery. He had been there before so many times . . .
Sun and death. Not blind to the irony either.The sun was staring at him, and his memory much aligned with the sun blinded him. As for death, he had yet to be in a situation that forced him to stare at it. Who knows what he would glimpse, how his mind would react? Would it capitulate and go blank? Or harvest a profound insight? Existential? Spiritual?
Glancing out the window, he had trouble making out the workers in the cubicles of the surrounding towers. With the blasting sun, he speculated that if he could not see anyone, no one could stare back at him. Who would peer straight into the reflection of a blazing mirror? In the morning, he often stole glances at the mosaic of fishbowls in open display. Obedient fish sitting at their desk, performing daily rituals along metronomic tides. He had a favorite, Tessa, a long dark-haired woman on the 14th floor of the building across. Silent floor buddies. Over time, he had invented a whole persona. Late-thirties, most likely from Argentina or Brazil. A banker, still single. A vice-president of something. Wealth management. The collection of shoes on her floor was a dead giveaway. She rotated among flats, high-heels, short boots, during the day. Her corner office implied importance, or else she would reside in a scrum of cubicles, unknown to his fantasy.
He spotted her once in Grand Central, during lunchtime, at least he thought he did, standing in line at Caffè Nero. She was taller than he imagined. The high heels helped. No wedding ring. Got that one right. She ordered her coffee, exchanged arcane words with the barrista, but the battery of onomatopoeic percolators swallowed her voice, along with her accent. The way she hit her credit card several times on the reader suggested she was in a rush. He thought about introducing himself, but the prospect of future interactions kept him at bay. What would be the point if not to get to know her, with the goal of . . .? The safety in the distance between their towers was the perfect deterrent. Why destroying a private panopticon? One day, he would wave at her, from his office, or so he imagined.
In the early summer days, the sun would glide above the gaggle of towers and hit his windows for three hours straight. In the late summer days, the exposure dwindled to half of that. By mid-October, the sun would vanish behind the towers and not reappear again until early spring. Until then, he was the privileged spectator of an uninterrupted human circus. Tessa with her tone-down designer sweaters. Camel man on the 12th floor, who refilled his water bottle at the cooler every two hours, and on the 16th floor, Master of the Universe, who strutted among desks with an unrivaled glide and abundant head nodding. Did they notice him? How would they label him? Overly serious? Humorless? Could they even guess his function? How does an expert in ten languages look like from the distance? He seldom left his desk, worked with the discipline and resilience of an ant. His task at Lingorama was to handle highly sensitive foreign materials, which forced him to spend countless hours combing over obscure documents. His static posture turned him into a human piece of furniture. With no clear external sign of greatness, their assessment of him had to be as trite as his. Most likely, they did not notice him at all.
During this sun-bathed bracket of time, his office was sealed off from the world outside. His solar fishbowl took an intermission from worldly demands. The sun had a blind spot. Whatever happened during this time remained a secret to the world. Only he had access to this privilege.
He patted his jacket for his sunglasses. Nothing in his briefcase either. Did I leave them on the kitchen counter this morning? Caroline must have moved them.
The silhouette of an athletic woman doused in sunlight appeared in his doorway. He sheltered his eyes to see Seifa Williams’s face. How come she is still here?
“Take a look at this.” She tossed a newspaper on John Casafuerte’s desk. Her shadow swamped his desk. “You haven’t stopped the whole day.”
John glanced at the newspaper’s headlines: Killer Literary Agent Takes Husband for Last Sail. He grinned at Seifa. Below the main title dangled the backgroundless headshot of a white woman with perfect teeth in her forties. She had been arrested for killing her husband during a boat outing.
“Quite a story.”
How closely he monitored the quality of her voice. Not the first time either. Hyper-tuned into accents, tones, and intonations, he could locate regional variations within the same language. Hers was a curious mixture. She spoke with breathy puffs at the end of her sentences, as if her tongue released a pop upon arriving on the last word. A British accent subdued by a Caribbean something. His finger twirled on a map. She claimed to be from Jamaica. Though a large segment of the Jamaican population spoke patois, her clear diction, its paced phrasing, made his linguistic compass gyrate. A touch of put-on sophistication made her accent sounded privileged and educated. Not someone from the Jamaican suburbs of Kingston. Had she trained herself into it? Possibly. Not the expected assistant profile for someone projecting such a high status. She was C suite material. No one at Lingorama had an accent like hers, and he could not recall having met anyone who spoke like her. Fumbling his way through a process of elimination, he would eventually detect her specific origin. He could ask her straight, but it was a game. Listening to her sent waves curling down his spine.
“Why don’t we get to translate stuff like this?” His eyes were riveted on the headlines. Seifa had never stepped foot into his office, unless summoned. With no one left on the floor, perhaps, she did not feel the need to play by the rules. “It sure would make my days go by faster.”
“You’d get tired of it.” She cocked her head and swung her beaded dreads behind her neck. Her sunny smile forced his nuclear submarine to sink at the bottom of his mind.
