<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->
Park Ethereal - Chapter 9
Tunnels are probably some sort of throwback to the birth experience, which would explain why most people get so damned afraid in them, especially when they're unlit. There were lights in this one, but I was far from the station, and not many were still working. Once in a while, a yellow bar cast wan light across the pillars and the rails; occasionally, across me.
I tried to put the gun away while running, but it just wouldn't work. It kept catching my waistband when I tried to stuff it into my pants, and after several tries I realized what I was doing and stopped running to lean panting against the walls of the tunnel, trying to breathe past the cold rush in my spine and lower back. I held the gun up, and looked closely. Off. The fucking safety was off. I removed the clip; worked the slide, once, with my hand over the port, and the small cold sin dropped into my hand. I'd been busily trying to run and stuff this thing in my pants with the fucking safety off and a round chambered. Christ. You know, movies really can get you killed. Or worse.
I pressed the cartridge back into the top of the clip. It clicked softly, a noise of precision and edges and corners, metal moving aside just barely to admit it into the bed. Reloading the pistol, I set the safety, and made sure the hammer was down, which it was. With that, I tried to push it into my trousers. It fit, but instantly the butt slid down past my waistline (I'd lost weight since college; this was probably the first time it struck me as funny) and I grabbed it before it could slide down my leg. It was freezing my thigh, anyhow.
That was out. I looked at it again, then sighed and removed the suppressor. That fit into my pocket, after I removed the few coins I had in it. After a moment's thought, I removed my pack, wrapped the cylinder in a T-shirt and stuffed it into the pack. Then I tried putting it in my waistband again; the damn thing just slid down faster without the suppressor to snag. I looked at it, exasperated, then finally tried stuffing it into my left pants pocket. It fit, but the butt stuck out. That wouldn't do at all, I supposed.
Too tired and worried about Kelly to figure it out, I slung it into the rucksack as well and hared off downtown once more. I swung into the bolthole, slapped up the ladder and dashed through silent corridors to slam out of the service door opposite the Swissotel, the door chunk-ing shut beind me, a final sound. Lucifer was cast from heaven. Could I, a sinner, be cast from hell? The tunnels hadn't seemed as such until this day, and that thought saddened me. I shouldered the bag, and began to walk back uptown.
It was night. Or dark, at least. I was hungry. It was a long way. I passed Sixty-fourth; nothing. Passed 757 Park, across the street, some twenty minutes after beginning; nothing unusual there. I continued on, weary, reaching Ninety-Sixth street some time later. I stood at the corner of Ninety-Sixth and Park, swaying slightly, breathing hard. I'd only been walking, but I realized I must be hungrier than I thought.
The tracks emerged from the earth across the street; there was a cyclone fence atop a stone wall in the center of the avenue to prevent anyone from climbing over. I crossed Ninety-Sixth, walked the one block to where the street sank to track level as it made its way downhill. There were sounds about me, though precious few people. A police siren called intermittently up near Madison, then Dopplered as the car sped downtown. No one was near enough to see me start in fear.
Crossing to the tracks, I examined the wall and the fencing atop it. It was grim, with barbed wire; I laughed contemptuously for show and morale and began to scale it. It wasn't really that difficult, until the wire, which turned out to be razorwire instead. Not fun. I threw my bag across, gripped the fence through the straps, feeling the polyvinyl abrade, and swung over. The bag almost caught on the top, but came after me with a small ripping sound.
One of the straps had a gash in it, but was not it danger of parting. Some fiber ticking stuck crazily from the slit. I shouldered it, looked ahead of me towards the red and green signals leading to the Bronx, and looked back into the darkness. Maybe Lucifer tried to get himself kicked out of heaven. I started walking.
It took eight blocks for them to find me. I thought the footsteps were police, at first, but there wasn't any light, and I decided to run instead. I got maybe a block; but while running I slung my bag into a safety niche. None of the three sets of footfalls behind me paused, and I spared life a tight small grin before the hand fell on my shoulder, jerked me around. I stumbled, fell,rolled, trying not to roll towards the third rail. I managed, but just to take the foot in my gut that I hadn't seen in the darkness.
The air left me hurriedly, and pain rushed in to fill its place. Nature abhors a vacuum. I tried to cover my face; curling my legs up, I went fetal. I was kicked twice more, then the other footsteps reached us.
"Shit, man, he...he ain't shit. Ain't got nothin...on him, do he?" The speaker was out of breath. His voice was close; probably leaning on his knees to catch his wind.
"Hey, fuck you, alright? This ain't his fuckin' world, man, and you don't shut up it ain't gon' be yours neither." Punctuated with kicks. Lighter ones, though, almost perfunctory. "Hey, hey, homes! You with me down there, man?" There was a click. It sounded familiar, and I froze, except to cough in pain. I rolled over, slowly, to my back. There was a gun above me, and it was cocked, now. I nodded, trying not to vomit. Gunman shoved my hands up over my head and one of his buddies stood on my wrists. That hurt like multicolored hell.
"What you think you're doin' down here, homes?" The question was delivered flatly, almost impersonally.
"I..." I stopped to cough uncontrollably. Gunman waited, for which I was angry to be grateful. "I just was trying to get downtown. It's warmer. I..." - more coughing- "I'm trying not be seen, okay? I just wanted to get to Grand."
"Homeboy be walkin' fifty fuckin' blocks in the Downtown?" New voice. Third guy, the one standing on my hands.
"Shut up, man. Hey, you, dirtboy." He waved the gun a little. "Don't bullshit me, okay? You ain't goin' no motherfuckin' fifty blocks in the Downtown 'cause you cold. That ain't even smart."
"Oh, man, I..." Damn it, stop coughing - "I'm just tryin' to get downtown to sleep, okay? God, I don't have any money, or I'd be eating, I swear. What you want anyhow, okay? I'm a bum, dude." I was whining. I told myself it was a clever facade.
"Dude? You call me dude? What, you from fuckin' Cali or something?"
"No, no way, I'm not, I'm not."
"So where you from, homes?"
"I'm-" Jesus, I tell him I can't remember he'll pop me right here. "I'm from upstate. No family. No job. Been in the Apple maybe, what, three months?"
"What, you askin' me? Didn't ask for your fuckin' memoirs, man. Shut up a minute." He looked up to the two above my field of vision, one of whose sneaker soles were pressing my right wristbone (the one on the bottom) into the sharpest corner I've ever heard of on a piece of rock. I wiggled my hand a little, trying to tip it, and he ground his foot heavily without even looking down. I subsided. Gunman was still talking.
