With discrete precision, Shannon observed Stu Banyon’s table in the exclusive dining room at Strumpet Towers. She waited until he looked in her direction before approaching.

It wasn’t hard to pick up that Banyon didn’t feel comfortable in the dining room. He scowled, moving his aging bulk from side to side in his satin-covered chair. His khaki jacket and pants, along with his scuffed army boots, were out of place in the center of the effortless, pampered luxury that oozed from the plush white carpet and the gold-trimmed walls of the restaurant.

Shannon allowed herself a flicker of disgust. How sloppy he looked! Shannon might be poor but at least she had a sense of style, her hair and uniform immaculate and tastefully put together. Her uniform was the only decent piece of clothing she had, and the extra money spent on her expensive haircut and the mousse needed to keep it looking smart filled her with pleasure.

This thought gave her momentary courage. Banyon had a hair like temper that could erupt seemingly out of nowhere. But she needn’t be intimidated by him. Looking as she did, she reminded herself that she was a professional. She approached with the poise and efficiency required of her position.

“A bourbon on the rocks!” he barked out. “Make that three — no four!”

Shannon might have been startled by the stark command, even experienced it as bordering on insolence. Except that she knew better than that. Insolence implied an interest on his part that just wasn’t there.

Shannon brought him his drinks.

Banyon, in his restlessness, drummed his fingers on the table until she placed the drinks down.

He switched on the sound to the large, muted screen that covered the opposite wall. Images flickered across, showing her boss — the country’s new leader — Conrad “The Con” Strumpet on his various campaign stops.

Shannon found herself watching the segment.

The Con looked good. His bulk was carefully squeezed into a tailored blue suit and his customary orange tan (which earned him the nickname “Tange,” short for Tangerine) was modified into a slight shade. And of course, he wore his trademark hat.

Shannon heard Banyon mutter: “The hat — pure genius. Everybody loves hats.”

She realized that she was still standing at his table when she should have moved away. It was a relief to see that Banyon was too absorbed in The Con’s antics to notice.

She discretely stepped away from the table, still watching the screen.

The Con stepped back from the podium, declaring: “I’m going to get those Wall street bankers” — he kicked his right leg into an imaginary backside — “and kick them up the you-know-where!” The crowd went wild.

Shannon was stunned. Her son, Dylan, had just been suspended from school for doing just that — kicking a fellow student in the backside. Quite possibly to give a rise out of his classmates.

But she quickly collected herself, allowing no more thoughts as the Con’s son-in-law Josh entered the dining room. Josh, a trusted member of the inner circle, wore perfectly styled hair, trim blue designer pants, and a matching white shirt that sat on his shoulders in just the right way. He was carrying a suit jacket. Shannon was surprised that he went to sit down at Banyon’s table.

Just as he was about to sit down, Shannon rushed over, and took his jacket while another attendant pulled out his chair. There was some sort of logo on the jacket’s front, but her eyes skipped over it as she carefully hung the jacket up, giving it a slight brushing.

Shannon loved the feel of the fabric under her fingers. Josh always dressed in a timeless style. He definitely worked on Wall Street; and while Shannon knew nothing about Wall Street, she didn’t see anything wrong with elegance. It was something just beyond her grasp, though she longed to be part of that world.

Tearing herself away from the jacket, Shannon returned to serve Josh.

He sat now at the table with Banyon, though the two weren’t actually making eye contact. Instead, Josh consulted his iPhone, doubtless working on an important business deal.

As Shannon approached closer, the floor beneath her feet rumbled slightly.

Josh didn’t seem to notice, ordering in his cultured, measured tone a glass of Dom Perignon.

Was she just imagining it?

As she left to fill the order, something on the large screen caught her eye. It was The Con looking right into the camera, his orange-tinged hair stacked on the crown of his head, his tapered bulk, his determined blue eyes, and the scowl that shaped his leathered skin — these all suggested a very determined Strumpet.

And sure enough, he shook his figure, declaring in a menacing fashion: “Those liars and cheats who want to take our jobs –say that Strumpet Towers and everything around it are built on a sinkhole! We know better! They just want to take from us what is rightfully ours! And we are not going to let them!”

Shannon didn’t know anything about sinkholes — unless it was the kind that sucked her family into that chaotic void after the factory closed. But at least she had this job here. As long as she served them well, she had her place in this world. And maybe — just maybe — some of their good fortune would rub off on her.

She tried to cast away the nagging thought that, even with the generous tips, the job barely supported her and Dylan in a good month. It was quite possibly the best job she could get — and the only thing she had between herself and destitution.

That was usually enough to keep Shannon focused on her work. But something was slightly off-kilter today. Maybe it was the sinkhole. She’d felt a slight shift before, of course. But somehow today the shift was just that much more pronounced — more real.

Then there was Dylan’s meltdown this morning. She had to admit that Banyon’s look of thinly veiled hatred was the same look that had flashed across Dylan’s face earlier, just before he let go, screaming and upsetting the furniture. But Dylan could be so sweet when things were going his way.

She wasn’t so sure that she could say the same thing about Banyon. His face was one perpetual scowl. But then, there always seemed to be something that didn’t quite satisfy him.

At least with Dylan, a few minutes with a forbidden computer game brought on a smile.

But enough of that, Shannon thought. She had to concentrate on her job. If she had to think about anything, let it be the elegance of Strumpet Towers.

Somehow here — even discord seemed more elegant, more intriguing. And there certainly was discord.

Banyon and Josh were so uncomfortable in each other’s presence that they had not said a word to each other. So why were they voluntarily sitting together?

Then she remembered last night, when The Con had actually graced the restaurant with his presence.

He had been expansive and cordial, though there was a rigidity in the lines of his face, a subtle brittleness that hadn’t been there before he became the actual leader, and had faced opposition — even ridicule — for the first time in his life. Shannon could have well imagined him having those rumored temper tantrums when things didn’t go his way. Maybe that’s why both Josh and Banyon had agreed to meet with him together, even though they were barely civil with one other.

They had arrived at the restaurant separately. Only after The Con had arrived did they cross the room to greet one another.

Even Shannon — being her usual efficient self — had picked up the tension.It had skyrocketed after they had been forced to sit together.

“The Con,” his face emitting a light glow in the dim dining room light, had even put one of his arms around Josh and the other around Banyon.

Neither had been comfortable — the look that Banyon gave would have made any other person shrink. But not The Con. What he didn’t want to see just wasn’t there.

“They love me! Look at the crowds at my inauguration! The biggest crowds ever!” The Con had declared with a smug glow.

Actual photographs had proven otherwise, but The Con still had held to his story, not embarrassed when others brought evidence to the contrary. He had a curious way of blocking out anything he didn’t want to hear.

Like Dylan, Shannon couldn’t help thinking at the time. There were times that he didn’t hear anything you had to say; it was as if he put a wall up to keep you out.

