FICTION: City Hall by Terry Sanville

On Monday morning of his third workweek, small arms fire echoed throughout the office, a sharp popping, four quick blasts. George grabbed at thin air for his imaginary helmet and dropped behind the desk. The fluorescent lights hummed, telephones buzzed, computer keyboards continued clacking. He peered over the desktop. Outside his cubical, people walked along the passage as if nothing had happened. Jennifer passed his opening, then turned and strolled inside.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

George pulled himself up and smoothed his necktie. “I…I thought I heard something. It sort of freaked me out.” He felt his face burn.

“You’re…you’re not having one of those PTSD attacks, are you?”

He scowled at his supervisor. “No! I’ve been back from the Sand Box five years. I passed my last psych eval with–”

“What did you hear?”

“This sounds crazy, but…I heard something that…nah, it was too sharp to be an M9.”

“What’s an M9?”

“An Army handgun.”

Jennifer’s eyes widened and a grin stretched her pretty face, “So you’ve heard it too?  Welcome to the Planning Department where all hell can break loose.”

“You never told me I’d be working in a combat zone.”

“There’s more than one type of those. Come on, I’ve got something to show ya.”

He followed her out a frosted glass door into the polished terrazzo hallway. Her high heels cracked like pistol shots against its hard surface. He watched Jennifer descend the stairs in front of him, her mid-thirties body nicely wrapped in stylish civvies. George had felt out of place in college after the Army; all the women seemed too young and clueless. But blonde-haired Jen had real potential.

At the bottom of the stairs, she swiped her ID Card through the reader, opened a heavy door, and clicked on the lights. A dim glow reflected off enormous puddles that spotted the concrete floor. Against the basement’s far wall, shoulder-high stacks of banker boxes occupied a dry area. Jennifer stepped inside and motioned for him to follow. The sweet dank smell of mold tickled his nose. Their footsteps echoed as they walked toward a massive steel door that looked like a bank vault’s entrance.

“This basement leaks like a sieve every time it rains.” She tugged on the door’s handle and it swung open to reveal a huge room with map tubes and file cabinets. She pointed across the dark space. “They had their firing range set up against that wall.”

“Firing range? Who?”

“When this place first opened, the Police used it as a pistol range. After it shut down in the early ’60s, people upstairs kept hearing shots. At first the cops would respond. But after all these years they just kiss it off to City Hall ghosts.”

George scowled. “Hey, I know what I heard…and I’ve heard plenty.”

“Relax, I’ve heard it too. The maintenance guys claim it’s the heat pipes coughing, but ghosts make a better story.”

George grinned. “I thought planners were supposed to steer clear of the supernatural.”

“You really are a newbie.” She laughed. “Wait till you’re dealing with the mayor and his cronies. You’ll need every angle you can find.”

“Yeah, what’s his story?” George had met the mayor his first week on the job, a short guy with a broad grin and flowing gray hair. But the man’s black eyes had cut him cold.

Jennifer shuddered. “He got elected about six months ago but hasn’t quite arrived in the 21st Century…and he’s one creepy womanizer.”

“Huh,” George grunted. He admired Jen’s profile. I’ve never worked for a woman before. But I’m sure she can handle the mayor.

“So what should I do if I hear pistol shots?” he asked.

“Ignore them. Convince yourself that it’s just the pipes. I haven’t been down here in almost two years. All the staff stays away.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m not saying anything more. I don’t want my new associate screaming to the horizon.”

George liked her calling him her associate. He continued daydreaming as they climbed the stairs back to the topsy-turvy world of city planning.

***

Jennifer picked up the telephone receiver. The voice on the line made her shiver and she took a couple slow breaths before speaking. “How can I help you this morning, Mayor Sanchez?”

“I can think of lots of ways,” he said, but hurried on. “I got a call from Maldona Enterprises. They want to set up a meeting with you and I to talk about their Cherry Canyon project.”

She groaned to herself. She and George had already met with Maldona’s reps and the developers had gone away steaming. Jennifer waited a few heartbeats before answering. “You know, Mr. Mayor, I’ve already gone over what they need to do. A full environmental report must be prepared before they can–”

“I know all that,” he snapped. “I just want us to get off on the right foot with these guys. If we hassle them too much they’ll take their project somewhere else. Think of all the tax revenue we’d lose.”

“So why the meeting?” she asked.

“To make sure you and your staff understand the importance of what they’re trying to do. The longer the processing drags on, the more we lose.”

“I understand that, but–”

“I’m not sure that new planner of yours does. He’s sort of a ‘head in the clouds’ guy. Not much experience.”