"Man, motherfucker ain't even a nigger. What you say we do, boy?"
"Aw, fuck, let him go, man. He ain't got nothin' worth takin'." That was Leadfoot. Gunman, Leadfoot and Horsebreath. The latter was still wheezing, trying to catch his wind. Gunman shook the pistol.
"Let him go? Man, you ain't even got no imagination and shit. We could just like put a pill in the motherfucker right here, you know? Ain't killed nobody in weeks." He grinned down at me. Incongruously, I noted that in the dim light his teeth looked exceptionally healthy. There was a silence. After a moment, Leadfoot removed his soles and I slowly moved my hands down to my chest so he wouldn't change his mind. Gunman squatted down next to me, tilted his head. Young. Black. Couldn't even see what he was wearing, other than it was dark. He waggled the gun, a .38 revolver, and bright. Probably nickel-plated.
"Listen up, man. We be livin' down here. This ain't no fuckin' suburb, white boy. Keep you white ass out if you like breathin' through you mouth, not some hole in you front." He raised his eyebrows, waggled the gun again. "Cause if not-" He put the gun to my temple, and before I finished sucking in my breath, pulled the trigger. The click was really loud. It hurt my ear. I screamed, probably, but don't really remember. They were laughing. "Never keep one up it, homeboy. You lose you dick like that someday. Free advice, you gonna live on the street. I see you, you lose yours." They got up, swaggered back uptown. I just lay there, unable to do anything else, and disgusted to find out I'd pissed my pants when he dryfired the pistol.
I sat up after about five minutes. The urine on my legs and under my rear was chilling. Sniffling, I stood up, and listened. Silence. I slowly moved to the rail, and standing on it so as not to kick stones, headed back uptown. The two hundred feet to where I'd slung my bag was an eternity, but it was still there, undisturbed. I heard laughter, faintly, and looked up; the trio was walking up the El tracks, maybe a couple blocks uptown from where I stood. In the brown sodium light haze that always surrounds New York, one high-fived another.
The rage came, then, and I let it rant and scream (inside) until it remembered the Smith and Wesson. Then I thrust it firmly down inside, causing it to whine in frustration as it went resignedly, and I shuddered.
About twenty blocks later, I found my side tunnel and returned to the storm sewer. There was no warm air flowing from the side passage, and as I wormed up into the laundry room, my nose wrinkling at the smell of myself in an enclosed space, I saw no lights.
The laundry room was deserted, for which I was silently grateful. I looked out into the sorting room, or whatever it was; there were no lights on, only in the halls leading out of it. Moving back inside, I stripped and stufed my clothes in a washer.
I hunted for soap in the dark until I remembered the Maglite, which remained in the bag with its smaller brother. Finding the detergent, I started the machine, which, I was pleased to note, while an industrial make, was quieter than such usually are.
There was a brief picture of another washer, then; in a basement, I think, but not an industrial one. It had a pair of pajamas on it, with Winnie- the-Poohs on it, and- The white fog slammed down, hard; caught shirking, it was angry and took it out on me. The headache was worse than normal. I washed myself as best I was able in the industry-sized metal sink (hot water. Lucifer surely didn't miss this in hell, and it truly is the best thing) and curled up in a rug that had been sitting in the corner, after sliding under the sink and pulling a small shelf and a duffel bag that waited near a locked cabinet in front of me to hide me in case anyone came in. A weak camouflage, but all I had the energy to manage. I slept instantly.
Waking, I was aware first of silence, and second that it was still dark. My joints were protesting the hard floor, but I slid out from beneath anyhow, and stretched. That hurt worse. My stomach and sides, I found from the pain and subsequent examination, had some really lovely yellow and blue bruising distributed nicely about. Turning to the washer, I removed the jumpsuit, and stuffed it in a dryer. Starting that, I returned to slumber. No disturbances.
* * *
I was woken by the harsh buzzing noise of an angry wasp the size of maybe a New York City bus, the new GMC ones. I was sleep-fuzzed enough to wonder what it would want with me before the sound reached my 'fear' circuits and I leapt convulsively from underneath the sink and opened the dryer, stilling its alarm. I yanked the jumpsuit, now clean and warm, heaven, from its depths and pulled it on hurriedly. There was no indication of any response to the buzzer, and as I gathered up my meager belongings I felt my heart slowing.
When I had finished, no-one had yet arrived. I looked around thoughtfully, and then in a fit of bravery (before I could change my mind) stuffed the garments in my knapsack into the washer and started the cycle. I piled the Maglites, the gun, the suppressor and the few coins I had found in my trousers into the bag and swung from the room. I was about to head up the stairs when the thought came to me; I wasn't even sure what year it was. I hesitated, then moved across the hall to the storage cages and tried the door. It opened. Slipping inside, I made my way through the stacks until I came to my remembered cage, opened it and slithered through to the middle of the box stack. It was pitch black. I took out the Maglite and rotated the front, slashing about with the resulting beam. It hadn't changed much; still dusty, still empty. I checked up near the ceiling and saw that the boxes were stacked to its limit; not much light would escape. Housecleaning was the first order of the day. Stuffing the knapsack in a niche above floor level, I returned to the laundry room and procured, after some rummaging, a broom and plastic grocery bag.
These allowed me, with much coughing, to clear the floor of most of the dust that had lain there and tie the grocery bag top closed to hold it in. I dropped the bag in a trash bin in the utility area outside the laundry.
My clothes had finished washing, and I moved them to the dryer. Two minutes of hunting turned up a switch on the panel that, while unmarked, proved through judicious experimentation with the knobs and door to disable the buzzer. So protected, I started the dryer.
A sudden thought occurred to me. I had become accustomed to simply ignoring all concept of time other than those times I needed to see Ellyn or my own circadian rhythms. However, in my new quarters, I would be subject to the hours of the building staff, which would undoubtedly leave me only a narrow window of perhaps five or six hours within which to move about. I wondered in sudden nervousness what time it was presently. Despite the fact that I had not yet seen building personnel in the basement, such luck, or whatever my own private exclusion zone was, couldn't be depended on to last forever.
I prowled the basement more widely. There was a sturdy clock of the type remembered well from long hot hours in high school mathematics...I shook my head; the fog cleared, pain receding. Damn.