Con Strumpet was big on walls, too. But that hadn’t been his concern last night.

“I have the love of the real American people!” he had declared. “I’m the only one who can make this country great again, and they know it!”

“So,” he’d continued, taking his arms down and then emphasizing every word, “we gotta stop that rumour that there’s infighting among my people.”

It had felt like a lecture but they, like everybody else around The Con, endured.

“Josh, how can I say that you could solve the conflict in the Middle East when you can’t stop fighting with Banyon?”

Taken aback, Shannon had found herself staring at Josh. Could he really do that? Josh’s unflinching expression suggested that he had no problem with the idea.

Maybe, Shannon had thought: this was really a magical world, a world above everyday struggles and the daunting give-and-take that seemed to make up ordinary life.

The Con had appeared to think so. But not without some prodding on his part.

“And Stu, you’ve got what you want, haven’t you?” he had continued petulantly. “You’re my trusted advisor. Just try to — get along with Josh. You know — be buddies.”

This time The Con had tried to put his arms around each of them again, but each was alert enough to be just out of reach.

“It doesn’t look good,” he had commented, impatiently emphasizing each word. His face had clouded over: “Anybody’s not for me — ”

Looking up his from drink, Banyon seemed to understand what was needed.

He’d given The Con a glassy-eyed smile and had said: “Josh and I know what you’re giv’n us, Mr. President…”

The Con had grinned broadly at the mention of his new title.

“A cha’ce at the big time — no fuckin’ holes barred.” He had held up his drink before he gulped it down.

Then, leaning his bulk over, he had put out his hand for Josh to shake. Josh had extended his hand as well, looking at The Con: “I’m always loyal to you and our family.”

“Smart boy!” Con had declared, adding, “Tomorrow I’m making a HUGE announcement! You two are going to be there — together like the buddies — you are! Now where’s that steak?”

So much for last night. But it did explain why Banyon and Josh were sitting at the same table now. They had been ordered to get along, especially in view of this Big Announcement that was about to be made.

As she brought Josh his Dom Perignon, she wondered what that announcement could be. And it seemed like her curiosity was going to be satisfied.

Suddenly, the large TV screen came on with rather ceremonious somber music, a reminder that The Con was, indeed, the leader of the free world.

It certainly made an impressive introduction as The Con entered centre stage, along with a middle aged man dressed in working clothes. The backdrop was The Con’s executive suite. He insisted on doing work there, rather than the more traditional Presidential Offices, when it suited him.

Some people dressed in working clothes were standing around, drinking beer and talking. With The Con’s appearance, they began to cheer.

The Con held his hand up. They cheered even more loudly, though after a while, The Con indicated that they needed to tone down for him to speak and they did so. One final whoop of appreciation cut through the relative quiet and brought a wide grin to The Con’s face.

“I said I would do it, and I did it!” he declared. “A thousand Braithwaite jobs — that were slated to go to Mexico — are staying right here! I saved your jobs!”

Shannon gazed at the screen. Jobs! Could The Con really help her get the job her Dad had — decent pay, benefits, the opportunity to buy a small house, even? She’d given up on ever having that. Maybe, just maybe — if The Con could that for those workers, he could do it for her.

She barely heard Banyon’s mutterings. “Tax breaks, that’s how he did it. Taking money from the working man…”

“Oh,” Josh said, looking up from his iPhone. “You’re concerned about people who pay taxes?”

“My father worked ‘is ass off for years.” Banyon’s voice was beginning to slur. Not surprising, after the amount of alcohol he had consumed. “He paid ‘is taxes like any good Americ’n.”

“And how much tax do you pay now?” Josh asked smoothly. “Gotten out of that patriotic habit, I take it.”

Shannon brought Banyon another series of drinks. She tried to be professional, simply waiting on the table without thinking, but snippets of the conversation entered her consciousness regardless.

The idea of not paying taxes thrilled her. She resented every penny of tax she paid on her meagre income. It was like the government taking food straight from her and Dylan’s mouths. She’d thought about not paying before, but she knew they would go after her — ruthlessly, she was sure.

And these men with all their money never had to pay taxes…she felt as if she’d entered another world. One where people could really spend all they made, even plead that they were too poor to pay taxes that were due…and live like this!

“And by the way — how did you get rich?” Josh continued. “Was it following in your Dad’s hard-working shoes? Or — was it being a trader at Golden Bach — filling those mortgage-backed securities with whatever crap you could find…”

“I hated the work I did there!” Banyon declared savagely.

“But that didn’t stop you from accumulating quite a tidy sum.” Josh was on a roll. “That you invested in that movie, I believe — a real Blockbuster — called ‘The People,’ wasn’t it? About an electronic hero who saved some Native-type people from being exploited by a bunch of dirty capitalists?”

“It made me a lotta money.” A triumphant smirk crossed Banyon’s face. “Nobody needed t’ notice that I was one o’ the dirty cap’talists.”

Shannon went back to her station. She hadn’t picked up everything that was being said, yet she suddenly had the sense that there was a deep chasm between this almost-magical world of easy, casual opulence and the gritty, gray struggle for mere survival that dogged her life. Two worlds that barely — if ever — touched each other.

But certainly The Con didn’t see it that way.

The TV screen dragged her attention back. The Con now had his arm around the middle-aged man on the stage — obviously a worker, who he introduced as Mitch. Mitch had voted for him, confident that The Con would save his job.

Now that The Con had done that, Mitch expressed unaffected gratitude. A simple man, and a hard worker, grateful that somehow in these uncertain times, his livelihood was still there.

The Con, in his largess, graciously even went further: “My family and I are inviting Mitch and his family to eat with us in Strumpet Towers later today.”

Josh moved uncomfortably.

Banyon laughed. “A little too close for comfort…”

Shannon busied herself checking the vacant tables, making sure that all was exactly as it should be. She was finding it hard to believe that someone like Mitch would be welcomed in Strumpet Towers as a guest — and yet it was happening. Maybe there was a bridge between these worlds after all.

Meanwhile, on the screen, The Con put his arms around several of the happy workers.

Banyon smirked. “He really laps ‘t up — like he re’lly can and will help all of ’em. And they buy it…”

He continued, shaking his head, “Con cain’t save jobs wholesale. Not and feed his ins’tiable greed. How else do ya git all of this?” He asked, looking around, “And keep it? Not by upsettin’ the syst’m that feeds ya.”

Shannon caught the cynical tone. It didn’t help that Josh, in his cultured voice, simply replied, “Don’t knock it. It’s gotten both of us to where we want to be.”

The door to the restaurant opened and Kelsey, The Con’s aide, appeared. Young looking, energetic, and blond — The Con liked them blond — she wore an odd outfit: a white shiny dress with red sleeves, blue buttons down the front, and a blue belt. She also wore a red shiny hat, perhaps her own spin on The Con’s iconic head wear.

