The key was a penny with an erection, the color of stale piss; that's what Naim thought. Made the hands smell all coppery to touch it. Took holding a sweaty stein to rid yourself of the odor. Which was the plan.
Without ceremony, Naim placed the penny prick in the matte-black gate for the last time. The tumblers mumbled, jostled passengers on an overcrowded tram, then fell silent. There was no click.
The granite and black structure tried not to look concerned as he pocketed the key and walked across the empty parking lot toward his Karmann Ghia. The building wanted to ask him how many days it had left-- how long would it remain unattended? would it go mental, listening to itself? --but Naim, unsympathetic, was already at his car. The building sulked.
Looking over the rusted, radiating rooftop of the Karmann Ghia, Naim contemplated the false marble shopping complex on the other side of the road. Over half the spaces were for rent. A hairdresser's and an ugly bar that he had never patronized were all that was left. Rather than waste gas, he walked across the street. He didn't bother to look before crossing. There wasn't any traffic.
The heat from the asphalt rose up his pants legs, making the denim cling to his knees. He passed the box office of the abandoned movie theatre and entered the door to the left of the sagging marquee. The drop in temperature was nearly traumatic. The air tasted stale and chemical. Bad A.C. and no direct sun, but a thousand degrees cooler than the outside world.
Naim ignored the inquisitive stare of the Chinese with the widow's peak tending bar and collapsed into a high-backed chair. The only other customer was a mass of leathery tendons dressed like a woman, seated against the opposite wall. The room was a corridor of stained wood with a kitchen in what looked to be a well-lit closet; a thin blond kid in a white tee shirt looked out. The carpet was worn through to concrete. A perfectly polished chrome clock hung on the wall above the liquor.
The Chinese moved lightly to Naim's end of the counter. "What'll you have?" Naim had to think. He rubbed his nose, absently, only to recoil from the stench of copper. The row of bottles against the bare wall was less than inspiring, and half the pulls had plastic cups hung from them. He didn't want to lay a wager on how well refrigerated the kegs were. "Well, sir, I might ask you the same thing." The Chinese frowned knowledgeably and went back to his end. He hoisted a black ceramic pot off the uppermost forward eye of the coffeemaker and said, "Tea."
The Chinese plunked a maroon mug in front of him and poured a dram of the hot stuff. Naim couldn't identify the smell. An odor like a damp burlap sack. "Gingko. My mother tells me it's good for the brain. But she says that about all the old remedies. Bitch loves to repeat herself." The Chinese smiled. The number of teeth was startling.
"Kinda goes against what she's saying, don't it?" Naim made a salute with the mug and brought it to his lips. A queer flavor with a thick consistency, neither ocean nor root cellar, but it went down easily. The mug was empty when he set it back on the bar. "Can't say I've ever come into a place like this, on a day like today, and consented to something non-alcoholic. Good on you, friend." The Chinese leaned his head toward the pulls. "You wouldn't want anything we've got on tap nohow. Probably skunked. Heat and the devil have done for this place."
"You just came outta the prison. You a prisoner?" It was the ropy woman against the wall. The creases in her face flexed like butcher's paper as she spoke. Her face was the only part of her body that moved. Naim gave her a reassuring smile and shook his head. "No, ma'am. Just the last man out, is all."
The answer didn't seem to satisfy. "It's a prison, ain't it? All these years and I never seen anyone come out of there. Then you, lookin' like you do..."
He tugged at the collar of his coveralls. "These blues? I'm just a custodian, ma'am. A janitor, really. That is, I was."
"Is, or was? Make up your mind." Her eyes were dull lights, periwinkle, the whites hidden in the folds of her face. Naim fancied he could hear her skin rustling as she spoke. "Has to be a prison, thing that size, all those bars. You tell me why I've never seen anyone come out of there."
The Chinese leaned over the bar. "Charlotte, you're harassing him."
She sat in her fortified position, immune to the creep of light from the window, and cackled. "The fuck you care, Harley? You take tea with the man, suddenly he's your brother? Fuck you. Tell him to answer the damn question, I'll stop harassin' him."
Naim lifted a peaceable hand. He reached into the pocket of his coveralls and the smell of hot copper hit the air. Naim threw the key onto Charlotte's table. It landed with a flat, implacable clap, a magnet colliding with an attractive surface.
"You really want to know what's in there, it's yours. I'm finished. Last man out, like the last man out of Viet Nam or Alcatraz. I'm the guy who has to turn off the lights and lock the doors-- only I had to clean up first."
The motor in the chrome clock whirred. Charlotte sat, staring at the key, paralyzed. There came a sound of retching from the kitchen. The blond kid flew out the double doors and around the counter, toward the back, heaving. Harley looked after him.
Naim stood, bashful, and faced the Chinese. He dug in his pocket for money. "I'm awful sorry..." Harley shook his head. "Not your fault. Some people just have to have a confrontation." Naim nodded, not a little chagrined. "I guess I'll be going, then. Thanks for your kindness." He walked to the door, his heels clicking where the carpet was missing, and went into the world again.
Harley waited until he heard the rattle and cough of the Karmann Ghia, then walked around the counter to the old woman's table. She was deathly quiet, her lips pulled back thin over her teeth, barely brave enough to breathe. Harley laid a finger against the penny prick and pushed.
It refused to move.