The clock stated that it was now approximately four-twenty in the morning. I wasn't sure what year it was; the clock didn't tell me that. Idiot, it snorted disgustedly as it clicked another notch towards five. Four twenty-one.
Despite fifteen minutes of searching, I was unable to locate anything that would make bedding. I did find a cache of dust masks, and appropriated five from the box of one hundred that sat on a closet shelf. Closing the door, I paused, then reached back in and took two pairs of latex cleaning gloves. Not as thin as surgical gloves, they were nevertheless thinner than heavy rubber work gloves; I could probably perform most small-scale tasks with them on. You can pull a trigger, some sardonic part of my medulla noted. I didn't like its train of thought, but, sighing, I returned to the cage. With a dust mask on, it was nearly livable. I would have to see about a mop at some future point, to feel almost human, but at the moment I lay wearily down on the cleanest section of floor, propped my head against my knapsack and closed my eyes. There was a brief time of buzzing free association-
Ellyn - wonder where - dead in tunnel - form in a bed - Ellyn, lying on the gurney - wonder if she's dead now, whatever now means - God I'm tired - fucking bastards in the tunnel; ought to find them and blow their kneecaps into tiny shards - (ow.) - Nineteen seventy-four? Present day? Why seventy-four? Ellyn died then - dying on a schedule - nah, too narcissistic, get over it -
(Brick, hitting pillow, on top of my head; blackness-)
* * *
I woke convulsively, flailing wildly for a few seconds before remembering where I was and the need for silence and freezing in cold rather than hot panic. No sounds answered. I levered myself up, feeling my forehead instinctively to check for dreams transmuted to contusions; nothing abnormal. Rubbing absently at a pimple, I stretched out and removed the dust mask. The outside face was dark grey. I made another mental note to see about a mop.
I ventured cautiously out from my boxes. The room was black; I couldn't remember if I'd left the lights on or used a Maglite to get back to my burrow. Urban ferret, you betcha. Rat in the walls. Literally; I had lived beneath society, and now, wormlike, in its interstices. Perhaps my station was improving, but I still longed for the uncomplicated dark of the tunnels, as they had been the few times I had been in them before seeing Ellyn in the park. Heck, at least it's Park Avenue.
Peeking cautiously out of the boxhole, as I mentally dubbed my domicile, I could see a lighter grey of daylight through the few windows that were placed along the ceiling, apparently at ground level. Years of city grime had covered them from without, and years of dust from within; still, a wan whitish light filtered through. I listened carefully; traffic, an almost forgotten presence in my recently nocturnal and subterranean existence; the occasional horn, a dog barking. A muted rushing thunder; I grinned tightly. Of course. Metro-North, probably only fifteen or twenty feet from the basement wall, reminding me of where my home and life truly lay.
The basement corridor was empty when I peeked out, but I could hear laundry machines running, which implied that there were people about, somewhere, who I did not wish to meet. I closed the door again, quietly, and explored the warren of storage cages.
Only two other were open; the rest had large, impressively complex and equally impressively dusty padlocks securing the doors. Truth be told, in some parts the metal mesh fencing was rusted enough that a good solid yank would probably be enough to provide access; no key required.
One of the open cages contained nothing but dust; the second, three empty bookcases, not very elaborate; a lamp, two wingback chairs and a side table. Shards of someone's living room set. I prowled the edges of the room, coming up at last with a stack of boxes which weren't in a cage. They didn't appear to be sealed, which to an urban ferret like myself was as good as an invitation.
Books, in the first one. Paper and hardback, fiction, mostly. The third or fourth one I leafed through had a colorful cover; I read the title. The Third Policeman, it read, by Flann O'Brien. I tucked it away into a pocket of the jumpsuit, thinking of my many lonely vigils waiting for doors or trains or ghosts.
The second box down contained, wonder of wonders, comforters. I swiped three, which diminished the apparent supply by about a third, and carefully reclosed the box before sneaking them back to the boxhole. My various contusions, earned in the tunnels, were protesting the night spent on the concrete, if not with great volume at least with great persistence. I pushed the comforters in between two boxes so as not to get them dusty until I could clean the floor better.
Then I went back to sleep, wishing I had a glass of water but not daring to leave the boxhole until late evening. It came to me, as I dozed off, that not only was my life now limited to nights by external constraint, but that given the hours of a building staff that manages to stay invisible to its clients as this one must, based on the expense of the building, I would probably only have three or four hours per evening between maintenance shifts. The doormen wouldn't come downstairs, but there would be laundry to do, floors to clean, elevators to polish, and so on.
Muzzily, I wondered why I might need more than four hours a day before realizing, just before I slept again, that I probably didn't want to know why, and that I was probably going to find out anyway.
There wasn't much light when I woke again. That was a good sign; at least it was night. I sat up as quietly as my loudly crackling joints would allow, and removed my mask. The outside of the mask hadn't changed visibly, but probably that was because it was already grey when I went to sleep. I stretched as best I was able, then carefully crept from the storeroom to the door. It was closed. I listened at the jamb for several seconds, and heard nothing other than the soporific buzzing of cheap flourescent starter units from the hallway outside. I eased the door open a crack.
No one about. Miracles never cease. There was a freestanding cabinet in the laundry room which proved to contain cleaning gear; armed with mop, broom, bucket and rags I returned to storage. The dust fought me half- heartedly, but in the end I vanquished it, banishing it to cracks between the boxes and the suspended purgatory of the water bucket. Grey now, the water lapped at the sides as I sloshed about.
It took, perhaps, an hour all told. I returned the gear, swiping a few clean rags for incidental housekeeping, and carefully shut the storage room door behind me. It took an hour for the floor to dry, even helped along by my rags.
When it had, though, I carefully lay two folded comforters down on the floor, and draped the third over them. I pulled a T-shirt from my rucksack, and stuffed it with other clothing until it was reasonably plump, then laid it at the head of the bed. The shock and luxury of an actual padded sleeping spot was so alluring, I was unable to resist it, so I doused the Maglite and crawled in. Warm. Cozy. I sniffled, my eyes watering in emotional reaction, then shivered and burrowed deeply into the Dacron and wool before finally pulling my cover over my head and sliding quickly to sleep in a warm dark cocoon.