Shannon was taken aback. Kelsey could afford to wear whatever she wanted. And she was wearing this gaudy plastic thing that looked like she’d bought it at the discount giant, Wal Nut.

But maybe it wasn’t totally surprising. Kelsey’s clipped, frantic movements suggested that things were somehow not going as planned. She seemed more and more erratic every time Shannon saw her.

She began in her clipped tone, “Con can’t make it for lunch. He’s got a high-level briefing with intelligence officials — ”

“Swee’ heart,” Banyon drawled, “Con don’t do briefin’s. To-oo compl’cated. Now if we coold put ’em in a cartoon….”

Kelsey scowled.

“He wants you two to entertain Mitch and whoever comes down with him. Con will come down right at the end of his lunch with Vestor Hodges. He’ll bring Mr. Hodges down after that for the photo shot with Mitch.”

“Now — t’at’s more like it,” Banyon slurred. “Top secur’ty meetin’ wi’ action star Vestor ‘Waste ‘Em!’ Hodges.”

Kelsey was rattled. It looked almost as if she regretted telling the truth. She quickly regained control, though.

When Banyon added a bit louder, “Some dried up ol’ movie star — ”

She replied curtly, “At least he’s dried out.”

She turned to go. “A bit of drinking — good. Macho. But no slurring your words. And get that woman over here. She’s going to do the principle serving.”

Shannon felt a swell of pride at those words: she worked hard at presenting herself in a tasteful elegant way, and now Kelsey was actually acknowledging it.

“We need to remind women that Con does take them seriously,” Kelsey added.

And she was gone.

Banyon lurched to his feet. Furious, he hooked his hands beneath the table and overturned it. Josh jumped up.

“God damn woman! If I had my way…”

“Well you don’t. Not yet,” replied Josh.

Three or four of the restaurant employees came rushing over. A couple righted the table, while another cleaned up the mess of shattered glass and spilled drinks on the floor. Someone rushed over to Josh and started to wipe off Josh’s slightly wet shirt. A look of disgust flashed across his face. A second employee brought Josh a clean shirt, and they went off together to one of the palatial washrooms to change it.

The table and the chairs now righted, Banyon plopped himself back down. His face still clouded over, he growled, “Get me some coffee!”

Shannon hesitated — it was Banyon like this that she feared most.

But her Supervisor gave her a nod — she had been singled out to be the server “on show,” and so it was her job to wait on the main table.

She tried to collect her thoughts. Her mind skipped to the scene the other week when Dylan had thrown over the kitchen table. Stunned, she’d hauled him into his bedroom for a “time out” — the punishment that the therapist had recommended. Those therapists! They talked in language that didn’t really come together for her and they knew it, so condescendingly they would spell it all out. It all sounded so simple for them. But then they didn’t have to live with “the problem” — to be physically drained trying to control behavior that was always there, restlessly waiting to chaotically break through to the surface…

And yet, eerily enough, in this world, among these people, such behavior was acceptable. There was enough room for it: they didn’t have to concern themselves with other people in the same way.

But she had no time to be thinking about this. She collected herself and got the coffee.

Luckily, she remembered: Banyon took it black.

She rushed to the table and, as seamlessly as possible, placed down the coffee.

“I’d like some coffee, too,” Josh said pleasantly enough on his return. The attendant pulled out the chair and he sat down. “Kopi Luwak. Fresh.”

It was when she was getting Josh his Kopi Luwak that Kelsey entered, Mitch in tow.

Mitch looked around in awe. He was obviously a good pick for the photo op. Wearing a checkered shirt, with his gray hair slicked back, and his bulk agreeably out of shape, his face burst into a childlike smile when he entered the restaurant.

Mitch was so much the centre of attention that only Shannon noticed the other the people who wandered in after him.

She was immediately concerned. Where they his family? What were they doing here? They were unkempt — dressed in wrinkled misshapen clothes, with the dingy feel of the street clinging to them. Their very presence seemed to sully the pristine atmosphere of Strumpet Towers.

The first to come in was the man with a ponytail. He was dressed in mismatching clothes — baggy brown pants, covered by a sky-blue hoody which showed the frayed cuffs of a white shirt sticking out of his too-short sleeves. Under one arm, he was carrying what looked like a painting. With his other hand, he gently guided two little girls into the restaurant. The bigger of the girls clutched a ragged bag to her chest. The girls were both dark-skinned, and fragile-looking, yet both rushed ahead of him. The bigger girl put the ragged bag on a table before joining the smaller one in the middle of the restaurant. They started a clapping game, chanting, “Annabella, Tusabello, Simbo, Kebato…”

“Shh — ” he whispered gently, and they started to whisper the rest of the words to themselves, giggling.

He sat down at a table with the ragged bag, and propped his picture up.

Shannon wondered: where was Security?

Sure enough, two burly security guards appeared within moments. One consulted his iPhone.

“Are they all with you?” he asked Mitch coolly, indicating the man and the two little girls.

Mitch didn’t answer.

“If you consult the latest tweet from Mr. Strumpet” — the security guard turned to Kelsey — “you’ll see that it says…”

“God,” muttered Banyon under his breath, “I t’ought tha’ Blondie woulda taken his” — Banyon mimicked The Con thumbing an imaginary phone — “away.”

“Take care of Mitch, and family. Con Strumpet takes care of his own! Are they members of your family?”

This time Mitch did admit, “No.”

But as they began to round the interlopers up, Kelsey stopped the security guards. She had a contorted look of disgust on her face.

Nevertheless, she saw the opportunity. She explained, “Con Strumpet caring for down and out people A great photo op!”

She didn’t look directly into the pony tailed man’s eye, but she concluded, “They look harmless enough. Why not give it a shot?”

Shannon was taken aback by Kelsey’s overt disgust, and felt immediately ashamed of her own feelings. It was true these people didn’t fit in here — the shabbiness that they brought in from the street seemed to offend the exquisite beauty of Strumpet Towers. Yet they were human beings, too, not to be dismissed in such a callous way.

Suddenly, Strumpet Towers — with its elegant linens and gold-plated outlines — had lost some of its shine.

The security men insisted on frisking the man and the children before they left. The man was obliging and calm enough. No weapons found.

A momentary shift of Strumpet Towers didn’t seem to trouble the security guards left. Nor did the shifting seem to faze the others.

Mitch seemed too star-struck to notice.

“Mitch, come sit at Con Strumpet’s table,” Kelsey almost barked, directing him to Banyon and Josh’s table.

As he followed her, Mitch looked at Kelsey as if he didn’t quite believe she was real.Shannon was beginning to wonder if Kelsey was real, too.

But enough of that. Shannon focused her attention back on her job, and slipped up quietly to the table.

