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We meet Serge, an unstable but brilliant street photographer who lives in his storage unit; Marta, an undocumented immigrant finishing her dissertation and hiding from ICE; Liddy, an abused wife and mother who recreates her children’s bedroom in her unit; Jason, a former corporate lawyer now practicing in the facility; Rose, the office manager, who takes illegal kickbacks to let renters live in the building; and Zach, an ex–drug dealer and now the building’s owner, who scans Serge’s photos as he searches for clues to the accident.
But was it an accident? A murder attempt? Suicide? As her characters dip in and out of one another’s lives trying to find answers and battling societal forces beyond their control, B. A. Shapiro questions the myth of the American dream and builds tension to an exhilarating climax.
bostonglobe.com, January 7, 2018. Cambridge, MA— Rescue workers were dispatched to the Metropolis Storage Warehouse at Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street in response to a 911 call at 11:15 this evening. At least one person was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital with critical injuries after a fall down an elevator shaft. Details are limited, and neither police nor hospital officials identified the victim. Questions were raised about what people were doing at the self-storage facility at that hour, and police are investigating other violations concerning the building. This is a developing story. It will be updated.
It’s Rose’s fault. It’s Aetna’s fault. It’s Otis Elevator’s fault. All of the above and none of the above. Zach Davidson hovers at the edge of the crowd, but at six two it’s tough to blend into the background. The auctioneer doesn’t know Zach is the recipient of the money from the forthcoming sales, and he wants to keep it that way, although he doesn’t know why this matters. He isn’t even sure why he’s come, unless as some perverse form of self-flagellation.
“Most of you know the rules,” the auctioneer begins in her booming voice, “but I’m going to go over them quickly. Due to foreclosure of the building, the contents of twenty-two abandoned storage units are up for sale. The minimum bid is one hundred dollars. Cash only. I’ll open the door to each unit, and you’ll have five minutes to see what’s inside, and then I’ll start the auction. You may not cross the threshold. You may not touch anything. You may not ask me any questions, because I don’t have any answers. You take it all or you leave it all. Then we move on to the next unit. Is this clear?”
There’s a murmur of acceptance, which echoes off the concrete walls and floor, the steel-reinforced ceiling. They’re standing outside the office that used to belong to Rose, the woman Zach shouldn’t have relied on. Every direction he looks pisses him off. Rose’s empty desk, the dim bulbs, the peeling paint. He turns his back on the yellow police tape stretched across the elevator.
It’s been almost four months since it happened, and still no one knows for sure if it was an accident, attempted murder, or even suicide. Could be any of them, but it doesn’t make all that much difference. He’s screwed any which way. Damn elevator. Damn Rose. Damn hard luck.
He follows the auctioneer as she marches down a corridor lined with heavy metal doors, each imprinted with a round medallion containing a large M intertwined with a smaller S and W. Metropolis Storage Warehouse. One hundred and twenty-three years old. Six stories high. Ninety feet wide. Four hundred and eighty feet long. Almost four hundred storage units of various sizes and shapes; some even have windows. Zach knows it well.
The potential bidders are a mixed bunch. Two men in ratty clothes smell as if they’ve been sleeping on the street, which they probably have. Another three look like lawyers or real estate developers, and there’s a foursome of gray-hairs who appear to have just stepped off the golf course. A gaggle of middle-aged women in running shoes sends stern glances at a girl clutching a pen and a pad of paper, who seems far too young to be the mother of the children she’s yelling at. Male, female, tall, short, fat, slim, white, Black, brown, rich, poor, clever, or not so clever. Like the inner recesses of Metropolis itself, a diverse assemblage that stands in contrast to the archipelago of cultural and economic neighborhoods Boston has become.
Zach has owned Metropolis for ten years, bought at a ridiculously low price in a quasi-legal deal that looked to be the way out of the consequences of his bad choices. Although it still belongs to him, however temporarily, he has no idea what’s behind any of the doors. The building had a well-deserved shady reputation when he purchased it, and he concluded he was better off not knowing what people were storing in their units. In retrospect, a little prying might have averted this mess.
The auctioneer, a beefy woman with biceps twice the size of Zach’s, takes a key from her backpack and dramatically twists it into the lock. Then she slides the ten-foot-wide fireproof door along its track on the floor to reveal a murky room, lumpy with shadowy objects. She reaches inside and flips on the light.
“Take it all! Leave it all!” she cries. “Five minutes!”