When I awoke, I had moved about in my sleep. My bedding was slightly disturbed, and my rucksack had been moved. I vaguely remembered rummaging through it during my night. Shrugging and yawning, I rolled over. My head struck something hard.
I reached under the pillow and withdrew the obstacle. The Smith and Wesson winked dully at me, and I looked at it expressionlessly before gazing up at the boxes above me head, and, straining from the floor, slid it into the crack between two boxes perhaps three feet off the floor, until just the tip of the butt was showing, not enough to reveal its identity.
Then I went back to sleep, pausing only long enough to marvel at the amount of sleep debt I must have built up.
When I awoke, I had to force my eyes open against gummy lids, and yawned while I pulled on my clothes. I had to have water, and I had to relieve myself. Neither could wait. I just hoped it was night again.
Poking my head out the door, imprudently, I beheld an empty corridor. I padded silently down it towards the facilities, listening for all I was worth, but the only sounds were the constant faraway murmur of traffic and the rhythm of the washers as they agitated.
I'd never been so happy for a sink and a toilet. Essential business complete, I reflected that it really was time to get back out and figure out what the hell I was doing with myself. Which immediately raised the interesting question of how to ensure that in my commute from the storage room to the laundry room drain I wouldn't encounter any of the building staff.
That thought awoke a nagging idea that had been scratching away at my forebrain. Returning to storage, I carefully shut the door and locked it from the inside. Then, retrieving the Maglite, I carefully surveyed the room, dustmask firmly affixed.
The nominal center of the space was, naturally, within one of the storage cages and invisible beneath a stack of boxes and furniture. I thought it over for perhaps two minutes, then examined the lock on that cage. It appeared, unfortunately, to date from the last pair of decades, which meant that I had no real chance of removing it without more tools than I had presently.
One side of the cage, however, became noticeable as I circled it. Rusted mesh actually had chips missing from some of the strands in a vertical stripe down the fencing. Looking up, the cause was obvious - a water valve rested just below the ceiling, directly above the strip. Leaks, it appeared, were just frequent enough, or went unnoticed long enough, to rust the cage wall. I hooked my fingers in he mesh and pulled.
Nothing happened as a result, save for my hands hurting. I swore once, with feeling, and examined the cage again, more carefully. Finally, I took the Maglite from its hiding place in my boxhole, and tried to pushed it between the strands. It fit, barely, which was a good sign. Inserting its narrow end into the mesh at about chest level, I twisted sharply. There was a grating creak, which prompted me to try various directions. On about the fifth try, one of the four strands surrounding the now-scratched base of the Maglite parted with a startlingly clear sound somewhere near a two hundred twenty cycle A note.
Repeating this process on those strands which appeared to be the strongest, I managed to prise free a flap perhaps four feet high. If I strained, I could hold the mesh apart far enough to step through, so naturally I did so. I do admit, though, it would have been a good incongruity (if that's a word) to just leave it there. I couldn't tell if this was my slightly black sense of humor returning, or if it was some part of me which had suddenly become very interested in leaving a false trail. Yep, even paranoids have enemies, as they say.
It took roughly an hour to clear the boxes and furniture from what I judged to be the centerpoint of the room. There was water damage to those boxes near the leak, in a line towards the center, which I took to be a hopeful sign. It was moving the stuff without making noise that was the worst, and cost me two pulled muscles and sore feet and back from unnatural loadbearing.
At the end of it, however, I was rewarded by the sight of a large black iron grating in the middle of the floor, off-center slightly in the cage but centered in the room. I pulled at it, experimentally; no dice. I couldn't see any obvious attachment points, put there wasn't really a good place to get purchase on it, as it was more of an iron plate with holes punched in it that were far too small for my fingers, and it sat flush with the floor in a small recess. Hands on hips, I surveyed the offending barrier for several moments, then nodded.
"Right." My voice startled me; I hadn't heard it, it seemed, in quite some time. I cleared my throat experimentally, then looked at the plate again. Marching back out of the storage area, I rummaged through the various cleaning supplies until I came up with a screwdriver, nestled among a stack of light bulbs. I nicked it, hastening back to my hole, and used it to pry the plate from the floor. It came up reluctantly; apparently it hadn't moved in quite some time. Setting it aside, I carefully returned the screwdriver, smearing the fresh bright scratches on it with some choice mop grease. Back in storage once more, I wormed into the drainage hole, which was encouragingly close to the size of the familiar one in the laundry room. Also encouragingly, it widened after a brief distance, and I continued on until I came up against a metal mesh barrier covering the exit.
Through it, I could see a familiar-looking tunnel, which was exactly what I'd hoped. Using the Mag, I examined the edges of the grille. The right side was welded to the pipe end; the left was as well, but the weld was older. I smashed at it, experimentally, and it gave almost immediately. I bent the grille out just enough to slip by, then smeared the weld edges with grime from the tunnel floor. It looked undisturbed when I moved it back into place.
The tunnels seemed strange, after my brief absence. I felt a chill on my neck that hadn't ever been there before when moving through my private underground; angrily, I shook my head, realizing I was worried about Gunman, Leadfoot and Horsebreath. Angrier than I'd thought possible; they'd not tormented me, they'd stolen my private desmesnes from me. Down here, now, I was an intruder; I was a fugitive, and I watched furtively about me wherever I set my feet. Before, I had been a fugitive above ground, driven down here by confusion, poverty, fear and pain; finally, by not wanting to force Kelly to arrest me. Now this place, too, was no longer mine.
The question then became whether to move on, or to reclaim it as such. Depths unsuspected stirred, then, at the decision; I stopped, leaned against the wall and thought. Hard.
That was the only real thought I could speak out loud, so I did. "Home." The others were too formless, too vague to put into vocal words. My lips firmed up, and I grimaced, realizing that I was frowning like some overeager movie avenger. I slapped myself, in the face, once. "Stop that!" The shout bounced back to me. "You're not a fucking hero! You're lost!" Slap. "Don't even think about it!"
Problem was, I couldn't stop thinking about it. So I turned, went back up the tunnel, and into my cage, and withdrew the gun from its lair.
Walking back down the tunnels with the cold weight against my spine, warming slowly, I felt vaguely sick; one part thrilled, two parts terrified, one part disgusted.
I hoped I didn't run into anyone on the way to the Main Lobby. I'd probably shoot my foot off in the adrenaline rush.