“George Sanders is one of my best. He and I are teaming up to make sure that it’s–“

“Look, I’m not trying to interfere…but as Mayor, I need to be involved. Maldona already has a battle on its hands with the neighborhood groups. I don’t want them fighting City Hall as well.”

She heard the impatience build in his voice. “How about Thursday afternoon at two here in the Planning Department?”

“No!” the mayor barked. “I told them we’d meet at their offices. They want their engineer to go over the plans and other stuff.”

“Mayor Sanchez, if they have information, they should submit it to us with their application and–”

“They have a big conference room where we can spread everything out.”

“We have the entire basement,” Jennifer countered. “I’ll set up some tables. We can–”

“Good, just do it. I want to keep a low profile on this. I’ve never been down there… but the basement sounds perfect. I’ll see you and, ah, George on Thursday.”

The dial tone buzzed in her ear and she slammed the receiver down. Pushing herself back from the desk she sprang from her chair, walked to George’s cubical and peered through the opening. He had his back to her, his hands flying over the computer keyboard. She liked the way he’d let his chestnut-brown hair grow out over the past six months. Soft curls hid the collar of his white shirt. She wrapped on the partition and George spun around, taking her in with green eyes.

Clear your calendar for Thursday afternoon. We’ve got a meeting with Maldona and the mayor.”

George shook his head. “I figured that would happen. I talked with their engineer this morning and he’s really ticked.”

“Look, Cherry Canyon’s a big project that the mayor’s already pushing. We’ve got to walk the razor’s edge on this one.”

“I know, I know,” George said and sighed. “One of their reps told me how much Sanchez supports them. I tried telling him that they’d need more than that but…well, it got kinda ugly.”

Jennifer frowned. “How ugly?”

“Oh, ya know, he threatened to get me reassigned, get me fired, maybe worse.”

“Worse?”

“You really want to know?” George asked softly.

“Of course.”

“Well, the word ‘disappear’ was used along with our names.”

Jennifer gasped. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’ve worked at this ten years and that’s a first.”

He grinned. “Maybe I should pack my piece for this meeting.”

“Your piece?”

“Yeah, I’ve got this nice little Beretta that I picked up after Iraq.”

“No…no…don’t do that. But are you sure you heard him right?”

“Oh yeah. They’re about ready to take us out if we play hardball.”

“Maybe you should sit out Thursday’s session.”

“No way.” George chuckled. “I’m not leaving you alone with those sharks.”

Jennifer smiled and turned to go. “Just leave your pistol at home and set up some tables in the basement map room.”

“Hey, who needs guns when we’ve got ghosts.”

***

To George, they looked like Mafioso from the 1930s, wearing classic double-breasted suits and wingtip Florsheims. He and Jennifer sat under banks of yellowed fluorescent lights, across a battered table from two of Maldona’s hulking reps. George noticed a bulge under one of their coats and caught a glimpse of a shoulder holster strap. His stomach tightened.

The developer’s chief engineer droned on about their project’s benefits. He and Jen stayed quiet. The mayor made his own pitch in support.

“You guys are crazy if you think we’re going to pay for flood protection for the existing neighborhood.” The project engineer pointed angrily at Jennifer.

“Mr. Duran, you’re aware that grading the hills and rerouting the creek will worsen downstream flooding.”

“Those people have had problems for years. Why should we have to pay…”

“You need to install safeguards so that your project doesn’t make their problems worse.”

“But the cost of that will blow our budget.”

“Well then, who do you expect to pay?” George asked. The engineer turned and glared at him.

“Now hold on, George,” the mayor said. “The City has a flood control program we can use to solve these kinds of problems.”

“You’re correct, Mayor Sanchez,” Jennifer said. “But the City money is used to help solve existing problems and not those caused by new development.

One of the Mafioso growled, “Do you know how many millions we’ve invested in Cherry Canyon?”

His partner added, “I’ll tell ya what. I think you guys are trying to kill this project.”

“We’re not trying to kill anything,” Jennifer said.

“Good, ’cause I’m so pissed, I’m about ready to cap somethin’.”

The room quieted. George reached for his sidearm instinctively but found empty air. He glanced sideways at Jennifer, at her pale face with its dusting of freckles, wide eyes and trembling lips.

The mayor cleared his throat. “Now gentlemen, and, ah, ladies, we’ve discussed this for some time. Why don’t we take a break and collect our…our thoughts?”