Banyon quickly popped a pill, and then after took a quick gulp of coffee. He seemed to know exactly what to do.

He stood up and shook Mitch’s hand, saying, “Hey, Dude, finally got someone on our side.”

“Just glad to have my job. At my age — ”

“Don’t I know — ” Banyon turned away just in time to see Josh smirk, though Josh quickly regained his composure.

Banyon nodded at Mitch to sit down, adding, “You ‘n I know somethin’ that pr’tty boy over th’re doesn’t know — how t’ claw our way up…”

“That’s true, sir,” Mitch responded. “Thirty-odd years, and I’m now shift supervisor.”

“Jesus!” Banyon muttered, struggling hide his contempt for such a modest accomplishment.

Kelsey distracted Mitch’s attention by ordering his favourite beer. By the time Shannon brought it back, Kelsey was on her way again.

The Con needed her upstairs. It seemed that he couldn’t do without her.Or maybe she just didn’t want to stay here.

That thought crossed Shannon’s mind as Banyon muttered, “Tha’ blonde harpy. What sh’ needs is a good f — ”

But he was aware that he shouldn’t go too far, as Mitch was looking hopefully at Banyon.

He seemed to gather up all the self-control he could muster as he said, “Tell me, Mitch. Just wha’d Con Strumpet say th’t got your support?”

A smile crossed Mitch’s face. “That’s easy. When he said: ‘Give the American worker what they deserve: jobs! jobs! jobs!’ I still remember shouting that: jobs! jobs! jobs! I knew then that Mr. Strumpet was on my side.”

A smirk spread over Banyon’s face. He couldn’t resist. He turned to Josh and said, “Now, pretty boy…wassn’t that one of your slog’ns? One th’t your little group of computer nerds came up wit’? You see, Mitch, Josh here was in charge of a little group of people who analyzed in the min-u-test de-tail what Mr. Strumpet wood say… Ya know: wha’d appeal mos’ to you workin’ stiffs… I guess jobs topped the lis’…”

“What utter nonsense,” Josh replied without conviction.

Mitch just stared at him, muttering, “Mr. Strumpet just says what he thinks. That’s why I like him.”

“I like a man says what he thinks, too,” said a new voice. “One who says what’s on his mind. Provided he has a mind.”

It was the man with the ponytail. He had settled himself comfortably at a table. He was heavy set, with black hair and brown eyes that indicated he was indigenous in background.

“Whadda ya mean by th’t?” Banyon demanded.

Even with the volume down on TV, Shannon could faintly hear The Con telling a reporter: “I’m the smartest man I know.”

For a moment, Shannon wondered if Banyon was actually embarrassed by Strumpet’s sometimes ignorant behavior.

“If a man’s mind is empty,” the pony tailed man began in a genuine effort to explain himself, “he opens it to take in what is around him. He learns from the wise counsel of others. Or else his words are empty.”

“My dear Cochise,” Banyon replied condescendingly, “Con Strump’t’s words ain’t empty. W’at he says influ-ences th’ world. He doessn’t haveta ‘ave a mind.”

The man opened his mouth to say something. But nothing came out. Instead, he let it go.

To Shannon it was all gobbledygook. But it was Shannon’s job now to wait on him, too. So she went over to his table.

The painting he had propped up immediately up caught Shannon’s attention. It showed a black and white bird with dreamy eyes rising up out of circles of colourful water, ready in a moment’s flash to place itself on the calm water’s surface, in the gathering gray and pink dawn. Shannon — whose own artwork was restricted to botched portraits of Dylan — sensed the power there.

“Is there anything that you want?” Shannon asked him.

The man calmly picked a picture out of his pocket and showed it to her. It showed him standing outside a decaying building. On the photograph was a crude but striking ink drawing. It looked like the head of Lisa Simpson, or maybe a crude outline of the sun’s rays. On either side of it lines were jerkily drawn. A big X was drawn underneath, cancelling out both the man and the building. Underneath was written in a stylized hand: “Wave of the Future.”

Shannon immediately understood the situation. But she was totally taken aback when the man went on to suggest, “I’d like to have my apartment back.”

Shannon was confused. “What?”

“You did ask me if there was anything I wanted.”

Shannon looked bewildered. “I can’t do that.”

“Just thought I’d try. Working here — I thought you might have some kind of pull.” There was a twinkle in his eye.

Shannon tried to regain control of the situation. “All I can do is get you something to eat, Sir.”

“Just Dale,” the man said softly.

“Dale,” Shannon corrected herself. “What would you like?”

Dale smiled. “A burger with cheese, and fries and a chocolate milkshake.”

“And what about the two little girls who came in with you — ”

Shannon immediately wished she hadn’t asked. Dale became very solemn, shaking his head in dismay. “I can’t give what they need. They need too much…”

Shannon quickly addressed him. “Leave that to me. I’ll look after them.”

Dale looked at her quizzically — she wondered for a moment if she said something out of place. But then he smiled gently, obviously appreciating her offer of help. It was nice to be appreciated.

As she was leaving, Dale stifled a cough. He did look pale, almost pasty.

She checked with Mitch. “Can I get you something to eat?”

“Oh no,” Mitch replied. “I’m going to wait for Mr. Strumpet.”

She could hear Dale stifle another cough. She picked up some ice water and took it over to him.

She was concerned — not just about Dale, either.

She understood that Con Strumpet was having a lunch meeting with the actor, Vestor Hodges, and yet Mitch seemed to be expecting to actually dine with him. Neither Banyon or Josh seemed interested in clarifying the situation — or even in really talking at all to Mitch — and it wasn’t her place to interfere, though she did feel a bit awkward about not saying anything. She liked Mitch.

Dale noticed her preoccupation.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

Shannon jumped. No one had ever asked that before in all her time at Strumpet Towers, and she was aware that any detection of feeling on her part could lose her the job.

She shook her head, though Dale wasn’t fooled.

“Your uncle?” Dale continued, nodding in Mitch’s direction.

“No,” Shannon admitted, adding, “But he could be.”

“You have a big heart,” Dale observed. “That is a real gift.”

Shannon stared at him. She so often felt the opposite — cold, rigid, sealing herself up to do what she had to do. Dylan’s harshest insult was “you cold b — — ,” usually released in a fit of temper after she’d said “no.”

The building lurched slightly. The TV screen automatically flipped to The Con and his spiel: “There are no sinkholes ready to swallow up this building!”

Shannon had heard it so many times before, yet she was feeling less and less reassured.

Dale simply frowned and shook his head.

Her attention was drawn to the bold, colourful painting now propped on the table.

She loved to sketch and draw but wasn’t that good. Besides, it was a waste of time.

Dale noticed her interest.

“The Loon,” Dale said. “The symbol of dreams and reawakening hope. Do you have any dreams?”