* * *
Luckily for my feet, the trip was uneventful. I paused just before reaching the lighted area of Track Twenty-Eight, and looked about me. Scattered among the silent lines of identical pillars, there were signals, lamps, signs in cryptic MetroNorthish, junction boxes. After some thought, I moved to a signal box pointed down the track towards the platform. At the present, it was burning a bloody red; the lamp was just above my eye level and was blinding at this close range. I pulled the gun from my trousers and laid it flat on its side on top of the signal box, reaching up above my head. When I withdrew my hand, the gun was invisible, even though I'd left a bare bit of the grip hanging over the edge; the light was too bright to see it past the glare. Satisfied, I turned and moved off towards the lobby.
Track Twenty-Eight was occupied by a quietly breathing train, its red warning lights winking in the gloom as I approached. I made use of the access ladder at the end of the last/first car and swung up onto the platform. A quick scan revealed no-one looking in my direction, so I straightened my clothing for what that was worth - the jumpsuit was pretty much unchanged - and strode off down the platform.
The clocks read eleven fifty-eight, and a glance upwards after passing through the doors made that an a.m. figure. Brilliant sunlight pierced the grimy panes of the Main Lobby windows, sending shafts of gold down to strike the marble and the commuters and the gold filigree on the information booth clock and the metallic bank machines. I stopped briefly to turn my face to the sun, eyes closed and motionless. Enough to feel human, less of a burrowing creature. The warmth that had traveled through 93 million miles of void, and a hundred miles of air, and two miles of smog, several panes of glass and perhaps a hundred fifty feet of lobby bathed my face for several moments. The voices stilled. The lobby hushed. Then life went on.
I shambled over to the bank.
The music was pouring forth, and I had to hear it. The sun my drink and the music my food, I found my place against the wall and leaned my head back to hear my friend play. He nodded once towards me, and at my answering smile turned back to the small crowd of folk to caress the battered horn. Mathematics, in the music...a quick cold flash of a planar surface, met by the warmer buzz of a three-axis curve...the differentials of a quick blaring solo before the asymptotic curve towards zero as the echoes chased each other from the room. They spun laughing about the girders and people and stone, the vanished, a trick of the ear, down towards the subway. He nodded once to the crowd, in a friendly way, acknowledging their applause, and moved slowly back towards me, absently cleaning the mouthpiece while the silver and paper cascaded into his case.
"Morning, son. Been a while since I seen you roun' here."
"Yep. Morning. Been a while."
He peered into my face for a moment, oddly owlish, replacing the mouthpiece with his reflexes and his habits. "You still doin' okay, boy? You don' look too good, neither."
"I dunno. I'm in-between, is all, I think. Not sure."
"In between what an' what? Where you been and where you going?"
"Noooo...I don't think so, man. Just in-between, is all."
He shrugged, setting the horn down on a towel against the wall. The crowd had dispersed, and he hooked the case with a foot, dragging it over towards us as he sat. The horn winked dully from its bed as deft fingers began to count the take.
"Hmm. Thas' a dangerous place, boy. The one behind, it don' want you no more; an' the one in front, it don' know you yet. Gits yo'self crush, you don' look out fer yoursel'."
I clonked my head back against the wall. The one behind. The one in front. I tried to visualize them, but all I could come up with was Gunman's trio, Kelly, and the man who'd shot at me. 1974, Kelly had said. I wondered where he was now.
"...thirty-seven, thrty-eight, thirty-nine, thirty-nine fifty, seventy-five, forty dollar. Here, son." My friend was holding out a rumpled stack of money. I looked at him expressionlessly. He shook the dollars. "If'n you don' eat, I never gonna hear the end of this story, boy. Take the gelt." I did, slowly, moving it into my pocket. He waved at the case, still full of silver. "Son, don' worry. I gots me mine; thas' the third set this mornin'."
"Can you teach me to do that?"
He grinned, a flash of metal from his teeth. "Boy, you gots to have the music in yo' chest, hear me? It gots to bubble up from down inside. Can't teach none o' that."
"Well, hell, I had to ask." I grinned back. "Don't seem too bad a living."
The grin flickered away. "Son, don' be thinkin' like that. This my life, not yours. You gots someplace to be, even if you can't remember where. I gots no place to be atall; thas' why I play here. Don' be lettin' go of it."
I nodded, abashed. Clonked my head back; watched the crowd.
The face was frozen, halfway across the lobby; changed, maybe, but the same. It was staring at me in shock. I came up instinctively, rolled to a kneeling position with my legs under me tense and prepared.
He was carrying a coat over one arm, and had a leather briefcase in the other hand. A tad overweight, in a moderately cheap suit, no hat, loosened tie. The face changing, now, to a harder expression that submerged the fear and shock (but didn't quash them) and the briefcase was falling slowly, the coat flaring as it dropped the other way. His hand was sliding into his jacket, a sickeningly familiar sight, but that was the last I saw as my legs convulsed and I flat dove into the crowd towards the tracks.
"Boy!" shouted from behind, but I was weaving between commuters now, evoking startled sounds of annoyance and irritation and surprise as I slithered among them while trying to keep my head below average shoulder level. No stairway here; no apartment door, no laundry room to run to, just the familiar concrete, diesel and ozone smell of track twenty-eight and the beckoning dark.
The train had gone; the platform was empty which shoved the fear up into my throat as I burst from the last clump of people into the clear space. No time to change ideas in midstream; I pelted for the end of the platform. More shouts, mostly one voice, calling for me to wait, wait but before I even yielded to the temptation to look back there was a K-BLAM as the bullet ricocheted off the side of a MetroNorth in the next track and spun keening off into the undernight. I began to duck and weave, moving towards the tracks.
Two more shots rang out; a signal lamp ahead of me shattered with an astonishingly loud white noise burst of glass powdering. I covered my face with my left forearm, jumped down onto the tracks. My ankles didn't turn, lucky, lucky; running down the center of the rails I tried to keep my body low. There was another shot; the bullet whined overhead. My pursuer was still up on the platform and possibly didn't have a clear shot at me below, although he knew where I was. There was more yelling, then, from back near the Main Lobby entrance.
A slight curve as the track compensated for the platform's end, and I was into the darkness. I swung behind a pillar, gasping, and risked looking back; my pursuer was almost to the end of the platform. He looked winded, but was still going; I probably didn't look so good myself. I turned and fled, trying to keep the pillars between my back and his line of sight.
