A drop of strawberry jam falls onto the newspaper. I wipe it away with my napkin, smearing the passive-aggressive double circle that Alex drew around a help-wanted ad:
Wanted: Full-Time Housekeeper
Housekeepers/room attendants responsible for maintaining cleanliness of guest rooms and public areas. Duties include mopping, vacuuming, dusting, and polishing. Must maintain professional appearance and use care to protect guests’ privacy.
Apply in person at 250 W 43rd Street, New York
I’m not sure why she circled that one. The hourly pay is less than I made swiping ID cards in my university dining hall. What’s odd about the listing is that it asks applicants to apply in person. I wish I had my Optix to check the address, because the name of the hotel isn’t listed.
I take a bite of my bagel and stare down at the listing. There’s nothing subtle about Alex’s help-wanted ads and flyers for dog walkers ripped from coffee-shop bulletin boards.
It’s been two months since I left Elderon, and WITSEC is beginning to phase out our stipends. Ping and I still haven’t found jobs. Alex is working as a bartender.
Becoming gainfully employed during a recession isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that the government has yet to issue us new social security cards or birth certificates. Since the nerve-gas attack on Capitol Hill, Congress passed a new anti-terrorism bill that made it hard for anyone to get new government IDs — especially people living under an alias.
“Is that what you’re wearing to your job interview?” Alex asks.
I roll my eyes. I’m dressed in a pair of Kiran’s sweatpants and a baggy Ninja Turtles T-shirt. “What job interview?”
Alex nods at the newspaper still clutched in my sticky hand. “You’re going, right?”
I swallow down the snide remark that’s burning on my lips. I know the past few months have been stressful for her. She’s the only one of us who has a job. I know she worries we won’t be able to make rent once the WITSEC money dries up, but I can’t think about that right now.
“It’s a little risky, don’t you think?” New York is one of the most surveilled cities in the world, and Mordecai’s bots are everywhere. In the two months since we’ve been back, I’ve barely left the apartment.
“What’s risky is you turning into Emily Dickinson.”
“Does that mean you’re going lez?” Ping asks. “Because you have my full support.”
Alex and I share a confused look, and Ping adds, “She was a lesbian.”
“They don’t know that for sure,” says Alex, rolling her eyes.
“I’m not ‘going lez,’” I say to Ping. “That’s not how it works.”
Ping waggles his eyebrows. “How does it work?”
“You straight men are all the same,” grumbles Alex. “What I meant was that Maggie is turning into a recluse . . . like Emily Dickinson.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” I say. “Because I’m going to apply for the job.”
“You are?” Alex raises an eyebrow in disbelief. She knows I’ve gone full hermit.
“Yup,” I say, sounding more confident than I feel. “And Ping is going with me.”
“You need a chaperone for your job interview?” She gives me a withering look.
I flip the newspaper around and hand it to Ping. “The hotel needs a dishwasher.”
I point to another listing in the food-service section that shares the same address.
“Sweet!” says Ping. “Does that mean free food?”
Alex gives me a nod of approval. “Two birds, one stone. Plus I get the apartment to myself for once.”
“Get dressed,” I say to Ping, hopping off my stool. “Before I change my mind.”
The address of the hotel is somewhere in Midtown. It’s a long subway ride from the Lower East Side, but the location gives me hope that the job will be at some swanky hotel. The pay isn’t great, but upscale hotels bring in rich guests. Rich guests must leave good tips for the housekeepers, which might make it all worthwhile.
I’m wearing my gray plaid skirt and the matching blazer that I fished out of storage. The last time I wore this outfit, I was on my way to meet Natalie Dubois for a job with the galactic press corps. I forgot that this skirt is a little too short. I keep tugging it down at every stop so I don’t flash people as they walk by.
Ping borrowed a dress shirt and a pair of gray slacks from Brom’s extensive wardrobe. He looks nice and a little nervous, which is very unlike Ping.
I know how he feels. Every time we leave the apartment, we risk being caught on camera. Any camera could be equipped with facial recognition, which would give us away to Mordecai.
Ping and I get out at our stop, and I tug down my skirt one last time. At least I remembered to wear pantyhose.
As we make our way down the busy sidewalk, we check building numbers so we know where to stop. My tall wedge heels are already killing me. I wish I’d worn sneakers and changed for the interview.
“Two fifty . . . two fifty . . .”
Ping keeps glancing down at the newspaper and back up at the buildings. “Here it is,” he says as he stops, forcing a group of tourists to zigzag around us.
We’re standing outside a sad little deli. It’s on the first floor of a tall brick building that’s in desperate need of a facelift. Behind me is a neon red parking sign, and on the corner is a vertical marquee with “The Ivanov” written in lights.
