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Jack Chance and the End of Paradise

excerpt from Chapter Two - Paradise City

     Jack made his way downstairs and back through the mob scene in the lobby. Outside, he turned south and walked back in the direction from which he had earlier come. Three times during the four-block walk he heard the wail of sirens as police cars left the precinct via the station's rear exit onto Fairmount Avenue. Jack continued on until he reached State Street, pausing at the intersection before thinning traffic that indicated the morning rush hour was drawing to a close. He walked to the end of the block and crossed over to the opposite corner, where the Paradise Theater maintained its lonely existence.

    The theater had been built in the 1930s during the brief but exuberant period which followed the Great Depression, and even in its current neglected state still projected the futuristic aura imbued by its Art Deco design. The marquee was a boldly cantilevered hemisphere of stainless steel; below it the streamlined chrome and glass ticket office projected from the lobby like the nose of a World War II bomber. The large glass windows on either side of the ticket office had been covered by plywood, which had in turn been covered with graffiti before being papered over by miscellaneous ads and fliers. From above the marquee a neon sign reading 'Paradise' stretched skyward; once a beacon to the throngs of moviegoers who had massed around the entrance in their best furs and fedoras, now it remained perpetually dark, a silent reminder of the decay of the city around it. Only an extraordinarily passionate letter-writing campaign and petition drive organized by the Paradise City Historical Society had succeeded in saving the theater from the wrecking ball.

    A gust of wind sprung up as Jack approached the theater, causing the numerous ads stapled to the plywood over the windows to flutter like a flock of birds taking flight. The makeshift bulletin board had attracted everything from concert advertisements to hand-scribbled pleas for the return of lost pets. A weathered and faded but still-smiling ice cream cone on one of the larger posters cheerfully waved as it beseeched passers-by to Try Paradise Ice - It's Nice! However tempting the invitation might be, it was an impossible one to accept. Mister Frosty, the familiar fifty-year-old advertising icon, had outlived his creators; the Paradise Ice Cream Company had gone out of business several months ago. Though the city could ill afford to lose any employer and taxpayer, the loss of such institutions as Paradise Ice or the Paradise Theater felt doubly damaging as they slowly robbed the city of its civic identity. Soon there would be nothing left that was unique to Paradise City but a debilitating combination of economic and spiritual depression, and that was hardly the type of thing you put on postcards to your out-of-town friends.

    Jack slowed his pace as he reached the prearranged rendezvous point. The sidewalk on this side of the street was practically deserted, and Molly was nowhere to be seen. He had just started to reach for his cell phone when he spied a cluster of newspaper boxes huddled together under the theater's massive marquee. Jack walked over to inspect the offerings, nearly colliding on the way with a man dressed in a long grey coat who had seemingly wandered in from nowhere and swerved right in front of him. The man said nothing as they passed, just continued to shamble along erratically, a blank stare the only expression on his unshaven face. Jack shook his head in disbelief and called out a sarcastic 'Excuse me' to the man's back.

    He returned his attention to the day's newspapers. The sense of gloom and pessimism which had enveloped the city was reflected in the headlines, as the bold type of the usually staid Paradise City Observer wondered rhetorically, The Worst of Times? The Paradise Daily News, true to its tabloid nature, had simply abandoned all restraint and loudly proclaimed THE END OF PARADISE. Jack fished in his pocket for the quarter McGrevey had given him and dropped it into the coin slot of the Observer's box. The door refused to open. Irritated, he rattled the glass unsuccessfully before noticing that the sticker beside the slot said 50ยข. Maybe it had been a while since he had bought a paper. He groped in his other pocket and came up with another quarter which he used to complete the transaction. As he was removing the newspaper his ears picked up the sound of an approaching engine; he let the door to the box snap shut and turned around in time to see Molly's car emerge from the alley beside the theater.

    Jack raised a hand in greeting and started toward the waiting vehicle. Beyond the car he caught sight of the man in the grey coat, now drifting aimlessly down the sidewalk on the other side of the alley. The city had more than its share of odd individuals; erratic though they might be, the actions of this man fell well within the mainstream of strange behavior Jack had witnessed over the years. Or at least they did before the man made an abrupt right turn, stepped off the curb and walked straight into the path of an oncoming taxicab.

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