Revealed by naked light bulbs hanging from the eleven-foot ceiling, #114 is decidedly dull. An old refrigerator, an electric stove, a bunch of mismatched chairs, a couple of mattresses, clothes overflowing from open cartons scattered all over the floor. There are at least two dozen sealed boxes lined up against the far wall and a four-foot pile of empty picture frames ready to topple. Everything is coated with what appears to be decades of dust. Zach groans inwardly. He needs every cent he can squeeze out of this auction, and no one’s going to bid on any of this junk.
But he’s wrong. After the auctioneer starts rippling her tongue in an impenetrable torrent of words, people start raising their hands. When the contents go for $850, Zach is flabbergasted. The other units surely contain more impressive stuff than this and should generate even higher bids.
Some do, some don’t, and two are completely empty.
“Take it all! Leave it all! Five minutes!”
When the auctioneer unlocks the door of #357, there’s a collective gasp. The interior looks like a stage waiting for the evening performance to commence: a complete upscale office suite, including a desk, bookshelves, and a small conference table surrounded by four chairs. Bizarre. It goes for $3,500.
On the fifth floor is a tiny and perfectly immaculate unit: a neatly made single bed, an intricately carved rolltop desk, a chair, a small bureau. Nothing else. One thousand dollars. In #454, there’s another bizarre tableau. Creepy, actually. It appears to belong to a couple of teenagers. Two desks piled with books and trophies, walls covered with movie posters, and corkboards adorned with invitations and photos and newspaper clippings. Did they come here to study? To hide? Zach stretches his neck in as far as he can without the auctioneer cutting it off.
She almost does. “Step back, sir!” she yells, her voice stiletto-sharp. “This minute!” Everyone looks at him as if he’s committed a heinous crime. “Take it all! Leave it all! Five minutes!”
Annoyed, he does as she orders, but he wants to see more, surprised to find himself interested in the lives lived here. This is something he’d never considered before, or to be more correct, he had thought about it, but only as a means to get the bad guys out of the building and clean up his own act. Now the questions surge. Who were these people? Why these particular items? And, most intriguing of all, why did they leave so much behind?
Unit 421 is another stage, but this one is freakish in its attention to detail. It’s a double unit with two round windows, and it looks like an upscale studio apartment, perhaps a pied-à-terre. Against one wall, a queen-size bed is covered by a rumpled silk bedspread and an unreasonable number of pillows. A nightstand holding a lamp and a clock sits to its right side; a large abstract painting is centered over the headboard. At the other end of the unit is an overstuffed reading chair, a writing desk, and a sectional couch, also with too many pillows, facing a large-screen television. In the corner, there’s a small table, two chairs, and a compact kitchen featuring cabinets, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a fancy hot plate.
“Take it all! Leave it all! Five minutes!”
This time there’s no doubt in Zach’s mind to whom the unit belongs, or rather, to whom it had belonged. Liddy Haines. He closes his eyes and presses his forefinger to the bridge of his nose in an attempt to make the horrific image go away, which it does not. Six thousand dollars.
Unit 514 was apparently used as a darkroom, and from the looks of it, also as a bedroom. He stares at the sheets pooling at the edge of a cot, at the dirty clothes heaped on the floor. He’s seen three beds in three different units over the last hour, and he clenches his fists to contain his anger. If Rose didn’t know people were living here, she should have. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen—even if it wasn’t the lawsuit now upending his life. An irony he’d appreciate more if he weren’t so damn furious.
In contrast to Liddy Haines’s unit, there’s no expensive furniture here, but there is a lot of high-quality photographic equipment. A long table edges the south side of the room, overflowing with trays, chemicals, jugs, paper, an enlarger, and an assortment of spools, filters, thermometers, and timers. A clothesline with pins attached stretches over the jumble, and there are at least a dozen five-gallon Poland Spring containers, most of them full, along with another dozen warehouse-size cartons of energy bars.
A Rolleiflex camera is perched atop a stack of cartons, its well-worn leather strap dangling. Zach recognizes it because of the nature photography he’s been doing lately, his current obsession. Highpointing, climbing the highest peak in every state, was his last one, and that’s what got him into taking landscape pictures in the first place. But his interest in mountaineering has been waning—thirty-two states is more than enough—as his new interest in photography has waxed. He’s usually only good for one obsession at a time, dropping the previous one when another grabs his fancy. He’s an all-in or all-out kind of guy.
The Rolleiflex is a twin-lens reflex, medium format, which hardly anyone uses anymore. But if you know what you’re doing, it takes remarkable photos. Zach rented one when he was at Bryce last year, and the first time he looked down into the viewfinder—which is at waist, rather than eye, level—he was blown away.
