Carver pulled to the curb behind the chassis of a burned-out car.
Across the intersection was the billboard, six spotlights along the bottom. They shined upward, lighting the sign, throwing its shadow across the vacant building behind it. The rest of the neighborhood was dead. A moonscape of abandoned warehouses, everything picked over twice. Walls punched in with crowbars, wires and plumbing stripped out. Even the streetlights were gone; in Bay View and Hunter’s Point, copper was worth more than light. Kids were creeping in from the edges to steal bricks now. They could take them by the bucketload to the salvage yards south of town and trade them for day-old bread. He knew about that from last night.
But no one had touched the sign. Maybe it made them feel better, having it lit. He turned on the windshield wipers so he could see it clearly. He thought about getting out of the car. He’d be able to see all of it if he walked to the middle of the intersection. He’d almost done that last night, too, when he’d been lost in the dark, driving back from the scene. Shaking still, from the gunfire. Tonight he’d driven this way just to see it again. He didn’t have any business here. No one did.
The sign was brand new, but he couldn’t imagine who would have put it here. A place like this? They might as well have buried it in the desert.
It was selling perfume, a fragrance called Black Aria. The woman in the ad was an actress. He knew her face but not her name. His grandfather might have known. Elizabeth something? Or Audrey, maybe. She lay on her stomach, her chin propped in her hands. Her knees were bent so that her bare toes pointed straight up. She was surely nude underneath the black sheet that was draped over her, covering no more than it had to. Sheet or not, every curve was there, defined in bare skin or beneath the indents and contours of satin.
It was all digitized, of course. Just another seamless fake. The real Elizabeth, or Audrey, wouldn’t have posed like this. Not back then, whenever she was alive, and not to sell perfume. People used to have standards. But those were gone now and they weren’t coming back. Like the burned-out car, like the whole of Hunter’s Point. The bottle hovered above her bare shoulder blades, the crystal vial so thick it looked like ice. The liquid inside was the color of old blood.
The warmth started while he was looking at the sign. It began somewhere near the base of his skull and followed along his spine until it had spread through him entirely. Then the feeling inverted and his skin went cold. The hair on his arms stood straight out. It was thrilling, ranking right up there with the rush he’d felt last night after the shooting had stopped and he’d realized he hadn’t been hit. If anything, it was better.
It was so quiet that he could hear the low hum coming from the billboard’s spotlights. Six slightly different tones combining into a curious chord. It might have been engineered to draw him closer.
He remembered television advertisements he’d seen as a kid. A Saturday-morning parade of things he’d wanted desperately and then forgotten about. He didn’t think he was going to forget about this. Of course, he had no use for perfume. He didn’t wear it, and he had no woman to give it to. But that didn’t seem to matter, because what he was feeling was far beyond desire. It was the crushing need a drowning man has for another breath.
He stepped out of the car and looked across the intersection. A flock of small birds, sparrows maybe, came swirling out of the darkness like a storm of leaves. They landed in unison on the roof of the scorched car, then turned toward him. He heard tiny claws tapping on the steel, felt a hundred pairs of black eyes watching him.
He was standing in a neighborhood that was waiting for a wrecking ball. Bulldozers had been idle on its perimeter for months. When the last condemnation orders came, they’d lower their blades and roll. The demolition teams meant to wipe away everything the thieves hadn’t already taken. They would knock down row houses and wire C-4 into century-old factories to make way for the sparkling future. He’d seen the model in City Hall. White concrete and black glass transforming the neighborhood into an autonomous shipping center. An unpopulated city from which driverless delivery trucks would glide north on pavement so smooth, their tires would barely whisper. Drones would hum upward from rooftop landing pads, packages dangling beneath them as they sped over the blocks of unlit tenements and into San Francisco. In City Hall, he’d seen no plan in the models for the residents who would be displaced. Maybe they were supposed to sell bricks.
He reached into the car and switched off the headlights, and then the street was blackout dark. The ruins around him disappeared. There was just the sign.
Finally, he let himself walk out into the intersection. He stared up at the dead actress and the perfume she’d been enlisted to sell. It wasn’t just the woman, wasn’t just the suggestion of her naked body under the sheet. It was the bottle and the lettering and the way the spotlights fell onto the black background, making something so bright out of a void. As if he’d struck a match in a mineshaft, and diamonds in the thousands came glittering back from the walls.
He couldn’t say where the peace came from, but he knew exactly what it was doing. It was cleansing him. Each swell took away a layer of darkness. In a moment he’d be bare; last night would be gone. He stood in the rain and savored that.
He only turned away when his phone rang.
He answered it in the car, wanting to be out of the sign’s reach before he spoke to anyone.
“You coming, or what?”
It didn’t matter what Jenner was saying. He could be dictating a form over the phone, or telling a kid to drop a gun. His voice never rose above dead calm. That made Jenner the kind of man people usually listened to, but the kid last night hadn’t. He hadn’t dropped his gun, either.
“I lose you, Carver?”
“Sorry ?— ?on my way.”
“Call came in and we’re up,” Jenner said. “You knew we were up again, right?”
“Where are you?”
“Close to last night’s scene,” Carver said, after a pause. “There was something I wanted to see again. The call, it came just now?”
“Just now. I hung up, I called you.”
“Be out front in five. We’ll go in my car.”
“You were out there?” Jenner asked. “You got questions about last night?”
“Not about you ?— ?you did just right. Plus there’s video,” Carver said. “So don’t worry about it.”
Carver could see the expressway ahead. No one had stolen the wiring up there ?— ?the commissioners and the mayor could ignore Hunter’s Point until the redevelopment was done, but not the new expressway. Its art de...