Another shot. This time a flatter metallic crack of metal hitting metal somewhere up ahead of me. My ears rang with the sound in the enclosed space.
Oh, God, there it was, green now, and still tall- I jumped, swiped at the top of the signal box, felt the gun slip into my panicked clutch. I ran on, trying to determine which end of the thing was front without looking down; I needed all my attention to avoid third rails, ties, random bits of equipment, all the assorted detritus of the tunnel.
He looked older. That was all. Of course, he probably was. Twenty years? I don't know. Who the hell can keep track, in my own private continuum. Twenty years his time. Several days mine. Still trying to kill me, though, God knows why. Another bullet whining by. Keep running. Don't look ahead; look down, don't trip, don't hit the third rail-
K-BLAM O, Christ, Lord, see me through this...anybody, anything, see me through this, I'll be good, I'll recant my sins if anyone will tell me what they are-
Another sound, familiar, welcome; the air horn, and strident screech of stressed steel. Lights flared up ahead. I ducked my head further, made sure I wasn't on the same track, (one over) and ran on. How many shots so far? I couldn't remember, realized I didn't know how many rounds whatever he was using held, so who cared, felt the gun suddenly fit, rotating into its proper place in my hand. My thumb caressed the safety, feeling the solid silent clickof machined metal. I swung behind a pillar, gasping, held the gun pointed away from me and down. Thumbed the hammer back. Waited ten seconds.
Leaned around the opposite side of the pillar from the one I'd ducked around; nothing silhouetted against the light. Leaned around to look back down the side I'd come; there he was. Shadowed against the platform's flourescents. I could see commotion on the platform; probably police, they're never far from the Main Lobby.
I couldn't for the life of me imagine what he wanted or what he was trying to do; they were going to be all over him no matter what happened down here. They were just too damn close for him to have a chance, and he had to know that.
Yet he was still trying to kill me. Sobering thought. I debated briefly, then shook my head and resafetied the gun, running off along the next track from my pursuer, angling towards the far wall. I suppose I might have fired at him, but then I might have hit him. I wanted to stay alive and free more than I wanted him dead. Mostly I wanted him to go away and leave me alone, but that didn't seem likely, as he too was switching tracks. I heard a clatter behind me, apparently directly behind. Without pausing to look I cut right, angling for the next track, as there was a thud and a cry from behind. I hoped whatever he'd tripped on was sharp. Maybe if I was lucky, he hadn't had his shots, and it was rusty, too.
Still running. Four tracks over, the front of the train passed me on its way into the station. Not much to be heard, then, so I just kept running. One more track over- There was the wall. No more tracks. I debated jumping the powered rail that ran along it, edged over as I ran, but there wasn't clear space behind the rail.
After perhaps another hundred feet, I stopped, leaning against the back of a pillar, breathing heavily. I unsafetied the gun once more, looked out the way I'd come. Nothing. Looked around the other side-
I flinched back, but there was no acccompanying whine or metallic smack. More shots sounded, and I peered carefully around the pillar again, my head near to the floor. I couldn't see anything, at first, then another shot rang out to the accompaniment of a flash of hot gases from behind a pillar perhaps seventy-five feet back. No, the flash was from my side of the pillar; he was shooting back down the tunnel. There were answering shots, then, and I grinned through my panting. Police. Had to be. And the fool was firing on them. Obviously he didn't know how incredibly pissed off the NYPD gets when someone has the chutzpah to use firearms on them.
Or, worse thought, maybe he knew and didn't care. Kelly had said that he had once been a professional. I safetied the gun, stuck it in a pocket in the front of the jumpsuit. It didn't fit easily, and I was chagrined to realize that the silencer was still attached. While the thought that I was harder to see and hear was a good one, it also meant that I would have had, unexpectedly, only one shot before having to remove the silencer and clear the slide. I unscrewed the silencer and stuffed both into the front pocket.
It was apparent to me that whatever I had done to occupy myself, playing with guns and silencers hadn't been part of it. I was, I suppose, relieved.
The shots behind me continued to stutter on. I debated the safest way out, then ducked my head and ran directly across the tracks, away from the wall. Nothing came my way, and after a few moments I reached the opposite side of the tunnel- which put the maximum number of pillars on an angle between myself and the firefight taking place nearer the platforms.
Then I turned uptown and ran like hell.
* * *
Not until I collapsed into my nest in the storage room did I relax even minutely. I was reasonably sure that my mystery assailant hadn't followed me; the shots had continued for some time as I had better-part-of-valored my way uptown. Following that, there had been silence, which implied to me that either the cops had killed or captured my pursuer, or he had elected to make his escape. Either one meant that he had undoubtedly been too busy to follow me, and in fact even if he had made good his getaway, he was now under more of a disadvantage than I, since his left luggage and possibly his face, if it had been seen, meant that the police were actively searching him.
I really, really, wished I knew why the hell he'd been shooting at me. Come to think of it, I really wished I knew why he'd been in Ellyn's apartment so long ago, and why he'd chased me then. Assuming he hadn't known who I was, the only reasonable assumption was that he hadn't wanted to be seen, and regarded me as a dangerous eyewitness. But eyewitness to what? The police hadn't suspected, or maybe hadn't been able to prove, any kind of link between him and Ellyn's death (if even they were at congruent times. God, this was getting confusing) since they'd let him go after charging him with, what was it? Criminal Trespass?
All right. Therefore, he hadn't just killed Ellyn, or some such. He'd been in her apartment, but that's all I knew. Looking for something? Waiting for someone? Both were possibilities. I burrowed deeper into my pads, luxuriating in my own body warmth, indications that I was alive. I hatedbullets, I decided, swearing to avoid their ilk in the future if at all possible.
I was desperately unhappy with how little I knew about what was going on. Of course, it wasn't as if that was a new feeling. It was almost comforting in its familiarity. the real question became, what to do now?
The answer was fairly simple. Barring a direct conversation with Ellyn, which had so far proved impossible, I had to visit her apartment. It had been the last place I'd seen my assailant, and it had also been, in current time, the scene of something less than legal, given that I'd seen police barrier tape across it and fingerprint powder dusted about the one time I'd been inside. I wanted very much to look around Ellyn's apartment, but so far it appeared that I had no control over my personal timeshifting, and wishing for it wouldn't make it so. At least, I didn't think it would. So far, I hadn't even been able to tell when I shifted, much less how it was happening.