The vastness of the mountains and the big sky in front of him were perfectly reflected through the lens, without the tunnel vision effect of a standard camera. When he returned to Boston, he kept it a few extra days and experimented with street photography. The cool part is that because you’re looking down rather than directly at your subject, no one is aware they’re being photographed. Vivian Maier, arguably one of the greatest street photographers ever, used a Rolleiflex.
Zach leans into the unit as far as the fascist will allow, searching for pictures. There are a few lying about, but it’s difficult to see them from the hallway. The ones he can see are all square rather than rectangular, a feature of the Rolleiflex. He tilts his head and squints at a photo on the end of the table closest to him: a striking black-and-white with afternoon sunlight cutting a diagonal across the image.
A man is standing in front of an open door with an arched top; the word “Office” can be clearly read behind his head. His shoulder leans against the doorframe, one knee slightly bent. His eyes stare off into the distance. Before Zach understands what he’s seeing, his stomach twists. It’s a photograph of him.
Eight Months Earlier: September 2017
The first of the month is the day most of the money comes in. Direct deposit, checks in the mail, and then there’s the cash, that nice hard cash. But because of the Labor Day holiday, this month the rent is due on the fifth. Rose waits in her office, which is shabby but big. Way too big. It’s three storage units combined, a waste of rentable space as far as she’s concerned, but she just works here, so it’s Zach Davidson’s problem, not hers. And she knows he couldn’t care less.
She likes that she has a window facing the street and the door to the hallway has a window, so there’s plenty of light, even in the winter. She gets to see who’s coming in and going out of the building. It’s important for her to keep tabs. She considers this part of her job, even if Zach never really said it was.
She enters the rent data into a spreadsheet and carefully double-checks her work. She’s as far from a computer expert as you can get, and she doesn’t want to make any mistakes. The nuns hammered this fear of mistakes into her with smacks to the knuckles and by making her spend lots of afternoons sweeping the vestry. But their lessons about honesty and virtue don’t seem to have stuck so well. Or maybe they did, and that’s why her stomach runs sick on rent day.
Serge steals in around nine thirty. He’s a tall man, way too thin, and even though he looks like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, he moves like the Tin Man. He’s probably only a couple years older than her, but he looks like he’s sixty, what with his skin all pasty and white. Even stranger is that his eyes are a really light green, like no color she’s ever seen before, and they don’t match his red hair and beard at all.
He’s a photographer but not a particularly good one. His pictures are black-and-white, and almost all of them are of ugly or sad people who never smile. Lots of them are just the backs of people and some are just shadows. Serge has no idea she knows any of this. None of the renters have any idea all she knows about them, and the thought of her secret visits to their units always gives her a jolt of forbidden pleasure.
Serge doesn’t make eye contact because he never does, but instead of being annoyed Rose feels sorry for him. She can tell he’s lonely. Heck, she knows he is, and she wishes she could do something to make him feel better. Even though this isn’t her problem any more than Zach Davidson losing money because of her too-big office is her problem, she wants Serge to be happy. Or at least happier.
Serge sends jumpy glances around the room like he’s making sure they’re alone even though it’s obvious they are. Then he slides an envelope across her desk, hiding it under his bony hand until she grabs its edge and puts it in the drawer.
“Thanks, Serge,” Rose tells him. “A beautiful day out, don’t you think?” She wants to get him to talk to her so she can find out more about him. “I’m looking forward to getting out at lunch, maybe a walk along the river,” she lies. She never takes more than a few minutes out of the office and eats at her desk to make sure she doesn’t miss anything. Someone is always moving in or moving out or asking about space or complaining about the space they already have. “How about you?”
She waits, and when he doesn’t move or say anything, she tries again. “You know, I just can’t decide. Across the river to the Esplanade or maybe down Mem Drive to the science museum? What do you think?” Instead of answering, he shakes his head and goes out to the hallway. Soon she hears the creak of the elevator as it takes him up to the fifth floor.
Not long after Serge leaves, Liddy walks in. “Hey,” Rose says.
“Hey.” Liddy leans against the doorjamb and smiles, but it’s not much of one.
Rose still can’t figure it out, but somehow she and Liddy have become friends. Sort of. Daytime friends anyway, like a work friend who stops by your desk a couple of times a week to say hello. It’s not like Rose would ever invite Liddy to her house or anything. But still, it’s quite something. What with Liddy and her Ivy League education and rich husband and kids at a fancy boarding school in Switzerland, and Rose with none of these. But Liddy doesn’t seem to notice the differences between them. Or at least pretends she doesn’t. She’s not stuck-up at all, and even at her age she’s knockout gorgeous.
