The Academy vs. The Agency
May Smith opened the door to Apartment 4021983C-5.2 where two post-adolescent women waited to be invited in. Without acknowledging them, May shouted over her shoulder. “Bill, hurry! You’re making us late.”
“Keep your ‘naff on, ” her husband shouted back. “I’m coming.”
May scowled but stepped aside to let her visitors enter. “There are two of you.”
“Two for the price of one.” Taz beamed. “I’m Taz and this is Inez, she is–”
Bill appeared, affably.
“I thought we were going to order a sitter from The Agency that Jones recommended. This,” she gestured emphatically at Taz, “is not from The Agency.”
“No. We’re from the Academy of Domestic Trades,” Taz said cheerfully.
“On the third floor.” Inez added. Taz pinched her. Never volunteer more than necessary. Let me do the talking. Inez understood Taz’s pinches all too well. Neither of the Smiths appeared to hear them.
“We can’t afford The Agency,” Bill said.
“Then you should have married Jones,” Mr. Smith said to his wife. His voice and mannerisms were warm and cheerful but his eyes were cold and flat as elevator tokens.
“Academy sitters are not only cheaper than Agency sitters, they’re actually better,” Taz interrupted. “Studies show that children develop best from human interaction.” Of course those studies are done by and at the Academy. “Let me assuage any fears you might have, Mrs. Smith.” Assuage. Taz remembered her Parent Psych instructor saying ‘when challenged use large words, it may befuddle or intimidate your opponent into compliance.’ “The Academy only sends qualified babysitters on outcalls,” Taz continued. “I’m in my last year and this is Inez. Inez is my apprentice. Underclassmen have to put in a certain number of supervised hours before they can Sit alone.” Taz turned her attention toward Mr. Smith. “So… two for one. You get Inez for free and as I haven’t graduated yet, you get me for the student rate.”
Taz sucked her breath in as she finished the sentence, lifting her chest. Mr Smith’s eyes fell exactly where she wanted them, into the faultline of her cleavage. Sell them the fantasy, Economics 101. The real money is in tips. Set a low hourly rate. Not so low as to attract the ire of the Babysitter’s Union, but low enough to exploit the margin between what Daddy will begrudgingly pay for attention his offspring receive and what he’ll gladly pay for the fantasy of possible more personal attention at some future date. The classes Taz had taken in Sexual Evasion and Tactful Self-Defense showed how to be certain the future was always a tomorrow away. If Daddy got impatient, she’d also taken Tactical Self-Defense 202 (no diplomacy required) and BB420: The Business of Blackmail.
The Academy really prepared one for every on-the-job occurrence. There was even a minor for those who chose not to avoid sexual advances. On how to become a mistress, a second or third wife or a live-in nanny. A live-in was basically a working mistress with no expense account whose retirement plan usually included a sexual harassment lawsuit and/or tell-all book.
“Hmmm?” Mr. Smith shifted his gaze casually.
“Kids! Meet your sitter-s.” May paused dramatically before adding the extra s like a hiss. Her eyes were sharp and bloodthirsty as an unsheathed dagger.
“This is Junior.”
“William Smith Jr the XXV” he corrected.
Taz and Inez stuck out their hands and dutifully shook the hand of the most pretentious 5 yr old either had ever met.
“William. Like your dad.”
“Like my grandpa.” He had his mother’s scowl.
“Hence Junior,” said William the Elder. “Just call me Bill.”
“Oh I couldn’t do that, Mr. Smith. It wouldn’t be respectful.”
“Mr. Smith was my dad. It makes me sound old.”
“You’re not that old.” Taz lowered her eyes flirtatiously.
“Bill, we’re late.” Scowl. Push toward the door. “This is our daughter, Willamina.”
The toddler gave a squeak in greeting that might have been hello.
Willamina? Of course. This was a rent-controlled unit. There was no rent control in the lower 30 but the upper floors had an aristocracy of sorts. Several generations of William Smiths had lived in this apartment. In Taz’s neighborhood, there was an endless cycle of squatting and evictions and illegal sublets. No one in her family shared the same last name. It was easier to register, reregister, confuse the bill collectors. To be stationary, to live (and no doubt die!) in the unit you were born in was for the elite. The Smiths of the world.