Still, there was only one recourse. I'd become a burrowing creature in the past few months - time to resort to type.
* * *
Apartment 9H waited for me at the end of a hall now populated by memories of violence, but that was all right - there was enough strangeness in my life now for me to take the shivers in stride. There were no police barriers on the door this time, but that didn't mean much; in the days since I'd been here, they would have surely been cleared away, if this was present day. If not, it was 1974. There really wasn't any way to tell; the spare furnishings in the hallway were tasteful and ageless, and in fact could have dated from late in the last century for all I knew. Ah well. Only one way to find out.
It was, according to a clock in the basement I had consulted while silently making my way to the stairs, four-fourteen in the morning. Few if any should be stirring, not even a mouse; but the tunnel rat moved freely among them. I grinned, which felt good, forcing me to realize how long it had been since I had done so. Speaking of things I hadn't done in some time, my stomach rumbled slightly, but I forced it down firmly, promising it, Later. I swear.
The door was closed. I tried the door, a cleaner's rubber glove on my hand for this purpose. I had left my boots in the basement as well, in favor of a pair of disposable latex booties designed to pull over shoes for protection from solvents. I wore no shoes, but the latex gripped the floor quite well.
The door was locked. Ah well. I had suspected that this might be the case, but hadn't bothered to plan for the contingency, since I was fairly sure I would have just given up had I tried. Now I looked about me in resignation, then back at the door. The locks (there were two) were standard-looking; onein the handle, and one above it in the door itself. I couldn't tell whether both were engaged. The cylinder rotation seemed to indicate that the frame lock was locked, but the handle cylinder was horizontal, which usually indicated an unlocked condition. I shook my head, wondering where the hell that was coming from, just in time to aggravate the splitting pain of a now-familiar headache and a foggy whiteness about my vision. It took all my remaining strength to ease myself quietly down to the floor instead of falling or flailing loudly. It would have been better still to have made my way back to the stairwell before collapsing, but that was beyond me in my current state.
Cursing in a whisper, I tried desperately to forget that I ever wondered at the source of the information. That was what triggered it, after all- trying to pierce the barrier. After some moments I succeeded, and found myself sitting against the wall, staring fixedly at a potted plant on a side table opposite me, sweating and shivering. I remained motionless for a time, to be sure my muscles were working, then rose with the care of the very old and shuffled back to the stairs and thus to the basement, now with a picture in my head. I'd managed to suppress the source of that picture, but it was clear, and I knew what I needed.
Rummaging about in the maintenance spaces got me one of the two implements I needed. A miniature tool in a drawer in the laundry room: a right-angle piece of steel. A standard Allen key hex wrench, formed of hexagonal steel wire and bent into an L with a short and a long leg. I took it, and placed it on the concrete floor of the laundry room before returning and searching for a hammer. I found one, momentarily, in another drawer of the chest I had been searching, and went back to the hex wrench. Looking about me reflexively for witnesses, although the laundry machines were running and creating a fair din, I raised the hammer, then stopped. I was just too paranoid to make the knd of noise that this would require.
Sitting back on my haunches, I considered taking the whole assemblage into the tunnels. I wasn't ready to return there, however, and didn't want to keep the hammer away for longer than I had to. There had been an assortment of Allen wrenches of various sizes; the loss of one was plausible. There had been only the one hammer, however, and it was a tool required far more frequently, more easily noticed as missing. "Damn it." The words were almost lost in the rushing noise of the machines. "Immobilized by a fucking hammerblow." My voice had become rusty again; I coughed twice to clear my throat. I wondered idly if I'd ever speak frequently again, when this was all over. I had a brief image of myself tapping out Morse code on a tabletop with a cane, and laughed before the image sharpened and I let my amusement trail off thoughtfully.
Rising, I crossed to one of the dryers, and opened the hatch. The drum spun down obediently, and I looked in. A perfectly normal load of clothes. I grabbed a heap from one side of the drum and shoved it to the other, then closed the hatch and pressed the 'START' button. A grinding sound came from the machine as the drum slowly spun back up to speed.
Before it was fully engaged, however, a rhythmic thumping noise became audible, growing louder with each revolution. The unbalanced drum was precessing inside the machine, and with each spin it thumped against the side. I hoped, belatedly, that the noise wouldn't grow too loud, and that the night staff wasn't overly conscientious, even if they were nowhere to be seen. I didn't want them coming to investigate. Hopefully, it was a familiar sound, one which held no threat and no sense of the unusual. Damn dryer again, that's all.
I returned to the hex wrench and waited, hammer in hand. I swung it slowly in the air, in time to the dryer's thumping; when I had the rhythm down I swung the hammer at the end of the short leg of the Allen wrench. The metallic thump of the hammer was almost lost in the thumping from the dryer. I struck the tool once more; twice, three times. Held it up to examine. The end of the short leg was crushed almost flat, looking almost like a flat-bladed screwdriver. Perfect.
I rebalanced the dryer. Didn't want anyone coming down to check it out.
The other tool proved harder to find, but a nail file yielded to a carpentry sibling, leaving a narrow strip of metal with a notch filed in the side near one end, leaving a hook which was tipped in a triangle. So armed, I returned to the ninth floor. Five sixteen; I was getting short of time. The door looked the same. I knelt before it, inserted the allen wrench's flat end into the lock cylinder so it hung down from the opening. With the nail file I slowly teased the pins inside the lock, twisting the cylinder just enough to hold them up once I'd wiggled each above the break point.
It took fifteen minutes. But in the end, the lock clicked open. I grinned, stuffed the makeshift lockpick set in one of the jumpsuit's copious pockets, and opened the door quietly. "Yet again, the master spy laughs at locks," I whispered to myself in an attempt to keep from sweating in fear. I had just upgraded Kelly's assessment of myself to breaking and entering; not a happy thought. Only if he finds out, fool. My inner voice wasn't being very patient with me, and with good reason; having just committed the crime I was afraid of, I now stood frozen in front of the evidence. With a sudden stir, I opened the door enough to slip through and did so, closing it behind me with a soft click.
I wished I knew what year it was.
I wished I knew where the light switch was.
