“James, how do you fare with heights?” I asked, hoping that minor detail wouldn’t get in the way of what I had planned.
“Heights have never bothered me.” he quickly assured me.
“This may seem like an odd request given my condition, but I would like to be touristy and go to the top of the tallest building. Would you take me?” I asked.
“Of course, but, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you want to go up there?” he inquired.
I squeezed his arm a little tighter as I leaned against him. Touching him like this was intoxicating. I desired him. Carnal desires clouded judgement. I had learned the hard way before, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to skin James as I had the other. A clear lesson had to be taught that day and a reminder to myself as well. Besides, James had a very well-connected and dangerous ally in Lady Pendreigh. Though I wasn’t opposed to her becoming angry at losing James to me, I didn’t really want her angry at me. Assuming the rumors weren’t greatly exaggerated, Lady Pendreigh was a force of nature when upset. I’d survive her revenge with ease, but I could take some serious losses depending on who and what else was caught up in the inferno she’d create.
Realizing he was still waiting for a response, I told him “I’m curious what I’ll be able to hear and smell from up there, what the wind will feel like whipping against us.”
“Oh. Is that all?” he asked.
James needed more than such a flimsy reason. I wanted him to know the truth, despite how personal this was to me. My voice came out in a whisper as I said, “I may have heard of such a thing in an old movie and wanted to experience it.”
He nodded, and I relaxed against his arm, thankful that he accepted that reason. There were others as well, but none so personal to me.
When we entered the building, the security nodded, recognizing me. Their boss owed me a favor, and this was something too small to even start paying me back.
James started moving to the elevator, but I pulled on his arm, getting him to stop.
“Would you mind taking the stairs with me?” I asked.
“W-what? You do realize how tall this building is, don’t you? There are over two thousand steps.” he replied.
“Yes, of course, and I want to climb them together.” I insisted.
He acquiesced, and we started ascending together as I kept a firm grip on his arm. I couldn’t risk James fatiguing and falling, not that I really believed he would. He seemed to be in great shape.
“Don’t feel down. The stairs are far more fun, giving you a sense of accomplishment.” I teased. “Imagine the places these stairs could be leading me. Unlike you, I can’t see what’s ahead, so I can picture the grandest of things being just at the top. You’re stuck in the reality of what you see. Ignoring the sound and smell, I could see us climbing on secret stairs to the top of a mountain or boarding a spacecraft parked on a roof. You could be taking me to your secret condo for a late night rendezvous.”
He didn’t blush, but he didn’t seem to be thinking too much on my suggestion with how he looked at me.
“Or maybe we’re lost together, desperately trying to find a way out from the maze below. The city’s layout really is maze-like from what I’ve heard.” I confided, curious if he had ever noticed.
I continued offering possibilities to James for some time as we climbed, but he remained very noncommittal. Was he lost in his own imagination and not sharing or simply too fatigued to be engaged in conversation? I wasn’t certain. I considered telling him of how I was counting the steps, but I didn’t want him to know that I agonized over reaching the top. Was he interested in me or not?
Whatever the case, I felt him tense for a moment when Aengus came into view. The way his muscles relaxed and his stance shifted, I wondered if he was preparing for a fight.
“There you go, miss. Need anything else before I head off?” asked Aengus as he offered us each a water bottle.
“No. Thank you, Aengus.” I told him.
He nodded and left the staircase.
“Aengus is such a sweetheart once you get to know him.” I assured James. “We had a disagreement a while back, but I managed to bring him around. Now he works for me doing odd jobs.”
James didn’t take up the conversation there either, so I continued telling him stories while slowly getting small tidbits from him. Perhaps taking the stairs wasn’t the best of plans, but for over forty minutes, I was able to hold onto him.
The strong wind was felt the moment the door opened, and I used the excuse to hug myself against him as I wondered what James would do if he saw me jump. The shock when he found me perfectly well at the bottom would be tremendous, but I couldn’t afford risking the exposure. There might be a camera still running in the area that I had missed, and there was no way to account for some tourist taking pictures at the bottom of the building.
“Take me by the edge, James.” I ordered.
He did, slowly guiding me over and then protectively keeping his hand on my shoulder as I leaned against the wall.
“I’m not honestly certain we’re supposed to be here.” stated James.
No, the building’s roof was not open for just anyone, but I had made arrangements. I told James “Don’t worry. I know the company’s president, which is why the door was unlocked.”
James nodded, forgetting again that I couldn’t see.
“Did you know some birds are born blind, James?” I asked him.
“No. I can’t say that I ever considered it.” he admitted.
“My niñera raised me, really, since my parents wanted nothing to do with me, feeling I was defective.” I explained to him. I didn’t speak of how much I missed her still. “She was a hispanic nanny that my parents only hired because she was willing to work for the least out of those who interviewed. She was a fan of old movies and told me about Slepaya ptitsa, a Russian film about a boy who wanted to help a blind bird. My niñera taught me not to let others restrain me with their assumptions about what I could do, to seek the skies if that’s what I wanted. I know better than to try flying a plane, but I wanted to come here and breathe the same air as the birds with a boy who helped me reach this height today. Help me to see, James. What’s out there?”
I turned toward him, wanting to see his reaction. He seemed to acknowledge the importance of the story for me with his expression. He seemed to be considering how to respond.
There was an air of grandeur to his voice as he said, “A great kingdom stretches out before us with endless buildings extending into the horizon. Were you to address those below, they would never even know you were speaking, so great is the distance between us. The great carriages rushing about appear as multi-colored toys scurrying around by their own volition.”
I smiled even more as I told him “So even you can admit that, when staring at the big picture, the individuals disappear?”
“I can’t say I’m experienced at planning anything grand, but I hope I’d manage to help all I could if I were to plan something big.” he admitted.
“That man whom we spoke of earlier could very well be attempting to fight a great evil we couldn’t even notice from down there, and in turn he can’t be expected to notice each one of us with his eyes glued on the greater good.” I explained. Then I went on to speak of Marvelous Max might well be saving the world, a greater goal than any of the small losses taken along the way.
James looked thoughtful as he listened, but he always argued small points as if he didn’t want to admit that letting a few people die was perfectly acceptable when saving millions. Couldn’t he see that even a thousand deaths for a secure future was well worth the cost? If we needed to ritually sacrifice a million virgins as pagans of old, would that not be worth a better future for humanity?
I feared that my points fell on deaf ears as we descended together in the elevator, but I was still glad that James was with me. He could surely come about given some time to think. Perhaps he was caught up wondering how many lives Lady Pendreigh sacrificed for her goals. I didn’t know the grand tally myself, but I couldn’t doubt it was high.
I tried numerous more times as we visited other attractions throughout the city, and James’ arguments seemed to diminish. I wasn’t precisely pleased with the silence that often replaced them, but I had hope that he was thinking things through.
“Would you be able to extend our time together a bit longer?” I asked. Then I quickly assured him “Not for free, of course, but I will quite happily buy a bit more of your time if you can spare it.”
“With a guest at home, I can hardly keep myself out and still consider myself a decent host.” he replied. “Please forgive me for any disappointment, but I will see you again tomorrow at your auction.”
I watched as his limousine took him away and wondered if tomorrow would bring good news. There was still hope.