The lobby was the same, and everything else had changed. The opposite time of year meant snow-washed sunlight pouring through tall windows, yet the indoor air was hot and constricted. New batches of immigrants were waiting, angrier and far less patient than those six months ago. And ruling this ensemble of worry were lifelong administrators who didn’t look at all familiar: Bloodless bodies sifting their way through the paper mountains, every major rule and most of the tiny ones applied with lazy fairness.
Twenty minutes early, Quentin handed the government’s stern warning to two old ladies.
The redhead glanced at the document in a casual fashion while her gray-haired partner said, “Yes?” and stared at his forehead.
Quentin defined his situation with a single unpunctuated sentence. His wife was a Persian national and she was out of town and their last conversation was weeks ago and that’s when she promised some kind of stay for the two of them but last week an Immigration letter came out of the aether. Quentin didn’t expect official responses from either lady. No, they were soldiers on the front line. This was a practice run, a chance to polish his technique before words mattered.
The reading woman wasn’t interested in the letter, and the listener acted bored with the conundrum. But they exchanged glances when Quentin stopped talking, and the redhead lifted a phone and turned away, showing him the white roots in her scalp as she spoke guardedly to some higher authority.
Quentin would have to wait. Everybody waited, particularly the fools. But the redhead dropped the phone into its cradle and turned, giving his eyes a quick study before saying, “Madam Stains wants like to see you now.” With a sniper’s accuracy, she pointed. “Walk that hallway to the second turn, go right and then left.”
“Now?” Quentin asked doubtfully.
Unnaturally red eyebrows lifted. “Yes. Now.”
He walked too fast, startled and excited but still not trusting what appeared to be his exceptional luck. He believed that he was in the correct hallway but then realized he hadn’t been listening. A right turn? And then left, wasn’t it? But even trying to be an idiot, his body made the proper maneuvers, setting him beside the proper door.
Quentin lifted a hand to knock.
But the name was wrong. Isaac Tenshells, Intelligence Officer.
“Don’t just stand there,” a voice cried out. “You’re making me nervous.”
The knob was warm, as if somebody had held it until he stumbled into view. The room and its furnishings were larger than her former office, yet that tiny lady dominated. Barbara Stains wore a tight blouse and an alert, composed expression. She looked as if she was laughing until just a moment ago. She looked composed and ready, and Quentin felt like a diver standing on the lip of a cliff. Sick with nervous energy, he stood straight, gathering himself before offering his name.
A name wasn’t needed. “Yes, I remember you, Mr. Maurus. Sit down please. Then we can talk.”
Sunshine gave every surface a stark clean reality. Officious papers were arranged in front of the woman, and they couldn’t have been more useless. “This is the situation,” she said. “Yes, a stay was granted. But your wife, I’m sorry to say, misunderstood the terms. Circumstances like these, where one spouse remains inside the province, still require the official interview.”
Nodding helped Quentin relax. But he was dubious and nervous.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Maurus?”
“I didn’t get any letter,” he said quietly. Seriously.
Six months had changed the woman. The glasses seemed new, and somehow her face appeared younger. With a doubtful tone, she asked, “No letter?”
“Farah got hers.”
“Is that what happened?”
“I wouldn’t have heard about the meeting. But her mail, what comes to her apartment, is forwarded to me.”
“Well, that was a stroke of luck. I don’t like issuing arrest warrants because a stamp didn’t get properly licked.” The situation deserved a loud laugh.
Quentin tried smiling.
The woman picked up the file before her and put it down, leaning aggressively across the little desk. She had cleavage and showed it proudly, or she was immune to any looks from this young giant. “You know, I bet someone assumed you live with your wife and sent the confirmation to the wrong address.”
“Maybe.” Quentin sat back. Pretending to relax felt like relaxation.
“Specifics don’t matter,” the woman decided. “What counts is that you’re here now, and we appreciate that.”
“And don’t worry. It’s easy to see the situation for what it is.”
“Between you and her. What you are.”
Madam Stains had impossibly white teeth. “The ancient institution, yes.”
Quentin forced his back into the chair’s creaking leather.
“But pragmatic forces are always at play,” she continued. “Intricate customs seem right and responsible, and then the world changes, leaving us shoving new feet into old boots.”
“This Farah girl. What do you think of her?”
“She’s…” His voice trailed away. Then he found the breath to say, “I like her.”
“Well, that’s good. I’d hate to think you’re an asshole.”
He said nothing.
“Of course you and I...we don’t know her full circumstances. But it’s easy to appreciate. A woman with her background and all.”
Quentin tried a wise nod.
“Luckily for her, she lives in our country now, and if we’re smart, we’ll welcome her as a good soul worth saving.”
His nod turned empathetic.
Madam Stains toyed with the idea of opening the file. But no, her hands patted the cover, as if wipe away the temptation. “Is your wife a believer?”
“Exactly.” She laughed for a moment. “Does she believe in the Daughter of God?”
“Can you ask that?”
“It seems that I did.”
“I don’t know what she believes. Not this week, at least.”
“Her friends...who are they?”
“I don’t know.”
That struck his interrogator as unlikely. “Really?”
Quentin mentioned Vinnie, but added, “They had a falling out. I don’t know the circumstances, but Lavina doesn’t want anything to do with Farah.”
“Yes,” he said. And a moment later, he wasn’t.
But the lady didn’t explain the question, or much else. “Don’t worry, Mr. Maurus. You’re in no danger. Your wife is fine. Everything will be wonderful.”
Nothing was wonderful.
“Go home,” she instructed.
But as soon as Quentin began to rise, Madam Stains added, “No, wait a moment. Look at me, please.”
Quentin stared at the bright teeth and the watchful eyes filling a face too small for the person living behind it.
“Do you know anything of interest, Mr. Maurus?”
“Something witnessed or heard in passing that seemed odd. Or later, when you looked back and considered the matter. Any incident, any news at all, that should be mentioned to a government official?”
He said, “No.”
He focused, or at least pretended to. “No. Nothing.”
“But if that changes.” The lady sent a card across the desk, nothing on it but a telephone number written with brilliant pink ink.
Quentin pocketed the gift. “If I have concerns about Farah…is that what you mean…?”
“Concerns,” Madam Stains repeated, as if she had never heard that peculiar word. “I don’t know why I said that. Force of habit, I suppose.”
Quentin laughed when she laughed.
Again, she said, “Go home.”
But he paused at the door. “Who’s Tenshells?” he asked, one knuckle striking the nameplate.
The tiny lady stared at him, her mouth opened for a moment. Then she sighed, pushing aside papers as she said, “Nobody you need to think about. That much I can tell you, I suppose.”