“Great idea,” George said and stood. Leaning over Jennifer’s shoulder he whispered, “Let’s grab coffee upstairs and let ’em blow off steam.”

She nodded and the two left the map room and hurried across the concrete floor, dodging the puddles and barely controlling their nervous laughter.

“Did you hear that guy?” George asked. “I thought I was in some sleazy gangsta film.”

“Yeah, I saw you reaching for your firearm. Just how long were you with the MPs anyway?”

“Four years. Still haven’t broken old habits.”

Jennifer sighed. “I think we should call the cops. These guys are taking ugly to a new level… and we’ll probably need a mediator to–”

“Why don’t we let them cool off for a couple of days. I’ll set up a meeting first thing next week and ask the Police to send a detective to sit in. The cops look like engineers anyway.”

“That’s a good idea. It’s time to call in the Cavalry and–”

Four rapid blasts cut her short. The roar bounced off the hard floor and walls. Jennifer screamed. George pulled her behind a support column. The mayor charged from the map room and ran for the exit. Maldona’s men followed close behind. The stairwell door boomed shut behind them.

George tightened his arm around Jen’s waist. He felt her body tremble and gave her a squeeze. “It’s all right, just the heat pipes.”

“Yeah, sure. That’s what I keep telling myself.”

“Wait here, I’ll turn off the lights.” George made a move toward the map room.

Jennifer pulled him back into her arms. “Let maintenance do it. We’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Yeah, those pipes can get really nasty…”

***

When George arrived at work Monday morning, Jennifer pushed him into her office and shut the door. She sat in her swivel chair behind an oak desk strewn with paperwork, hands clasped, eyes blinking rapidly.

“Are you okay?” George asked. “Have a bad weekend?”

“Somebody had a bad weekend. Have you caught the news this morning?”

“Nah, I don’t like getting angry before I start work.”

Jennifer opened her top desk drawer, removed a newspaper and laid it before him. He stared open-mouthed at the headlines. Mayor Sanchez Dies of Heart Attack topped the page while farther down, Three Maldona Employees Drown in Boating Accident. George quickly scanned both news reports. He looked at Jennifer. Her lips quivered and began curling upward.

“Hey look, Jen. I had nothing to do with any of that, honest,” he cracked.  “I don’t even like boats.”

“I know that, silly. But it’s time I showed you the whole story. Come on, we have some filing to do.” She snatched the newspaper and headed for the basement.

The map room remained as they had left it the week before.  She moved to a cabinet, opened the second drawer from the bottom and removed a folder. Sitting at the table, she slid it in front of him.

“Here, look at this.”

“What am I supposed to be looking for?”

“Just start at the beginning and read everything.”

The folder contained a half dozen newspaper clippings beginning with a report from 1961. Two policemen shot and killed each other at the basement firing range in City Hall – a love triangle cited as the cause for violence. A couple news clips reported gunfire but no evidence of foul play. Three others described the unexpected deaths of local developers, real estate magnates or City officials.

George finished reading and shook his head. “So what’s this supposed to mean? I get that the dead cops are the City Hall ghosts that take target practice every now and then.”

Jennifer smiled. “What the news clips don’t mention is that the people who died had all met in this room shortly before they gave up the ghost, so to speak… and each time, shots were heard.”

“You think the cop ghosts are taking out the bad guys?” George laughed.

She glared at him. “No. Why would they? But something else is using their legacy as a cover.”

“Something else?” George continued laughing.

“City Hall.”

“What the hell you mean, City Hall? This leaky old building is just…just–”

“It’s not just the building, it’s the institution that’s supposed to serve this town.”

“An institution that kills people? That’s crazy. That’s…that’s beyond crazy.”

“Yeah, well why do you think none of the staff holds meetings down here? They’ve heard the stories and are too scared to tempt fate. Remember, this is one place ya can’t fight.”

The smile faded from George’s face. “You really expect me to believe that some force…”

“Believe what you want, I’m just saying.”

George pushed his chair back and stared at the far wall. “You knew about this when you scheduled the meeting with Maldona’s men and the mayor.”

Jennifer grinned. “Let’s just say I was testing a theory.” She tore the front-page articles from the newspaper, laid them in the file and returned it to its hiding place.

George shook his head. “Well, I’ll never go to another meeting down here.”

“Ah come on,” Jennifer crooned. She slipped an arm around his waist and planted a quick kiss on his lips. “What’s wrong, can’t handle a little City Hall justice?”

“Maybe not,” he said, rising. “Who knows when I’ll end up on the wrong side?”

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Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 230 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize for his stories “The Sweeper,” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

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