On second thought, no I didn't. I brought out the mini-Mag, and covered the lens with my hand before twisting the top to coax the electrons into motion and the photons into their dance from the top of the pinpoint halogen bulb, against the reflector, thrown crazily out in one general direction. I parted my fingers just a bit; a slit of light lashed out and struck a wall. I swept the beam from right to left, across an end table, a chair, a lamp, and an umbrella stand. The light wouldn't travel far enough to see down the entryway. If the apartment was the same as the one I'd been in several days ago, or many years from now, depending on how you looked at it, the furniture was at least marginally correct. I couldn't see enough of the table and chair to be sure they were the same ones, but they sat in roughly the same positions.
That would imply that this was the current 9H, and that there was no occupant, and that one of the glasses in the cupboard was missing because I'd broken it in realization, and that among other things the cabinets in the living room contained a Bang & Olufsen Compact Disc stereo system. I moved in that direction. No lights showed anywhere in the apartment. I could see the bedroom door as I passed the hallway leading there; it was closed. I didn't know whether that was because it had been left that way or because it was occupied. I shuddered at the thought, and obstinately made my way towards the cabinet in the living room. there was a cabinet there, and I opened it as quietly as I was able. Yes, a stereo-
Wrong one. A Swan tube amp and a Technics turntable; christ. LPs shelved at the end of the cabinet space. 1974. Crap. Was there anyone else here?
I closed the cabinet, my heartrate doing its best to break into radio frequencies. Turning as quietly as I was able, I headed for the closed bedroom door. Although it wasn't the smartest move, something of which I was aware, I needed to know before blindly haring off into the night. I paused outside the closed door, then firmed my resolve and placed my ear to the panelled surface. There was no sound.
I strained to hear, keeping as still as possible and, so help me, listening in between my own deafening heartbeats, but no sound was forthcoming. Well. I stood, stretching slightly, and regarded the doorhandle quizzically. I knew it was stupid, but there was my hand, reaching for it dreamily. I stared in momentarily disbelief, then willed it to stop. There was a brief hesitation, then it continued on. I wanted to swear, to shout, but held my silence, attempting instead to turn my body about-
Too late. My hand closed around the door handle. I sobbed as silently as possible, once, in fear, then the hand was turning.
The door swung noiselessly, thank god for small favors, and there was the bed, in the same position as the last time I'd been in the room, with a dark form atop it, my knees buckled, but I had to know-
The form moved.
I froze, completely shocked in the realization that I had expected the bed to be empty, had expected the sweat and fear to be anticlimactic. I was caught, there, one hand still on the doorknob. I hadn't taken a step into theroom. Waiting, I debated whether or not to close the door, but decided to give the situation ten seconds. At the end of ten seconds, the form hadn't moved again. I knew I should be gone, knew I should be running as quietly as possible down the stairs towards the safety of the basement, but instead I reached for the miniMag in my pocket.
Clutching the light tightly, I twisted the top. There was an immediate soft red glow around the edges of my fingers, still gripped around the lens. I separated two of them, slowly, slowly, and a wavering light flickered from between to light the floor at my feet. A thick carpet was revealed; all the better. I stepped forward, towards the bed, shifting my weight carefully. The floor was good; it didn't creak. The carpet muffled any sound. I took another step, berating myself for not having closed the door behind me. Ah well, too late now. I swallowed, saliva flooding my mouth in a well-remembered precursor to vomiting. My stomach was wringing itself dry, and it felt as if the resultant acid dribble had settled directly behind my bellybutton. God, I was scared. Too late now, though; I was committed, halfway across the floor.
I was close enough to determine that the shape in the bed was, in fact, a person, and not a pile of pillows. Images of Ellyn as she'd been the last time I'd seen her here flickered up into my imagination. Not, thankfully, to my eyes as they had before. I shook the picture away, and lifted the flashlight slowly, bringing the beam up over the floor, the side of the bed, the sheets-
My eyes hurt.
It took a full two seconds for my brain to process that there was light, sudden light, flooding the room. I jerked my gaze upright, to the bed. Ellyn was there, sitting up, her left hand still on a lamp across the bed from me. She was wearing light blue pajamas, as far as I could tell, and her right hand was drawn up across her chest protectively. I moved my gaze to her face. She was looking at me. There was fear there, although she didn't look like she was preparing to scream.
Worse, there was something else. I couldn't recognize it at first, and I smiled weakly, and lowered the flashlight to my side, attempting to appear non-threatening. (It occurred to me, even in my unstable state, that much of my interaction with this woman, alive or dead, seemed to center around getting her to understand that I wasn't dangerous.) I understood the other look in her eyes with a shock. Recognition. She wasn't screaming, and she wasn't looking away. Rather, she was looking intently into my eyes, and even as I stood there, the floor anchored firmly to the base of my feet, she reached out her right hand
Ellyn reached out her dead hand
and stretched her fingers towards my arm
(I was reminded of our reachings, before, across the gulf)
and touched me.
I flinched back involuntarily, and she snatched her fingers away, a bit of fear showing at last, and I shook my head convulsively, no, no, it's all right. Funny; she hadn't made a sound, and I couldn't talk for the life of me, dry throat hissing breath. I opened my mouth, wet my lips, tried to speak-
"It was you, wasn't it? In the tunnel?" The voice was music, silver and sunlight seen through ice. Whatever I'd been meaning to say died in my throat. I stared at her, uncomprehending, trying to sort through the multiple incidents in the tunnels I'd been through. Yes, yes it had been! I'd pulled her away from the train, once, and she'd vanished! Was this after that? God, I was confused, but I nodded, not trusting my throat to do more.
She smiled. It was the same breathtaking smile that had first drawn me off the bench in her wake, the smile that had started it all; the smile that launched one poor amnesiac into a world of crazed and splintered time. I smiled back, then grinned, opened my mouth to speak-
The familiar not-quite-dark and smells. The tunnels. I looked around, in a panic, then laid my head against a pillar and cried. A Metro-North rumbled past, blasting my hot salt tears from my face, uncaring of my loss; blared out its challenge to the underdark in strident tones before rushing away down the tunnels, bound for the lighted platforms of its temporary home.
My tears fell onto the oil-stained shale and stones of the trackbed. I had fallen to all fours, my head hanging. The result was pain in my knees and palms from sharp rocks, and an incredibly stuffy nose. I continued to cry anyhow, feeling that I deserved it. The voice was a shock, but I was too far gone to react.
"Hey, lookit. Don't we know him? Sumbitch cryin' like a pussy." I turned my head slowly, met a grinning face among indistinct shapes.
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