“I wonder if watching paint-dry would be more exciting than most of my projects.”
She stole a couple steps towards the shelves, the sun flooding his desk again. “You’d start dreaming of stuff you can’t even imagine, and by the time you realized it, darkness would have consumed you entirely.”
“Sounds like someone knows something about this.” He chuckled trying to hide his discomfort.
“Isn’t that how it works?” She propped herself against the bookshelves, signaling that she was not going anywhere. He took refuge in the cover, examining the grotesque mugshot of the murderer, obviously selected to make her look satisfied, jubilant even. The picture had been taken years before the crime and was now subject to a different context. “Nothing like translating patents to keep you sedated. They’re so … absorbing that all natural urges are MIA. I’ve managed until now though. So much for your lecture . . .”
“Well, that’s what Stuart says.” She flashed a broad summery smile, exposing her TV commercial teeth. He liked her carefree vivacity, the touch of cheekiness that permeated their conversations. She was quick-witted and did not let anything disarm her.
“Translating often feels like crossing a desert.”
“Does this qualify as dark urges? Maybe some part of you loves this kind of wordy kinkiness?”
There it was again. The way she pronounced kinkiness, he detected an inflexion, a wrong emphasis on the syllables, accompanied in the corner of her dark eyes, with the birth of a wink.
“I can assure you there’s never been anything dark or kinky passing across my desk.” The conversation was veering away from a proper field of corporate speak. He organized a few drawings into a large binder, hoping to derail the conversation. Suspecting she had trailed into his office for other reasons, he waited. But she waited too, giving the impression that she was unsure how to proceed. Was he reading too much into the interaction? She had started at Lingorama late the previous Fall. About nine months now. Yet, he had only noticed her lately. In the last two months, when the something became a thing. The daily interactions, growing trust, and unavoidable proximity, had evolved into an unpredictable office intimacy. More than once, he had caught himself thinking about her.
“Poor guy,” she puffed, “wakes up one morning with no clue that, by the end of the day, he’d be lying in a metal drawer of a hospital morgue.”
She was taking the lead. The soul-crushing translation rather than screaming for attention was now rusting at the bottom of the ocean. He found a brief opportunity to escape. ‘Did he have time to stare at death . . .? Who could be the author of the quote?’ His mind was unable to churn out names of authors. He resumed.
“Maybe he did know? Still, facing death doesn’t mean any of us would be able to tell anyway.”
Her pregnant stare. She looked confused. A waft of hot air brushed his face. He turned to grab a new Russian page. “Listen, I’ve got to finish this.” Averting her eyes, he looked down at the document.
“I brought the paper because Stuart’s repping her. Some hedge-fund friend, the wife of a friend of a friend in Connecticut, asked Stuart to help out. Everyone thinks she’s innocent, even though the husband had a massive head wound, and the police found a fire extinguisher with his DNA on it, and no one else was on the boat. Hard to believe, he could have done this to himself.”
“Can Stuart prove her innocence?”
“You know Stuart. Always close to the vest. He shaves his head so that no wind can affect it.”
It was the first time she’d said a “comment” about Stuart.
“Kudos for his career. Front page of the tabloids. That should get him some mileage in town. Could be a great door opener for becoming a partner.”
He sensed that she was hesitant but pressed on, aware that he was going off script.
“Could be the door for wedding bells too?”
“You’re a fast mover.”
“Predictability has a way with logic.”
She pursed her lips, unsold. He didn’t believe any of it either, his mind too preoccupied with an impulse to kiss her. What could be the texture of her kiss? Soft? Warm? Aggressive? Passionate, sensual? Cold and indifferent? Would she first resist but then surrender? The logic of attraction was taking a different past from predictability.
“Keep the paper, I bought ten copies.” She slid to the door. “I sent you three emails. Given that you haven’t responded, I assumed you didn’t read them.”
He glanced at his screen and noticed the emails in his inbox.
“You still need something from me?” He shook his head. “In that case, I’ll power down for the weekend.” She pivoted. “Before I forget. Congratulations on the clearance.”
What’s happening? His pulse throbbed with excitement as a heatwave conquered his face. Was she intentionally kneading his ego?
“It’s just a clearance. With a higher level, materials become more and more sensitive.”
“Sensitive indeed, from what I hear.” She glanced at him in a suggestive way that made his heart take off without his consent. He sunk into his chair. Her shadow shrouded him.
“6 is only one step away from 7. Then you and I will be moved upstairs to the 34th floor.”
“Who’s the fast mover? Most people don’t ever make it up there. Why do you think so many quit?”
“Interesting. You hear wedding bells for me, but if I hear champagne bottles popping, of course, I’m imagining things…”
Only a fool would fail to imagine that she was not dancing his dance. Each word coming out of her mouth trickled down onto his smoldering imagination. All he could do was to remain silent or venture into the scorching fire.