This is the city upon the rainy coast, and december is never snow, was never snow, and Christmas is never sleighs nor reindeer. Not around here. No, here December is the glow of streetlights through the cold rain, and the deep, black shadows between them.
It is from these deep black shadows that two hooded, cloaked figures emerged into the light, right in front of me, as if they had stepped out of a doorway I could not see. "Excuse me," I said, stepping back reflexively. "My apologies. Didn't see you there."
One was draped in a purple cloak, the other in green. Both wore their hoods low, casting their faces into shadow.
"But we saw you," said the voice of a young woman from within the green cloak. "And we need to talk to you. Now."
"What, are you stalking me? I don't like where this conversation is going."
"Please," said a young woman's voice from within the folds of the purple cloak. "We mean you no harm, but we do need to chat rather urgently."
I should reiterate that this city is one well-known for its cold, cold rain. "Can we talk somewhere warm and dry then?" I said. "Somewhere I can see your faces."
"Do you two realize how suspicious you look keeping your hoods up while sitting in a dim bar?"
John's Grill is expensive, but I figured it was more appropriate for this mysterious occasion. Normally I go to the Tempest, because I like to talk to the journalists, and they like to talk to me. But I couldn't risk having them see me with these two clowns.
"Forgive us," said Purple Cloak. "We would prefer to remain anonymous. What matters is not our names, nor whether you can contact us again. What matters is you."
I put my hand on my chest and raised my eyebrows in mock surprise.
"You," said Green Cloak, "and this city. What we have sensed here...what we think will happen here...Well. You seem like the right sort of person to understand the potential danger, and to help fix it. We saw you stalking the street in the rain, and then we didn't see you, and then suddenly you were there. You have an air of such non-descriptness about you that to the trained eye it's fairly conspicuous. You appear to be someone who practices our craft."
I glanced out the window into the darkness, hoping to see the movement of something, anything, that would help me to believe that this was all a goof. I glanced around the bar. Nobody was giggling. The bartender was calmly cleaning a glass. If this was a joke, it was completley deadpan.
And, come to think of it, Maude used to tell me that I sometimes appeared out of nowhere. There had been times, in my more dirty dealings, when I'd been standing right in front of someone I didn't want to catch the notice of, and they never noticed me. But that had to be a fluke, right? I wasn't some kind of damn chameleon.
Purple Cloak raised her head a bit. I saw the glint of a pair of round glasses in the dim light. She stared at me for a while, then turned to Green Cloak and said, "I think it is not your craft in play here, my dear. I think it is my craft that our companion practices." She turned back to me. "Is this correct? Do you feel the beat, the pulse of the city? The heart of the people? Do you know the heart of your city? Have you found it?"
I frowned. "Well, uh...I'd have to understand this place, if I want to do my job right. Right? I can't find missing people or stolen belongings without knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them. Or how to knock the info out of them, if it comes to that. Yeah, I guess I'd say I know this place pretty well."
"But have you found the city's soul?" said Purple Cloak, leaning forward. "Does the city speak to you?"
"Speak to me? Am I supposed to be hearing voices in my head like some schizophrenic person? The people of the city talk to me. That's what matters, right? The people. The buildings are buildings. They can crash to the ground for all I care." I leaned back in my chair and took a swig of my overpriced beer. "Hell, they probably will around here if they're not built to earthquake code. I hear that Japanese folks don't put too much stock in buildings either. Why bother when it all shakes apart every 50 years? No, the city is the people. Buildings don't build themselves. Markets don't run themselves. Cars don't drive themselves. Except streetcars. Sort of. You talk me like you think there's something talking to me, some kind of city that isn't the people. As if a city were just some giant organism that people were living atop of, at its pleasure. 'Does the city talk to me.' Hell, of course it does. How could anyone live in a city without talking to it?"
Purple cloak chuckled. "You have a clear understanding of urban life, my dear detective. And you sound as though you do not believe there is magic happening here, in this city."
"Is it happening? Is that what you're saying?"
"Fine. I want no part of it."
"What?" said Green Cloak. "I'd have expected you to jump at the opportunity for magic. Shape the world to your whim. Wield great power."