Rose doesn’t want Liddy to hang around, because she might get suspicious if Marta comes in. But she senses Liddy has something to share, and because Rose can’t resist a good share she asks if Liddy wants a cup of coffee. Liddy hesitates, then asks for tea. Rose rummages around in a cabinet and finds a tea bag and two mugs. She’s a coffee drinker herself, and although she tries to keep it down to four cups a day, she always drinks more. This will be her third so far this morning.
Still standing, Liddy asks awkwardly, “How goes the new school year?”
Rose thinks this is a weird question because it’s got to be the last thing Liddy wants to talk about, what with this being the first year her kids are away. Liddy told her that it was her husband who made the decision to send the two of them to boarding school and that she didn’t like it one bit. So this must be the thing Liddy says before she’s ready to say the real thing she wants to say.
Rose wants to hear the real thing, but sometimes you have to wait until the other person is ready to spill the good stuff, so she says, “Charlotte hates her teacher and Emma says none of her friends are in any of her classes, which is something I know isn’t true. Michael slinks out of the house every morning without saying a word to anyone. Who knows if he’s even going to school?”
“Sorry about Michael, but he’s just a kid. He’ll come around.” Liddy stares into her mug as if there are leaves to read instead of a tea bag floating like a dead goldfish on top of the yellowy water. “The world is so crazy. Oppressive, even. ”
“You okay?” The world is crazy, but Rose thinks Liddy must be talking about the husband, the great and terrible W. Garrett Haines the Third. On top of sending the kids away, he sold their house in Weston and made Liddy move into the city with him. Not that Rose would mind living at Millennium Tower—“The Tower,” as everyone calls it. But Liddy once said that she’d rather her twins had a home to come back to. And why would she have stashed all their old stuff in her unit unless Garrett wouldn’t let her keep it?
Liddy puts her half-empty cup next to the coffee machine and hands Rose her envelope. “I’m fine,” she says as she walks out the door. Which Rose doesn’t believe for a second.
Fortunately, Liddy is long gone when Marta shows. The young woman steps up to Rose’s desk but doesn’t sit. “I cannot thank you enough for what you are doing for me,” she says in her perfect but fake-sounding English. “If it were not for your many kindnesses—”
Rose raises her hand to stop the girl with the sad puppy-dog eyes because Marta’s gratitude makes her feel even worse than she always feels on rent day. Marta is from Venezuela and she’s pretty in the way girls from South America are with their dark hair and skin that looks like they’re tan all the time. She has the most beautiful smile, which she doesn’t use much, and she’s really smart and used to be really rich like those people in soap operas with maids and swimming pools and bars in their living rooms.
When Marta was trying to convince Rose that she would be no trouble if Rose let her live at Metropolis, she said she went to some school in France and then to college at Cambridge. The one that’s in England not Massachusetts. This must be why she talks like she’s stuck-up but she isn’t. Just like Liddy isn’t. Marta is also brave about facing a whole bunch of really bad stuff that she hasn’t told Rose about. But Rose knows enough of Marta’s story to get why she’s not going to share her problems. “It’s okay, Marta. Really,” she says. “You don’t have to thank me, hon.”
Marta hands her an envelope and slips out of the office without another word. Rose puts Marta’s envelope on top of Serge’s.
With checks and cash in her pocketbook, Rose locks the office door and heads to the ATM. The students are back with all their noise and hustle-bustle. She imagines their summers in Maine or Cape Cod with them riding around in those fast little boats her Vince is always mooning after. She stands at the corner of Mass Ave and Vassar Street, right across from MIT, where all these smarty-pants go, and where she hopes her smarty-pants Emma will go someday—with a full scholarship. The students ignore the light and jaywalk like the cars aren’t even there. Like they’re the president. And they’re everywhere, crowding every sidewalk, and now they’re all at the machine where she needs to make her deposit.
Rose crosses the street and goes to the back of a line snaking into the gas station parking lot and presses her pocketbook close, itching to be done with it because she wants to put the whole business behind her for another thirty days. Shifting on her feet, she turns and looks back at Metropolis, a bulky six-story brick building with crazy round windows and castle-like towers sticking up at the top.
