Incident in San Francisco (Chapter 2, page 1 of 5)


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Chapter 2

Impatiently, Laura pushed the little gray mouse to the back of its pad with her right hand, and shoved hard against the edge of her desk with her left so that her chair rolled back almost to the wall. Not that the wall was all that far away, because it was a small office. She stood up quickly and shook her head sharply to clear it of all thoughts of work problems, then turned toward the window. The vertical blinds, which had been closed against the early morning sun, had finished their job for the day. Laura loved the sun and the views of the outside world, but direct sunlight quickly overwhelmed the building's air conditioning and made her office unbearable. With one precise, economical gesture, she tugged the control cord just the right amount to turn the blinds exactly 90 degrees to the window glass, then reached high on the other cord and pulled it down with one efficient motion to draw the flapping slats into a neat, tight stack at the side.

As always, the magic worked. Opening the blinds was like the whisking away of a magician's concealing cloth. With them closed, her small office could have been in Halifax or Winnipeg, in the basement or on the top floor, even somewhere in the interior of the building. With them open, the wonderful sight which greeted Laura's eyes was the view of Montreal as seen from the tenth floor. Her building was far enough removed from the other downtown high-rises to provide unobstructed views in most directions. When she visited her boss in her office across the building she could enjoy the green, unspoiled beauty of Mount Royal rising up to the north, behind the stately old buildings of McGill University. But she loved her own southerly exposure.

Vertigo was unknown to Laura, and she sometimes achieved the necessary break from her work by pressing her face against the glass and watching the activity below on busy St. Catherines Street. Although there were pedestrians at all hours, the advent of flex time had spread out workers' starting, ending, and lunch times so that the solid masses of a few decades before were now replaced by a more continuous stream of hurrying people. On a sunny October day like this, most people in this northern city opted to go about their business out-of-doors, knowing well that in a few weeks they would begin making use of the underground routes and travel inside for most of the long winter.

When Montreal was chosen as the site for the 1967 World's Fair, the visionary mayor Jean Drapeau had made completion of the subway system a top priority. Modeled on the Paris Metro, it was mechanically wonderful, trains whooshing into stations on silent rubber wheels, swiftly opening wide doors to disgorge passengers and take on new ones, then quietly accelerating away into the dark tunnel at the end of the brightly-lit platform. The almost-compulsive behavior of Canadians regarding the neatness of public property meant that the cars and stations were always clean and free of graffiti. What set it apart from most subway systems even more, though, was the design of these stations. All underground, each had been designed by a different architect and decorated, in easy-to-clean glazed tile, in a totally different style. Making the system even more useful in this climate was the fact that the massive excavation needed for the subway had been expanded so that stations were connected by underground walkways to the basement floors of neighboring buildings. Many of these, which were office buildings above the street levels, were similarly connected to their neighbor, perhaps a large hotel or department store, by an underground walkway. And these were not dark, threatening tunnels, but rather brightly-lit thoroughfares lined with shops, bars, and restaurants. In inclement weather, a person could walk great distances without ever emerging above ground.

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