We’re standing under a shiny silver overhang with big bulb lights. Revolving glass doors are framed by a marble façade, which probably looked nice when the hotel was new. Now the marble is chipped and stained. It could really use a power wash.
“This is it?” I ask, my heart sinking fast. I squint at the lime-stained brass numbers. This is 250 West 43rd Street, all right. This has to be the place.
The Ivanov doesn’t look like a five-star hotel. It looks more like a no-tell motel where you might get a foot fungus.
I take a deep breath. We’ve come this far. I scan the exterior of the building. Unlike most other hotels in New York, this one doesn’t have exterior surveillance — at least none that I can see.
“All right,” says Ping, oblivious to my disappointment. “Game time, Maggie. You got this, girl!”
He pushes his way through the revolving glass door, and I follow close behind. Immediately, I’m hit with the strong stench of chlorine wafting from the hotel pool.
We step into the marble-floored lobby, which is strangely dark for the middle of the day. There’s a huge mirror on the ceiling in front of the check-in desk, which has old-school wood paneling and art-deco gold accents. A vase of fake lilies is sitting on a table between two tired black suede couches.
It’s almost ten, and the lobby is packed. Guests are milling around, waiting in line, and calling cars to take them to the airport. A thick Texas accent reaches my ears, and I see a plump sunburned woman wearing a foam Statue of Liberty crown. She’s herding two boys with flip-flops and buzz cuts, tossing an exasperated look at her husband.
Two skinny Hispanic teenagers are chatting by the elevators, leaning against the wall as they wait for their friends. The elevator opens with a ding, and a cluster of blonds spill out. They’re speaking a language I don’t understand and toting around huge backpacks.
The Ivanov is your run-of-the-mill tourist trap, but something doesn’t quite fit. There are a few men in suits scattered around the lobby, checking their Optixes as they wait. They seem too well-dressed to be here on business. They’re too well-dressed to be here at all.
Ping and I get in line behind the Texan’s husband, waiting to talk to the woman at the desk. She has a sharp black bob and a diamond stud above her lip. She handles each guest with an aloof air of competence.
“Can I help you?” she asks in a thick Russian accent.
“Um, yes,” I say, suddenly nervous. “I’m here to apply for the housekeeping position, and my friend is here about the dishwasher job.”
The woman fixes me with a blank expression, jutting out her lower lip. At first I worry that we have the wrong place, but then she turns her head and hollers into the back. “Ulyana!”
I glance at Ping, who doesn’t seem nervous. He’s just standing with his hands in Brom’s fancy pockets, watching all the guests with excitement.
The woman doesn’t turn around. She’s still staring into the back.
Finally, an old woman comes out. She has wiry gray hair that’s swept up in a clip, leathery skin, and sharp gray eyes. She’s dressed in a wrinkled white shirt and a long embroidered jacket that looks as though it’s made from old squares of carpet.
“Yes? Vat is it?” Those penetrating gray eyes land on me, and I feel as though I’m being X-rayed.
“Deez people say dey are here for a job.”
The girl turns around and nods at us.
I try to smile and stick out my hand. “Maggie,” I say. “I’m here to apply for the housekeeping position.”
The woman called Ulyana doesn’t take my hand, and I lower it down to my side.
“And I’m . . . Bryan,” says Ping, plastering on his most winning smile.
When he says his fake name, I get a surge of anxiety. I should have given a fake name, too.
“Follow me,” says Ulyana, turning to the side.
She steps out from behind the desk, and Ping and I exchange a look. She leads us in silence to the edge of the lobby, pulling open a door that goes to a stairwell. We take the steps down into the basement, and I start to get really nervous.
Then the smell of fried food reaches my nostrils, and my stomach does a happy dance. All I’ve had to eat today is a bagel. I could really go for some French fries. Deep rumbles of laughter float down the hall, and I see three men in very nice suits.
They’re tall, Russian, and seem to ooze money. Their eyes flicker over me and Ping.
I know that look. It says that their conversation is not for our ears. One of the men ushers his companions past us and continues to speak in rapid Russian.
“The keetchen’s through there,” Ulyana says to Ping. “The pay is forty-five an hour. Hector vill bring you up to speed. Go now. You can start zees afternoon.”
I swallow as Ping walks down the hall toward the smell of deep-fried goodness.
“You,” says Ulyana, waving a finger at me. “Come with me. Ve’ll see if dees is a feet.”
At first I don’t know what she just said, but then I remember I’m being evaluated. She leads me down the hallway in the opposite direction, stopping at a battered wood door. She takes a keyring out of her pocket and lets herself in the room.
The stench of cigarettes is overwhelming. It immediately drowns out the nice French-fry smell. The light comes on. It’s a tiny little office filled with filing cabinets and a beat-up desk that takes up most of the room. Every inch of the desk’s surface is covered in papers. Behind the desk is a safe.