Shannon was startled. “I guess to have a little house where we — my son, Dylan and I — could live. And he could have all his friends over — yes, he’d have all these friends — who’d want to come over and spend time with him, and” — she added wishfully — “he’d be happy….”

Tears came to eyes. That was dangerous. She straightened up and asked in as brisk of a tone as possible, “I placed your order. Is there anything else I can get you? Other than your apartment, I mean.” She allowed herself a slight smile.

“A dream that is worthy is enough of a gift,” he replied.

He started to cough. Shannon hesitated, but Dale indicated that she could go, as he drank some of the ice-cold water already on the table.

As she was heading back to the kitchen, Shannon walked over to Mitch. Possibly he didn’t quite understand how things worked around here.

She suggested, “Maybe you’d like to order a cheeseburger, too. Mr. Strumpet has — er — been delayed — ”

“I’ll wait,” Mitch smiled broadly. “I know he wants to eat with me.”

Shannon let it go. She went to the kitchen and picked up Dale’s chocolate milkshake.

The two young girls were still playing in the centre of the restaurant. She went over to them.

They were both razor-thin — with small, meticulous braids covering their heads. The smaller one wore a white dress with faded blue flowers, slightly too big for her; the older one a faded light purple smock, also a bit large.

“Do you girls want something to eat?”

They stopped their playing for a moment. The older one shyly shook her hand; the other did the same.

“Well — ” Shannon looked quizzically at the older girl.

The older girl took the hint and whispered her name: “Ayana.”

The smaller girl followed suit, whispering in a barely audible voice: “Azmena.”

“My name is Shannon,” she said, smiling gently. “If either of you want something to eat, I’ll get it for you.”

They both smiled shyly back at her, but then turned back to their game.

“They sometimes eat, but they love to draw clouds with me,” Dale said. He took some pieces of paper from the bag that Ayana had left on the table.

This time he couldn’t stifle the cough. He coughed violently.

Banyon withdrew from his direction. So did Josh, who all this time was staring intently at his iPhone.

Ayana and Azmena wandered over to Dale’s table, seemingly unconcerned about his illness. They climbed onto two chairs. Ayana looked at the pictures from the bag. She and Azmena took up some crayons and began drawing.

“We draw exquisite clouds!” Ayana said simply.

That seemed to calm Dale, and that did help with his coughing.

When he recovered himself, he said, “Don’t worry. It’s not catching. At least, not in a literal way.”

“Wha’ kinda double speak’s th’t?” Banyon demanded.

“I’m not aware of using words to trick you,” Dale said simply. “My cough isn’t contagious. Though so many things around us are.”

Con Strumpet was on screen again, declaring, “We gotta keep ’em out! They and their kind don’t belong here!”

“Many things,” Dale said, sadly.

The sound on the TV screen went up, making it impossible to do anything but watch.

Vestor Hodges was on-screen now. The Con put his arm around the actor. “My friend Vestor Hodges — he’s done his bit to take out the trash.”

“Excuse me,” a reporter asked. “But isn’t it true those were just movies, in which Mr. Hodges didn’t do his own stunts?”

He had a point. The aging, pudgy actor didn’t look like he could keep up with the criminal element — especially if they were walking at a brisk pace — let alone hunt them down.

The Con seemed flustered for a moment, and then said petulantly, “That’s what’s wrong with America! You press always try to destroy our heroes! This is Vestor Hodges: Renegade Justice… Judge, jury and executioner… Hunting down the scum that stalks our streets… Someone I’ve always looked up to. A real man. My hero.”

“Is that why you like Gregoroff?” the reporter’s voice continued. “Because he sets himself as judge, jury, and executioner? Or is it because he compliments you?”

The Con tightened up, immediately becoming defensive. “Gregoroff’s a strong leader. He’s got balls. He likes me.” He shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated, way, gesturing with his arm. “What’s wrong with that?”

Suddenly Kelsey slipped into the frame beside The Con. She didn’t look too happy.

And that wasn’t surprising, Shannon realized. Like lots of people, Shannon wasn’t so sure about Gregoroff: there was something about him that scared her.

“Gregoroff gets things done. I admire that — ”

“But the fact is that Gregoroff’s country is a police state where his opponents disappear or are killed,” the reporter persisted. “Do you admire that?”

The Con put his hand up. “I’m not talking to you! It’s all fake news! Escort this man out, please!”

The TV switched off momentarily and then flipped onto a smiling Con with some catchy elevator music.

The sound went down again.

Shannon was getting a headache. Work was stressful enough, but today with all the talk, the politics she could barely understand… Or maybe prefer not to understand… It was becoming just too much.

Dale was stifling a cough when she approached his table. She put the milkshake down and, looking at the painting of the loon, she found that she couldn’t take her eyes off it.

“I wish I could paint like that,” she muttered.

“Maybe you can,” Dale said simply, taking a sip of his milkshake. “Unleash your dreams and see where they take you…”

Banyon’s laugh crackled.

Shannon immediately blushed, realizing that she’d done something she dreaded: caught Banyon’s attention. She immediately composed herself.

“What a cock!” Banyon declared, slurring his words. Surely, he meant: what a crock!

But no matter. He was on a roll. “Military power! The power to kill!” He banged his fist on the table. “That’s all that matters. Con und’rstands that! That why he likes Gregoroff. ‘Xcept…” Banyon couldn’t resist. “Con doesn’t care t’ deal wit’ the gritty deta’ls. He wants to believe ‘e ‘as a b-eeg heart. Exhibit A.”

He pointed to Mitch, who looked more confused than ever.

“So the cra’kdowns, the deportations, th’ bombed out cities, the collateral dam’ge…”

“Will all be left up to you,” Josh said coolly.

“I’m not ‘fraid o’ getting my hands dirty.” Banyon looked at his hands. “Like some…”

Banyon turned abruptly to Shannon, and demanded, “Bourbon!”

Shannon was relieved that Banyon didn’t seem to notice her indiscretion.

I need this job, she reminded herself. It’s the only way Dylan and I can hope to survive. Stuffing down any feelings, Shannon once more became the discreet, efficient waiter.

She brought Banyon a glass with some ice in it, and an opened bottle. He poured himself a glass.

There was a lull. Josh turned to Dale.

“Is that picture for sale?” he asked him. “I appreciate good art.”

Dale thought for a moment. “At one time — yes. After all, I like to eat, too. But now — I’m not so sure.”

The rest of Dale’s order was ready, so Shannon brought it to him.

She tried to be as detached as possible, though Dale’s smile caught her off-guard.

“You don’t have to feel so superior,” Josh said coolly.

Dale smiled. “You caught me on that one. I like to be honest with myself, and I was feeling superior.”

Stifling a cough, he took a drink of his milkshake. Despite her intentions, Shannon found herself hovering around him to make sure he was alright.

