Unobtrusively placed between a gold merchant and the noisy African market she had nearly missed the entrance – a small arched door in a huge slab of obsidian. So tall the monolith cut the sun’s path and cast shadow over a neighbouring church steeple and the surrounding area.
She stepped into the vaulted entrance. It was both brighter and cooler in the foyer than on the hot cobbled street. They were expecting her. Armed guards twitched their bristle moustaches above thin lips and with clumsy hands secured her possessions before ushering her across the stone floor and through a vitreous opening.
Still cooler air and the cold blank stares of a handful of workers marked the crossing of a green-carpeted floor. The girl received a curt nod of acknowledgement from a tall bodkin of a woman. Needle thin and walleyed the woman marched the girl past austere black and white photographs of men long dead hanging, impotent now, on striated walls. The soft floor covering gave way to stone again and their footsteps clacked and echoed as they swiftly made their way through grey steel doors and into a small vestibule housing a stairwell that spiralled through the centre of the monolith. Descending the well-worn granite steps, one white knuckled hand gripping the sleek handrail, the bodkin teetered in front of the girl. An obscure route with strategically placed guards led them to a labyrinth of long passages, empty offices and permeable glass cubicles metres below the bustle of the city street.
They came to an abrupt halt between two steel doors. A generator loudly kicked in and masked the dull thud of the one door closing. The bodkin had gone. Silence. The opposing door opened with a gasp of warm air. Tentatively the girl stepped forward into a furnace-like heat while a reverberating mechanical noise assaulted her senses. She realised that she had entered a hell on earth.
The Control Officer, a lone man in a room full of women greeted her with a limp wrist and a lupine grin. He encouraged his teams to work faster and harder, praising servitude and reprimanding miscreants and malingers. The Women worked like small cogs in a big wheel as they pushed and pulled trolleys laden with boxes around the underground chamber the size of a city block. A Scalelectric-like conveyor belt linked two huge machines to the main axis of operations. The girl watched in fascination as money – shredded pieces of money – danced through a clear glass tube and disappeared down a chute to God knows where! Notes spat out the machine moved along the conveyor belt. She had never seen so much money in her life.
Behind a gridiron dark skinned men, muscles taunt, clicked in their mother tongue and waited to push cages heavy with processed notes into a deeper, less accessible chamber of the citadel.
At the end of a gauntlet a ten-inch solid steel door masked a musty dank crypt. Bullion and paper currency was stacked on shelves and racks from floor to ceiling. New coins were piled waist high in burlap sacks on the scratched linoleum floor and obsolete coins filled filthy fifty-gallon drums. The Toadies, clones of the Master Toad counted and recounted, checked and double-checked the money with sweat running down their florid faces. It was a life of repetition – starting before sunrise and ending at sundown. Check the coffers, feed the machines, check the coffers – the figures must add up.
The Master Toad seldom seen, sat squat –gut and wattle hanging while proudly proclaiming that he slept well at night – he did his job while his team did theirs. His gout stricken minions – the Toadies – countersunk and denigrated any request from the women with obloquy and jeers as they limped around in their stocking feet.
Human nature and spirit disappeared along with the sunlight and fresh air.
Caged like Pavlov’s dog the girl learned to conform and survive.
Years later, portraying so much part of her bleak surroundings no one noticed as she explored the fortress. Deep in the bowels of the stronghold she found a skip full of shredded money, worthless and ready to be disposed of at the city dump – as worthless as knowledge. There were no books in the bizarre Citadel – only attendance registers and cash ledgers – an attrition of her soul demonstrating a system of values so different from hers.
Sanity prevailed (or was it finally madness?) – she planned her departure. One day wearing a bright red jersey, she tore a page from a leather bound ledger, and with child-like attention she carefully folded the paper. Finally pushing back her office chair she placed the origami bird on her desktop – its outstretched wings accentuated and enhanced by the rows of fine printed black numerals. The bird appeared to be taking flight from its pool of ink stained blotting paper. Taking her cue the girl was gone.