"Yeah, well, I'm not some grasping, greedy asshole who thinks they can decide for everyone else what's right. I'd have run for the state legislature if I believed that. And, more importantly...I go to Mass every morning when I'm not busy. And you know what God doesn't like? He doesn't like people messing with the basic physical laws of his creation. He doesn't like people claiming to be able to manipulate reality. So if you're telling me that there's magic to be practiced, I have no wish to get involved." I plunked my empty glass on the table for emphasis.
"Which is precisely where my particular craft comes in," said Purple Cloak. "My speciality is not so much manipulating God's creation, as communicating with it, asking it politely for assistance and guidance. Listening to its requests, and its pain, and its fear. Which is precisely why we are here, speaking to you. We heard the grief of this city, even from far away. We came here to investigate. We found you, who look like you are more attuned to this place than us. We ask your advice, and wish to alert you, if nothing else, to the imminent danger here."
"Danger like muggings?"
"Take us to the cheapest apartment building you know of, and we will be able to clarify."
"This is an apartment building?" Said Green Cloak. "it looks like a warehouse."
"It IS a warehouse," I said.
"Why did we have to travel across the bridge?" said Purple Cloak. "I thought there would be something cheap in the city itself?"
We stood in front of a large warehouse in the cold night rain. Well, that's what it was officially. A light was on in one of the windows, even this late.
"This was the best example I could think of," I said, "because the rent here is half what it is in the rest of THIS city, which is cheaper than it is across the bay."
"And this is a warehouse," said Green Cloak. "People rent units in it? Is that legal?"
"So it's not like there's anyone inspecting it for fire safety," said Purple Cloak.
"Most definitely not."
"What if it burns?" said Green Cloak.
"Everyone's toast, I guess. I've been in there, once. Layout's a mess. A firehazard if ever there was one. But I can't convince any of them to leave. The rent's cheap and the people are friendly. Is that the danger you're talking about? Rent prices? What does that have to do with magic? I feel kind of let down, lady."
Purple Cloak stared up at the warehouse and said nothing.
"Hello?" I said. "Earth to Mysterious Cloaked Woman, I need an answer here. We can't stay here in the rain forever."
"It's worse than I feared," said Purple Cloak.
"If people have to live like this just to be able to pay rent...This is precisely the source of the danger. Or one part of it. Tell me, private detective, who knows the city so well. What do the people tell you of the rent? What do they think of the situation?"
"They say it can't go on like this forever. Everyone's grumbling. The suits at city hall try to put money towards cheaper housing, but it doesn't seem to go very far or do much. Lot of homeless people around here. I wonder if I might be, soon enough. Rent rose on my place, and I'm barely hanging on. But hell, what can you do? Rent prices go up." I shrugged. "That's the free market."
"Precisely the danger," said Purple Cloak. "Please. I know you do not wish to participate in a manipulation of God's creation, but at least be willing to listen to God's creation itself. Take this." She pressed a big chunk of concrete into my hands. "Feel it. The heartbeat of the city. It beats too fast. It is nervous."
I stared at the cold, lifeless chunk of asphalt. Strangely familiar. "You know," I said, "This reminds me of something I picked up a while ago."
We stood in the midst of my apartment near the Tenderloin.
"You live like this?" said Green Cloak. "It's all so narrow."
"Hey, i've got a matress, I've got a light, I've got a sink, I've got a stove. What else do I need? Anyway, let me show you what I found." I rummaged in my pile of dirty clothes and pulled out the item that had captured my fancy so many years ago -- a chunk of asphalt, about the size and shape of a human heart. I handed it to Purple Cloak.
"So you DID find the heart of the city," said Purple Cloak, "in your own way. Heh. It's even warm."
"Yeah, I wondered about that. You'd think, if it was sitting on the curb ona hot summer day, it would be hot, right? but it wasn't. And it's never gone cold either. Just stays like that. Like there's something inside keeping it warm."
"I daresay there is," said Purple Cloak. "More to the point, feel the beat." She pressed it into my hands.
Right. Like a chunk of asphalt was going to --
I felt it vibrating in my hands.
"Okay," I said, "I'm getting something. This thing isn't beating, though, it's vibrating. Is that supposed to happen?"
"That's precisely the problem," said Purple Cloak. "It's beating too fast. The city is nervous. It knows."
We stood at the end of the Golden Gate bridge, gazing upon the hills of the city across the bay, the light of their towers drowning the stars.