“So you pride yourself on being honest. I do, too,” Josh said. “Though sometimes I have to compromise in order to create the wealth, the luxury, the opportunity… The future that is our destiny…”

Josh indicated that he wanted his jacket. Shannon went over to get it. He stood up as Shannon approached, and put on his jacket.

Dale stared at Josh’s jacket, the logo on the front now visible. He muttered, “Xcess! You’re the one who smashed my home into rubble!”

He seemed deflated, the pain of his loss weighing on him.

“Nonsense!” Josh dismissed him.

But Ayana, steeling herself, up walked over to Josh’s table. In her trembling hand, she had the photo of Dale outside his apartment with the Xcess logo blotting them out. She held it out to Josh, who looked at it dispassionately.

“The wave of the future,” Dale muttered. “How come it never includes me and my people?”

Banyon didn’t need to see the picture to guess what was going on. He nudged Mitch, who was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

“We workin’ people,” Banyon said to him, “we kno’ th’ fear o’ that . The street — th’t’s where we c’n end up.”

Shannon felt a sinking feeling. Of course, she and Dylan could be homeless, too — if she didn’t mind her P’s and Q’s and keep this job.

She decided to ignore what was going on, just do her job; though it was hard not to notice Josh was staring at Banyon, this time not disguising his hatred.

“My company developed the property,” Josh responded icily, “because it was a slum. We tore it down, revitalized the area — added new shops, new condos, new growth…”

“ ’Nd,” Banyon added, “you ‘ad to throw away the ol’d trash t’ do it.”

“You’d have done that same,” Josh responded, anger creeping into his voice.

“‘Course!” declared Banyon, raising his glass. “I learn’d ta not be ‘aten, I’ad to becom’ the predator! Unlike our fr’end Mitch ‘ere, I don’t truss’ ya t’ provide for an’one but y’rself…”

Despite herself, Shannon caught the gist of what was being said, and she didn’t like it.

“Nobody’s trash,” she muttered under her breath, suddenly afraid that she was overheard.

The TV suddenly came on. Looking none too pleased, The Con muttered a few things into the microphone. Luckily, they couldn’t be understood. Kelsey who was fluttering around, pointed to the camera. The Con saw it and hastily changed his scowl into a gregarious grin.

“Come here, my friend.” He put his arm around a subdued Vestor Hodges again. “We in America still have faith in you! We’re going down to the dining room to meet with Mitch and take pictures of the real America.”

Vestor Hodges said sincerely, “Thank you, Dude.”

He pulled away from Strumpet who said, “Vestor’s taking the elevator down now, and we’re going to shortly join him.”

Josh muted the rest. Both he and Banyon realized the need for all to be well here. But they did nothing.

But then, Shannon thought, maybe this isn’t all that much to do.

Ayana, whose hands were still trembling, went back to Dale, who put her on his knee. They started to draw clouds.

Mitch became visibly excited — not only to meet The Con, but Vestor Hodges as well. He could barely contain himself. He didn’t even see Banyon’s look of disgust; though Banyon did try to reign it in by taking another drink. He had to behave himself with The Con and Vestor Hodges about to arrive.

Suddenly, the building lurched again. It was left with a definite tilt this time. No-one seemed to notice but Dale, whose face clouded over.

Instead, they all waited for the elevator to open and Vestor Hodges to enter. But he didn’t.

After a minute or two, they relaxed. Obviously, something had come up. Not unusual.

Banyon seemed particularly eager to continue the conversation.

“Ya unders’and don’ ya, Cochise?” Banyon said to Dale. “The Con is th’ wolf tha’ eat y’r loon. Or ain’t there wolves in tha’ mystical wor’ of y’rs?”

Suddenly, Dale began to cough violently. He gently moved Ayana off his knee. He drank some water and that seemed to help. Ayana, caught up in the cloud she was drawing, continued on her picture.

“I believe in wolves,” he said. “I have one eating up my insides. And my doctor tells me — the wolf will win.”

“So you do go to the doctor,” Banyon remarked.

Dale nodded in agreement. “Of course. Like the loon, I belong to both worlds.”

“How convenient,” Banyon said

“I never said I wanted to go back,” Dale said, looking him calmly in the eyes. “You’re the one that wants to go back.”

Josh nodded at Shannon. She went over to take his order. He asked for the usual: “I’ll have two slices of Kobe beef, medium rare; asparagus hops sautée; and a small la Bonnotte sculptured in wedges. And a glass of Chateau Lafite.”

Shannon returned from placing the order to hear Banyon protesting smugly: “Me? I wanna go forwa’d. I takin’ my rit’ful place!” He pounded his fist on the table. “Survi’al of the fittest… And I’m th’ one who’ll devour o’ters and survives.”

“The wolf devouring its prey,” Dale began.

Shannon was following the conversation despite herself. She looked at Dale with concern. When her Aunt Shirl had cancer, she’d described it as being eaten up inside. She also had the pasty look that Dale had. The dreaded thought filled her mind: he’s saying he has cancer.

Still, he was definitely holding his own.

“But you see, I agree with — is it Banyon?” Dale turned his attention to Josh. “I agree with Banyon. There is a savage wolf that lurks inside all of us — out to destroy anything that threatens it.”

Suddenly, Shannon was lost again. But no matter. The TV came on with full sound. It was a rerun of one of Strumpet’s most popular speeches.

The Con Strumpet — his leathery orange face all aglow — declared, “Stick with me! I’m a winner! I love a winner!”

The crowd went ballistic.

Banyon muted the sound.

“Ta ‘ave th’ pow’er, ta be the winner,” Banyon slurred smugly, “is all tha’ counts. Con understands tha’ in ’is DNA. That’s wha’ he’s sellin’.”

Shannon was becoming uncomfortable. Strumpet and company’s idea of a winner didn’t seem to include Dale, or — she suspected — Ayana and Azmena. Shannon was beginning to wonder if it included her or Dylan either.

“So you feed the savage fear, the rapacious greed, the unabashed arrogance, and it grows.” Dale observed simply.

Suddenly, the building lurched to the side and shifted downwards slightly. This time Strumpet Towers didn’t shift back to the place it’d been before.

“So wha’s wron’ wid tha’, Cochise? It’s th’ way o’ t’e worl’. E’en Josh who sees ‘isself as a religious man, cons’mes all ‘e can.”

Shannon put the luxurious, delicate food of Josh’s order in front of him.

“Ya cain’t eat like th’t and not be the most vic’us wolf aroun’.” Banyon’s tone was smug.

Suddenly, Dale let out a ferocious growl, followed by slightly off-key howl.

“What the h — ” muttered Josh.

With a grin, Dale said, “Just trying out my wolf. See how vicious I can sound.”

Ayana and Azmena giggled. It was good to see them smile.

Josh, barely able to hide his disgust, said, “I’ve had enough! Security!”

The two security men were at his table.