It’s so different from the rows of garage doors you see on the self-storage places along the highway, and she wonders what they were thinking back in the olden days building it in such a fancy way. A renter who looked up a bunch of facts about the building said it was one of the first storage places in the city, like in the late 1800s. Railroad tracks ran next to it, and men would unload their wares for only short periods of time, just as long as it took them to sell them.
Over the years, electricity and heat were put in so things could be stashed for much longer. And once air-conditioning and Wi-Fi were added, anyone could do anything with their units. Which is exactly what they do. Like Jason Franklin, the lawyer, and the young girl who builds crazy sculptures out of junk. metropolis storage warehouse is painted in twelve-foot-high white block letters across its sides. fire proof. The words look funny next to the swanky decorations, but she figures the outside isn’t all that much stranger than the people inside.
It’s where she’s worked for over ten years now, ever since Zach bought it. First she was just the receptionist and Zach was there doing most of the other stuff in the office. Then when Zach got to trust her more, he stopped coming in all that much. It seemed like he lost interest in the whole business and just turned it over to her. Which she’s got no problem with.
He’s a weird guy, leaving for weeks at a time to do things like scuba diving or mountain climbing or jumping out of airplanes. She has no idea why anyone would want to take those kinds of chances with their life. But he’s really nice—charming even—and he laughs a lot so what else he does is another thing that isn’t her problem. All that matters is that he promoted her to bookkeeper/receptionist and then to office manager/bookkeeper/receptionist, and she’s proud of how well she’s done.
It’s a good job, and she’s got good benefits and good pay. She makes more than Vince does but she never mentions this. It’s way more than she could make anywhere else, with her high school education and bare-bones computer skills. And here she is risking it all. But just like everyone else, she’s got to do what she’s got to do to for her family.
When her turn finally comes, she steps into the suffocating room. She uses the Metropolis card first and feeds in the rent checks. Then she puts in a different card and deposits the cash into her own account. As she stuffs the receipts into her wallet and steps out into the fresh air, someone grabs her arm.
“Making the deposit?” Zach asks.
It is a very good thing none of this happened until after she had finished collecting her data. It is also a very good thing that her friend Kevin is willing to run her numbers on his computer account, as it is not safe to log into hers. If it were not for Kevin, there would be no possibility of completing her dissertation, and this work is what keeps her mind from somersaulting in devastating directions, of which there are many.
Marta’s real name is Mercedes Bustamante, but no one knows this at Metropolis, and the people who know her as Mercedes do not know she is also Marta. Nor do they know where she is. It is the only way to protect herself and to continue her research. She is trying to understand which aspects of childhood social class are the most powerful predictors of adult achievement, and hence, how these factors affect the perpetuation of economic inequality in the hope of alleviating it.
For Marta, finding the answers to these questions has been her passion for the last four years. She has passed her proposal defense, surveyed 102 subjects, analyzed almost all of the data, and written seven of the twelve chapters in her outline. Dr. Ullman, the chair of her dissertation committee, was so impressed with her initial findings he encouraged her to begin applying for teaching jobs. But this was Before. Before all hell broke loose, as the Americans say.
Just this morning, Kevin sent over the results of her latest multiple regressions, which are stunning. She’s been poring over the numbers for
- “An ingeniously plotted hybrid social/suspense novel . . . [Shapiro] takes her time loading the bases, and in the last inning, she hits it out of the park.”—Shelf Awareness
- “Metropolis has all the elements I love in a novel: fascinating characters, a pace that crackles with tension, and a deeper message that will resonate with everyone. Once again, B. A. Shapiro weaves a unique and riveting tale.”—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of I Know a Secret
- “A rich and gripping journey through intersecting lives, a nuanced exploration of characters who share nothing in common—but almost everything too. Inventive and immersive, it’s a page-turner of novel that will also make you want to slow down and soak it all in.”—Lou Berney, Edgar Award-winning author of November Road
- “In Metropolis, Shapiro is the literary equivalent of a master juggler, writing with tremendous compassion and a wonderful knack for storytelling. Her characters whirl together within the confines of a self-storage unit and, though at its core is a mystery, its beating heart is their stories. It is a dazzling performance and a novel that will stay with me for a long time to come.”—Mary Morris, author of Gateway to the Moon
- “Part mystery, part sociological study… fascinating.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
- “Skillfully crafted with memorable characters, Metropolis is a riveting psychological thriller of a read from cover to cover. Raising crime fiction to an impressively high literary level…”—Midwest Book Review
- A “spellbinder from the bestselling author of The Art Forger and The Muralist.”—Booklist
- On Sale
- May 30, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Algonquin Books