Taz gave a weak smile to the Smiths as they kissed their orderly offspring goodnight.
“If you need us,” Mrs. Smith said, “you can contact Maintenance.” She wouldn’t dream of giving her ID-ringtone to a tradesperson. “We’re meeting friends for dinner in one of the restaurants on the 29th floor veranda.”
“Spanish Harlem,” Bill winked. He wanted Taz to know they were slumming it; to think he was hip and adventurous. “There’s a local festival of some kind going on. Cinco something.”
Taz half-smiled back, unable to keep the sneer out of her expression. Anyone who lived in the lower thirty knew that only hallway vendors and pick-pockets actually lived on the 29th floor. It was a tourist trap, virtually uninhabitable.
“Have a nice time,” Taz said. Inez waved. Once they’d left, Taz turned on the nanny-cam jammer in her purse. “Take the girl to play in the other room,” Taz instructed Inez.
“Junior, do you want a cookie?”
“The rule is no cookies before dinner”, recited William Smith Jr XXV.
“I didn’t ask you about the rule, I asked you if you wanted a cookie. Never mind, it looks like you’ve already been having cookies.” Taz took a baby wipe from her bag. She wiped Junior’s face, rubbing at an invisible spot above his lip.
William Smith Jr XXV slumped against Taz. She was ready to catch him. She laid him on the kitchen floor. She reached for a cookie. Then paused to wash the powerful sedative off her hands before eating it. Taz took a cookie and joined Willamina and Inez in the other room. Why not let the little girl actually have a cookie before washing her face with the knockout rag? She wasn’t as big a brat as Junior and she deserved a treat for having to put up with her big brother.
“Inez! Help me get them undressed and in bed.”
“Those face wipes are cool. Where do you get them?”
“You can buy them in the campus store but only seniors are authorized.”
“I need one.”
“I could sell you mine if you didn’t say where you got them from.”
“What shall we order tonight, Tim?” Jay asked.
“Tall, blond and stacked,” the nine year old giggled.
“Don’t be silly, you two.” Mrs. Jones scolded. “I want multi-language fluency, moderate housekeeping, and a dose of Math and Modern History. You have homework to do young man.”
“She sounds like a lot of fun,” Tim groaned.
“With a double dose of fun coming up,” Dad added punching the code. “Set up the game room, Tim, I think I hear your babysitter Becca arriving.
Homework hardly seemed like work and history was actually interesting. That was followed by an hour of hide and seek, a living room fort and finally board games. They were playing chess when Tim first noticed something wrong.
“What’s that noise?”
“Ahh.” Becca raised her hands to see her skin was beginning to bubble. A soft, dry popping sound. Like bacon cooking in another room. “Ahh, it seems that your parents have decided to come home early. They have terminated my contract prematurely, no doubt to prevent being charged an additional hour. Very frugal of them.”
She laid her king on its side. “Our game must end with my forfeit. You win. To bed now, young master. “
Becca tucked Tim into bed while doing her best to touch as little as possible. She noticed her fingers left a fine ash of skin residue behind. She hated to be messy and had little time left to clean up after herself. She air-kissed his forehead and sadly declined to sing him a lullaby.
“Next time,” Tim said sleepily. Becca’s check felt wet. She hoped it was a tear and not the musclature slipping. She turned off the light and closed the door softly behind her.
Becca took a brisk walk through the rooms to be sure everything was in order. She took her shoulder bag into the master bathroom. Inside the bag was a pre-addressed parcel envelope. She unfolded the large metered envelope and placed her shoulder bag inside. She took off her uniform, folded it neatly and placed it inside. She set the envelope on the counter where the Joneses would be certain to find it and put it into intra-condo mail where it would be returned to the Agency and fitted for the next BECCA (Biologically Engineered Child Care Assist) model. Becca stepped into the tub and turned on the cold shower. No reason to waste hot water. Becca set the shower meter for 20 minutes. It should be sufficient time. Or so she had been told. She settled under the stream of water, huddled as close to the drain as possible. She watched the silt roll off her and circle the drain. She hated to be messy.
No one had warned her how painful it would be. Not dying. She knew exactly and clinically what to expect from that. But no one had warned her how painful, how messy, it was simply being alive.