“Security,” Josh began, “Please take out this — ”

“Trash?” Banyon taunted.

“These people — out,” Josh finished.

But almost as if on cue, Kelsey frantically rushed into the room.

In a clipped voice, she said, “No time for that. The press is all over the place, and we lost Vestor Hodges!”

“But I thought that Con was following Hodges down here — “

“Con doesn’t know,” Kelsey explained.

“M’ybe we can thro’ a magic cloak ov’er ’em ‘nd poof! They disappear! Like good ol’ Vestor!” Banyon laughed at his own joke.

Mitch was in a state of shock. He muttered, “Lost Vestor Hodges?!”

Shannon suddenly felt angry. She had to admit that she didn’t really care about Vestor Hodges. With his Beverly Hills mansion and fifth wife — who was young enough to be her daughter, let alone his — he could take care of himself.

But Dale and the girls were different.

“Grandpa,” Ayana said earnestly, looking up from her drawing. “Let’s draw more clouds.”

The Security guards seemed braced to carry out their mission. But a quick nod from Josh and they returned to their position.

Dale smiled gently at both of the girls and then began to draw some more clouds.

“I’ll get another milkshake, and a burger for the girls,” Shannon said.

She went to place the order, relieved that no one seemed to notice her. Usually, she did only what she was specifically told to do. But she quickly realized that she was hardly the centre of attention.

Kelsey’s face was becoming more contorted than ever.

She blurted out, “We have to find Vestor Hodges! Nobody can leave! Especially these — er — people. They are just the kind of people Vestor champions. He only bullies the strong to save the common man! “

“Now, that — tht’s the fall of Western civilization right t’ere, Cochise.” Banyon looked down at his drink. “Blondie ’ere ‘avin’ t’ peddle a fantasy — t’ sugarcoat the use o’ brute force. I myself like y’r image of the wolf. Don’t matt’r long as’ ‘e’s the biggest bastar’ ‘round.”

Banyon took another drink.

Kelsey muttered, “You’re pissed — ”

“So are you, Blondie,” Banyon cackled delightly. “Maybe if I grabbed y’r puss — ” Banyon slurred over the words. “Get yur ‘ormones straight’en out.”

As if by rote, Kelsey said, “We are here to support Con, to build him up so that he can be the strong leader he needs to be — ”

“Lis’en,” Banyon beckoned Kelsey to come over. “Ther’s no ‘we’ ‘ere. You ain’t” — Banyon cupped his right hand — “got th’ balls.”

“Con depends on me as much as he depends on you.” Her flat tone revealed no conviction.

Banyon shook his head. “It’ss downright embrasss — in’, the way you lie. But — then tha’s w’at wom’n are good at — lyin’ for their man — as l’ng as iif shee’s satisfied — ”

Kelsey’s face expression became even more wooden.

Josh’s droll voice broke into the discussion. “Come on, Kelsey. Lighten up. He’s just trying to goad you — to get a rise out of you. We’re all needed to feed Con’s power, his strength, his ego”

“To feed the carnivore, the rapacious wolf inside,” added Dale.

Suddenly, a lurch, and this time it lasted a few second longer: the building definitely settling at lower level, the angle sharper than before.

But nobody seemed to notice.

Kelsey had turned to go. “We gotta find Hodges. If he comes in here — “

She paused to text something on her phone.

Shannon went over to her.

For the first time in her life, Shannon wanted to talk to Kelsey, to tell her about the time, she — Shannon — worked at a garage. It was good money, and Shannon felt like of the guys… Until she discovered that her nickname was “Shag”. That was how they talked about her. And she realized she could never be one of them — not as a woman.

She wanted to say that to Kelsey, but Kelsey’s wooden expression suggested that she knew that already.

Kelsey looked up from her phone and said, “Text me!” And she was gone.

Banyon was now standing up, giving a convoluted lecture. “Ta be the bigges’ predator a’ound!” He was wobbling.

“To feed on others, “ Dale added soberly.

“T’ats wa’t Empires are ma’e of… The mast brut’al wins…”

Shannon’s skin crawled — this was too much. Apparently, it was too much for Josh, too.

“Nonsense!” he replied. “I create wealth.”

“Ahh…” Banyon sneered. “B’t for who?”

“I create the wealth,” Josh replied. “Why shouldn’t it belong to me and my family?”

“Your family?” Dale asks.

Josh nodded to Shannon. She walked over to him. He handed her his iPhone, and nodded towards Dale.

Shannon allowed herself to glance at the screen. On it was a picture of stunning family — Josh, his beautifully sculptured wife, Ariana Strumpet, two wistful but immaculately dressed children, a girl and boy, and an older couple, Josh’s parents, both trim and flawlessly turned out. Who wouldn’t want a family like that?

Shannon took the phone to Dale, who was suitably impressed by the picture.

“Pretty small,” Dale commented.

“Got a lot of relatives,” Banyon slurred with contempt.

“You could say that,” Dale replied. “My family embraces every other human being — our kinship being our life together. My family embraces the trees, the earth, the animals, the birds, the rocks, the river, the soil beneath my feet.” Dale looked at Josh with unflinching stare. “Do you create wealth for all of them?”

Suddenly the elevators to the restaurant opened. They stopped, looking for Vestor Hodges, or Strumpet, or both.

But the elevators were empty.

“I beli’ve Mr. Hodges ain’t comin’.” Banyon remarked. “An’one look in th’ broom closet?”

Shannon found herself smiling, though she quickly composed herself. Josh looked none too pleased.

Banyon himself wanted to get back to the “serious stuff.”

“It ain’t a’out creatin’ wealth for ev’ryone!” he turned to Dale. “It’ss about — takin’ all ya can git for yourselves. “Th’ more brutal you are — the more likely you are to survive! No livin’ in the clouds!”

Banyon chuckled, “Ya gotta destroy ’em t’ survive.”

Those last words seemed to trigger something in Ayana.

Distressed, she looked up from her drawing and muttered: “Destroy the cl-clouds? Please don’t des-destroy the clouds!”

She stared at Josh, pointing to the logo on his jacket. “Mr. Xcess! You are a religious man, a good man. Don’t destroy the clouds. Plea — se,” she pleaded.

Ayana stood up with a picture in her trembling hand. She went to Azmena and had her also take a picture from the table.

They both walked over to stand in front of Josh’s chair.

Visibly shaking, Ayana held her picture up, and said in a small quivering voice said, “Please. Don’t let the sun eat up the clouds…”

Azmena held her picture up of cloud and a green field below with stick figures, and barely able to get the words out. “Please. Let the clouds cry. It will be green, and we have food to eat.”

Josh said coolly, “As if I can do that.”

“But you brutalize the earth, destroying life’s delicate balance.” Dale sighed deeply.

Banyon began to laugh.

“Sup’rstitious no’sense! Yar jus’ a Ind’an! Dyin’ lik’ the rest o’ th’ weak and expeditible!”