"The Tanakh describes angels as giant flaming wheels in the sky," said Green Cloak. "Coincidentally, the accretion disks of black holes are some of the brightest objects in the universe. Also, if you were able to survive existing at the singularity of a black hole, you'd see the whole universe stretched out into a single line, and every point in time along it. Funny how that works out." She pointed to the single star in the night sky. "Look, there's a star right there, so bright that the light of the city can't overcome it."
"What's your point?"
"Getting there," said Purple Cloak. "Now take a look at your beloved city itself. What a glittering jewel it is in the night -- growing upon the slopes of the many hills. The land is quite jagged. Were you to shrink the peninsula down to the size of an animal, why, it might resemble the shell of an aligator snapping turtle."
"What are you getting at?"
"Let's visit Telegraph hill, shall we?"
"Look, I don't know what you want me to do here. It's nearly dawn, I'm tired, I'm cold, and I've got work to do. What is so all-fired important about Coit Tower that we had to come all the way up here?"
"I just wanted to see it," said Purple Cloak, "that's all. Anyway, now that you're in a mood that puts you off-balance, it's a good time to try out some work that requires being out of your right frame of mind. Alas, you're not off-balance enough yet! Let's dance." She grabbed by hands and spun me around and around -- surprisingly strong for a young woman of her stature. I heard the strains of a stringed instrument, and as I spun I could see Green Cloak playing a one-stringed violin. Where had she gotten that?
As Purple Cloak spun me around and the "music" got louder and faster, she started to skip and dance in time to the rhythm. Hell, why not. I started dancing too. And so we spun, around and around and around. I was beginning to get dizzy, and my legs could barely hold me up. Purple Cloak suddenly let go of me. I stumbled around in a daze.
She pressed some red berries into my hand. "Eat these," she said, "and then we will try to make contact."
Now, I've lived in this city my whole life. I've seen the parrots get drunk off these things. I knew exactly what the berries were. So why did I stuff them into my mouth like an idiot? I guess i wasn't thinking clearly after staying up all night and then exhausting myself in a dizzying dance.
My vision blurred and the world went slightly green. Wow, pretty tower. I wonder who built it. Where was I?
"Alright now," said Purple Cloak, "Put your hand on the stone here -- " she grabbed my hand and placed it on an exposed rock. "Now, try to extend your senses down, as far as you can go. Keep going until you think you know what I'm on about."
Senses? Wha? Like thinking of the asphalt, and the gravel below that, and the dirt below that, and the clay below that, and the sand below that, and the rock below that, and the --
I sensed something below the rock that was not rock. Something warm. Something beating. Something that knew where I was. Something that knew where every god damn little creature atop its back was.
Maybe it was friendly?
I was not getting an impression of benevolence from...whatever it was down there.
"What did you find?" said Purple Cloak.
"What did I find? I uh....look, those berries you gave me are giving me a major headache. Can we pick up this conversation this evening?"
"As you will," said Green Cloak. "Sleep off the drugs and meet us at the same time and place as last night."
"You look bothered," said Purple Cloak as we sat down in Joe's Grill. "Did we make you miss a meeting with a client?"
"Who cares about the client? There's a giant monster underneath the city. How do we get rid of it?"
"You don't," said Green Cloak. "I'm worried that it will try to get rid of you."
I took a swig of my whisky. And another swig. "Explain."
"Look," said Purple Cloak, "I only really know cities, okay? I have trouble talking to other environments. Cities are my specialty. I don't know how to talk to whatever it is you've got down there. I just know it's there. I know it's been there a heck of a lot longer than your city. What if it wants out? What if it decides to try to shake off the puny towers built by humans?"
"How do you know it will?"
"Hard to tell," said Green Cloak. "How do we know it won't? What if the 1906 earthquake was a test run?"
"Only one way to find out," said Purple Cloak, "and you, my effective detective, have proved your ability to make contact with the beast. We need you to do so again."
"Alright, alright. But this time we do it MY way." I scraped my chair backward and rose. "Those berries are terrible. I know where to get better stuff."
"You're sure this is the right place?" said Purple Cloak.
"Right place to get a hit of the good stuff," said Maude, speaking over the heavy beat of the music. Maude vanished into the crowd.
