BIG JOS'E AND LITTLE JOS'E, as the most recent security hires at the Imperiatum apartment house at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-eighth Street, got all the drudgery. They were the ones who had to carry Mrs. Windbom's groceries from the lobby to her apartment, since she was afraid the supermarket's delivery boys would rape her. It was they who periodically checked the anti-pigeon electric tapes on the roof, and who carried to its separate disposal bin the hazmat materials from the two doctors' offices with their own street-level building entrances around on the Sixty-eighth street side, and who walked the two stairways once a week in search of blown lightbulbs or other anomalies. And twice a month they did a security sweep of Penthouse A.
Monday, August 16, ten a.m. Big Jos'e wrote P-A sweep in the security office logbook, and he and Little Jos'e rode the elevator to the top. The uniformed elevator operator this trip was a surly Serb named Marko, who saved his smiles and chitchat for the tenants, so on the way up, the two Jos'es continued in Spanish their lies about their sexual conquests over the weekend, ignoring Marko, who just as thoroughly but more silently ignored them right back.
Penthouse A was empty yet full, vacant yet occupied. The owner was some rich guy named Fareweather who was out of the country somewhere, and had been out of the country for so long that neither of the Jos'es had yet been hired for this job the last time Fareweather had been in residence. Imagine, a guy so rich he can own a huge penthouse on top of a big, rich building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and not even live in it. Not even sublet. Not even have a cousin in to house-sit.
Since on the top floor of the building this elevator only served Penthouse A, it opened not into a public hall but into a small reception room with white marble floor, Empire chairs, twisty-legged little occasional tables, and four Picassos on the walls. Pocket doors, always kept open by the Jos'es, led to the main living room beyond — a huge space with big, bright windows straight ahead and to the right, to give views of Manhattan and the park as though you were in a low-flying plane.
From the Persian carpets through the plushly antique furniture and the marble statues on pedestals and the old masters in massive dark frames all the way to the elaborate plaster moldings on the ceiling, this living room screamed money and luxury and comfort. Big Jos'e had been known, at slow moments, to come up and nap on that eight-foot-long golden sofa; Little Jos'e would beep him if a problem came up.
Anyway, the security sweep was not the time to stretch out on any sofas. For the next two hours, as they did twice every month, they went through a standard routine. They checked to be sure that the refrigerator, empty but running, was still doing its job, with trays of ice cubes waiting in the freezer. They flushed the toilets and ran water in the sinks in all four bathrooms, they made sure all the windows were still firmly shut and locked, they verified that the two alarm systems — a simple electric eye for the entrance from the elevator, a more complicated motion sensor in the long corridor down the apartment's north side, with its doors opening onto the south-facing bedrooms — were both working properly, and they saw to it that the two fireplaces, in living room and master bedroom, had not let in any dirt or rodents and that the flues were still properly shut. Also, they checked that the answering machine was still functioning, responding to any callers but also letting those callers know that no messages would be taken.
There were two bars in the apartment, one off the living room and the other at the far end of the place, next to a kitchen big enough for a hotel, with the equipment to match. There was hard liquor in both bars, though no wine or mixers. The Jos'es knew better than to tap into that supply, and in fact they weren't even tempted. This job was too good and too easy and too low-stress to risk.
Steadily they made their way through the apartment, which they figured they must know by now better than the actual owner did. The master bedroom was full of the missing master's clothes: a dozen expensive suits ranging from dark blue to light gray, drawers of shirts and sweaters, racks of neckties. Trying on some of the nicer pieces, they came to the conclusion that Fareweather was shorter than Big Jos'e, taller than Little Jos'e, and fatter than either of them. Also, there was not much by way of casual wear. If the guy played golf, either he did it in a suit or he'd carried his golf stuff with him when he left.
The other bedrooms were obviously all for guests, not live-ins, though the owner did treat those guests very well, if he'd ever had any. Wrapped toothbrushes in the bathrooms, white terry-cloth robes and backless slippers in the closets. All of the beds were kept made, with an extra-large sheet over each to catch dust; the cleaning crew that came in twice a month must change those from time to time.
At the very rear of the vast apartment, past the kitchen and next to the small but completely equipped bar back there, was another entrance, never used. Or at least never used when Fareweather wasn't around. This was an ordinary door that looked like a closet door, except that it had a small rectangular window in it at eye level, at Big Jos'e's eye level, that is. He'd shone his flashlight in there one time and had seen a small, dark squarish space with what looked like grimy metal walls, and thick black cables hanging down in the middle. It had taken him a minute to figure out that he was looking at an elevator shaft. At the top of the shaft, that is — angling the flashlight beam upward, he could just see the bottom of the big metal wheel up there with the cable wrapping around it.
So this was some private entrance of Fareweather's, not used by anybody else. What was clearly the button to summon the elevator was mounted discreetly in the wall near the doorknob, but when Big Jos'e experimentally gave it a push, nothing happened, so it must be shut off while the boss was gone. But he would use it, all right. That's why there were an extra two alarm keypads next to that button, matching the keypads beside the elevator up front.
The Jos'es had no idea where the elevator went, but occasionally would make up salacious stories about it anyway. Even though they had not yet seen doors to that elevator in any of the other apartments they'd entered in the course of their duty, which was nearly half of them by now, they liked to tell each other that Fareweather used to sneak down in his private elevator to 4-C, where that hot television news-woman lived with her rich fashion designer husband that anybody could see with half an eye wasn't straight.
Or maybe there was a Batcave in the basement, and back in the old days off he'd go, late at night, to fight crime. But if so, where were his capes? You don't take your capes along on vacation.
Anyway, among the grunge duties the Jos'es were handed on account of being the newbies around here, the twice-monthly sweep of Penthouse A was certainly the easiest. Finished again today, they buzzed for the regular elevator, and both of them hoped the bad-tempered Marko would be on his break by now, replaced by Teresa, fat and too black, but at least with a sense of humor. You could kid around with her.
Thinking about what they might say if it did turn out to be Teresa running the elevator, trying to remember some good dirty jokes they might have heard recently, they looked back through the open pocket doors at what had to be one of the premier living rooms in all of New York City. And to think that man stayed away from it for years at a time. Good. Let him stay away forever. Big Jos'e and Little Jos'e — they lived here now, as much as anybody. And no reason to change.
The elevator door opened, and they turned away from the view of their living room. "Hey, Teresa! Listen, you hear about the Russian lady and the dog?"