“I am dying,” Dale admitted. He struggled to resist a cough.

Shannon became indignant. She snapped. She muttered, “This isn’t how you treat a sick person!”

Turning to a startled Mitch, she insisted, “Well, it isn’t!”

Suddenly, Banyon stood up again and tossed over the table.

Ayana and Azmena jumped out of the way, whimpering in abject terror. Dale rushed over to them, and putting his arms around both of them, gently comforted them.

Startled, Mitch stood back, blinking.

“I’m just waiting for Mr. Strumpet and Mr. Vestor,” he muttered when Shannon came over to see if he was alright.

This time, no one rushed over to pick up the table. Where they’d all gone, Shannon didn’t know. Maybe they’d been recruited to search for Vestor Hodges.

Shannon calmly picked the table up herself. Josh simply stood aside, once more consulting his iPhone. Mitch, at least, got himself a chair. Shannon got Josh a chair and he sat down.

Dale, his arms still around the girls, looked up at Josh and said, “The sick man feeds the ravenous wolf inside until it eats him and he becomes the ravenous wolf, ravaging all he can see… Even his Mother — Nature — who gives him life…”

“W’at sic’ nonsense is this!” raved Banyon. “Get these people out!”

The two security men approached Dale. He gently picked up Azmena and gave her to Shannon. He stood up with Ayana in his arms. But she moved, indicating a desire to get down. He let her down, and she went over to Shannon and Azmena.

“Nature — our mother!” Josh reflected, looking up for the moment. “Nature’s a brutal force that we, as humans, harness to meet our needs. That make us men.”

“We breathe the oxygen that green plants expel as waste. The bees spread the pollen that fertilize our crops so that they can feed us.”

Dale showed no resistance to the Security guards.

“All is balanced, all weave in and out together to create life. We must respect Mother Earth and all our fellow beings who give us the precious gift life. Or we — ”

Another lurch of the building.

“ — die.”

Dale added, “That is who we really are.”

Suddenly the elevator door to the dining room opened again.

All activity in the dining room froze to a halt. An awkward silence — not a good time for Vestor Hodges to turn up. Not the best time for a photo op.

But no one was there.

Banyon couldn’t restrain himself any longer. Still standing, he started to pace back and forth. He declared, “T’ee huggin’ bulls’it! Put forward b’ a bu’ch of incomp’tents ‘oo didn’t ‘ave it ‘ere” — he pointed to his head — “ta mass-ter the woorl’ around ‘em!”

“…You mean scientists?” replied Dale drolly. “Or my people — who never lost who we really are?”

Banyon raised his hand to punch Dale in the face.

Shannon gasped. Even Josh stood up.

Before Shannon could stop her, Ayana scrambled away from the her and grabbed Banyon’s lower legs, trying to pull him down.

When Banyon turned his attention to her, Josh nodded at the security guards, who stepped in. One gently pried Ayana off Banyon’s legs; the other indicated to Banyon to back off.

Banyon was too drunk to do anything else but comply, muttering, “Scum of t’e earth! An’ we ‘ave to pr’tend we car’ about ‘em.”

Dale looked genuinely shocked, unable to move. Shannon rushed over to make sure that Ayana was alright.

Josh addressed him. “Dale — that’s your name — isn’t it? Banyon here is crude, barbaric.” He shook his head. “I’m not out to hurt anyone. I really can’t make it rain!”

“But you can stop brutalizing the earth,” said Dale, his gaze boring into Josh’s face. “Give rather than take. Welcome back the clouds. Maybe Ayana and Azmena will have a chance to live. But then you’d have to give up all of this” — Dale waved his hand to indicate the whole room — “and admit how vulnerable we really are…”

Shannon wasn’t sure how much of the conversation she followed, but she trusted Dale and what she caught of it seemed to make sense.

But not to Josh.

“Nonsense!” Josh declared,” I’ll help those girls and their people. Give them food.”

Suddenly the elevator to the Dining Room opened again. This time it opened and closed several times.

Frustrated, Josh shouted, “Can’t somebody stop this?”

“Year after year? You’ll feed them year after year?” asked Dale.

The elevator door opened and closed again and again.

“Then we can move them elsewhere,” Josh replied.

“Where? Here? And how many millions can you provide for?” Dale’s tone was acid. “At least until they can be forgotten.”

The elevator door finally closed.

Banyon seemed almost gleeful. He approached Josh and, putting his arm on his shoulder, said, “Bess-t to fo’git about ’em now. Can’t save evr’yone. Only th’ ones who deser-ve to survive. Th’ way of nat’re, m’boy.”

Josh gave him a stony glance, but did not pull away.

He continued incredulously, “Give up all of this?! This is the future — the only way forward.”

Dale replied, “It isn’t. We can leave this — ”

A slight shake and Strumpet Tower moved a notch lower.

“…tower of Babel” — he smiled as if slightly pleased with his Biblical reference — “and go outside… Learn to live in the world as it really is… Then we may have some hope of survival.”

Shannon was horrified. She had no idea how she and Dylan would survive outside of her job here at Strumpet Towers.

And yet the sudden lurching — and slight movement of the Tower just that much lower — made her realize: It really isn’t safe for me here anymore either.

“We all need to leave,” Dale continued.

“That’s ridiculous,” Josh replied. “The only safe place is in here. Which one of you can survive out there — in the world without us? How will you even eat? Find shelter? You get sick, where will you get treatment without us providing it for you?”

A sudden lurch and this time the building felt as if it was definitely sinking.

“Well — we certainly aren’t going to survive in here,” Dale began.

Turning to Josh, he said, “You can’t give it up — no matter who pays the price.”

As if on cue, the building began to shift to its side, sliding down a little more.

He said to the Security men, “We’re leaving on our own.”

Shannon helped Ayana up, and said, “I’m coming with you. Just a minute.”

Shannon went over to Mitch.

“I think we should get out of here. The building’s falling down around us.”

“Oh no,” said Mitch. “Mr. Strumpet saved my job. He will save me and my family.”

Suddenly the elevator door opened. This time, Vestor Hodges did stagger out.

Dazed, he screamed, “It was awful! I ended up in the basement! There was nothing there! Just a big gaping hole. I pushed all the buttons — I don’t know — I finally got up here!”

He paused and saw Josh, now back on his iPhone, and Banyon pouring himself another drink. Suddenly he calmed down. Maybe all was well after all.

“It’s not safe in here for us anymore,” Shannon pleaded to Mitch.

But Mitch was star-struck. He went over to Vestor Hodges to shake his hand.

Shannon found herself adding, “…I’m not sure it ever was…”

Still holding Azmena, Shannon followed Dale and Ayana.

They stepped out the door…

Just as Strumpet Towers slipped into the yawning chasm that opened up underneath it.