Ulyana offers me a seat, and I sink down, careful to keep my knees together.
“You are here for zee housekeeping job?” Ulyana asks, pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
“Yes,” I say. “I love to clean. And I’m a very hard worker.”
Ulyana makes a sort of “Hmmph!” sound in her throat as she reaches up to light her cigarette. She takes a heavy drag and then motions with her arm. “Shut zee door. Vee need to talk.”
I give a quick nod and wiggle out of my chair, reaching behind me to shut the door. The smoke tickles my nostrils in an unpleasant way, and I wonder if she’s trying to suffocate me.
As I sit back down, I sense her watching. Her gaze lingers on my upper thighs. I try to be discreet as I tug down my skirt, but I’m sure Ulyana notices.
“So . . . Maggie.” She says “Maggie” as though I gave a fake name and inhales a deep breath of smoke. “You look like a nice girl . . . Vy do you vant to verk in deez industry?”
I swallow. “Hospitality?”
Ulyana cracks a knowing smirk. “I suppose you could call it zat.”
“I need a job,” I say, not sure what she means. Why does anyone want to be a housekeeper?
Ulyana frowns, looking me up and down. She seems to be sizing me up. “Take off your jacket.”
“Do you vant zee job or not?”
This just crossed over from bizarre to creepy, but I’m too stunned to refuse. I unbutton my blazer and slide it off. I’ve got a drapey white blouse underneath. It’s purposely modest and not low cut, but I still feel uncomfortable with her watching me.
Ulyana gets up and comes around to the corner of the desk, grabbing my wrist in her clawlike hand. Her eyes rake the inside of my arm, and I yank my wrist out of her grip.
“Just checking,” she says, taking another drag. “I don’t vant any trouble from you. Zees is a nice establishment . . . We don’t employ junkie whores.”
She says “employ” as though she’s got a mouth full of marbles, and I stare back, wide-eyed.
This is not a normal job interview. I should get up and leave. It takes me a moment to gather my thoughts. I am so taken aback.
Finally, I manage to get to my feet, grabbing my blazer off the arm of my chair.
“Vat is it?” Ulyana asks. “I thought you needed a job.”
I stop with my hand on the doorknob, feeling the sting of tears in my eyes. What the hell kind of place is this, and why do I feel so scummy?
“I think this was a mistake,” I say, putting on my blazer. Something is wrong, but I don’t know what. I just feel dirty and confused.
Ulyana is watching me from the edge of her desk. Her sharp gray eyes are curious. What’s weird is that she seems a little confused. Then her eyes fill with pity.
“Vy did you come here?” she asks after a moment.
“To apply for the maid job,” I snap. This woman is batshit crazy, and I want to get out of here now.
“So you said,” Ulyana sighs.
My feet are glued to the floor.
“I vill ask you vun more time . . . Vy — are you — here?”
I swallow. In that moment, it’s as though she’s seen right through me to the Maggie who’s scared and on the run. My words come tumbling out before I can stop them. My eyes are swimming with tears.
“My boyfriend was murdered,” I whisper, not looking at her. “I worry I might be next. I need a job — I don’t care what job — but I don’t want any trouble.”
I chance a glance over my shoulder. Ulyana is looking at me with sudden understanding. She closes her eyes and nods her head, letting out a regretful sigh. “My apologies, Maggie. I misunderstood. I thought you ver here for Luba.”
She puts out her cigarette and comes up beside me. I’m still frozen in place.
“Follow me,” she says, opening the door.
I follow Ulyana in total silence. I’m too shocked to do anything else.
Ulyana leads me back down the hall toward a tiled room filled with maids’ carts. “You are responsible for stocking your own cart during your shift and at zee end of zee day.” She gestures toward the kitchen where Ping and I parted ways. “Clock in eeef you vant to get paid . . . You vill also clock out on breaks. We pay in cash — fifty dollars an hour. No talking, no smoking, absolutely no stealing . . . no fraternizing vith zee guests. Keep your nose clean. No drugs, no booze. You vill be seen but not heard, understood?”
“Yes,” I murmur, still feeling numb.
“Our guests’ beez-ness is our guests’ beez-ness. Is zat going to be a problem?”
“No,” I breathe, a little too quickly. I have a feeling that there’s more to the story, but I’m too afraid to ask.
At that moment, I hear a giggle coming from inside the stairwell. Ulyana whips her head around, eyes like a hawk, as two tall women come stumbling out.
They stop laughing when they see Ulyana and give me an appraising look. They’re dressed in short sequined dresses and teetering heels that seem inappropriate for the middle of the day. They’re hanging on to each other in a cloud of perfume, batting their long black eyelashes.
Ulyana gives them an admonishing look, and they stagger past us with a giggle.
“Stay out of zee girls’ vay,” says Ulyana. “And zay vill stay out of yours.”