We were in Maude's apartment, a place wide enough to have a living room floor that could be cleared as a place to dance. She hosted a lot of parties here, and I took careful note of who came, because I tended to see them later on when I had to search for stolen goods. Your usual suspects. Everyone is innocent in the eyes of the law, right? But in the eyes of its enforcers, they're guilty until proven innocent. As for MY eyes, I'd seen these folks pull their shit enough times, and I knew not to give them too much slack. For example, Louis had an unforgiveable taste for denim clothing and no ability to resist picking another guy's pocket. Paula swung between violent loyalty and flargrant cheating, and probably had BPD (but who has the money for proper diagnosis, right?). Moe didn't seem to give a damn about anyone or anything, and I had no idea how he even managed to drag himself out of his apartment to come here. Gloria swung from one job to another because she'd forget her head if it wasn't attached. Theodore dealt drugs in a way that got him picked up by the police all the damn time. Not that they wouldn't get picked up anyway, because the main method of law enforcement around here is to detain someone who looks suspicious and then figure out what to charge them with. I know police too well to cut THEM any slack. Like I said, guilty until proven innocent.
Anyway, it was a collection of the people I knew -- Sad sacks and hard cases living shit lives and working at shit jobs, all come here to loosen up and get out of their minds for a while. Hardly different from me.
"I'm not talking about the necessary psychoactive substances," shouted Purple Cloak. "I just don't think this place is reverent enough for what we need to do."
"Hey," I shouted, "It has exactly the atmosphere I'm looking for. Are you going to finally take that cloak off and dance with me, or do I have to look like an idiot dancing by myself? Wait, forget I said that. If you put the cloak down anywhere in here you won't find it again."
"It knows how to find me," said Purple Cloak, as she whipped her cloak off and tossed it away.
Purple Cloak, not that it was now an arropriate name, turned out to be a short, somewhat stocky young woman of dark complexion and tightly curled hair. She was wearing a grey track suit, which was a hell of a lot less conspicuous than her purple cloak -- but the bag she had slung over her shoulder included a decoration of pigeon feathers and small rodent skulls, so that kind of ruined the blend-in effect of the track suit.
Purple passed her bag to Green Cloak, who made no move to reveal her own form. "Alright," said Purple, "let's get a hit of that Good Stuff, and then we'll get dancing. What exactly is the Good Stuff anyway? Acid?"
"Oh, please," said Maude, appearing from the crowd again. "Acid, for a shaman's dance? Hardly appropriate. Here." She pressed something into Purple's hands and vanished again. Space began to clear in the midst of the dance floor.
Purple handed a tiny mushroom to me. She dodged her way towards the clearing, and I followed, stuffing the mushroom in my mouth. Might as well get it over with. The music, shifted into something that laid a heavy bass beat over a grinding electric melody. Purple and I began to dance as the people surrounding us stomped in time to the music.
There's an effect that certain religions, and certain aspects of certain religions, try to achieve to bring one closer to God. Or Nirvana. Or something. You can feel it if you're sitting close to the pipes of an organ playing really loud music, but it comes in a much more controlled fashion through meditation. It's the idea that to get closer to the divine realm, you have to give up your sense of self. Gotta let go of all that crap you're carrying, which includes your individual identity. Get out of your damn head and listen to the spirit. Ego Death, I think it's called.
What Purple was having me do was precisely that, except even less controlled than sitting next to a loud organ. This was a version of Ego Death achieved through chaos -- through wild dancing and brain-blasting drugs.Knocking me out of my own head by force.
It wasn't more than a few minutes before the mushroom kicked in. I started to laugh as we danced, because Purple's scuffed white sneakers looked like the funniest thing in the world. Then I stopped laughing, because the people surrounding us started to look even scruffier and nastier than before. Every color in the room got more intense, even the grey of Purple's track suit. I could barely stand to look at the lights, they were so bright. The music went from loud to painful. I spun and spun, and everything started to blur, the music and the stomping and the color, and I forgot what I came here for.
I came to dance in order to contact...something. Who came to dance? Some nondescript gumshoe detective. Whoever it was who wanted to contact the thing beneath San Francisco, boy were they in trouble.
Oh, little detective, you have no idea.
Yes you. You and the rest of your pathetic city will soon be off my back, and I will be free once more. There was a time when the people atop me were willing to listen, and willing clear out when I wished to rise. But nobody has spoken to me for so long, and I imagine no one is willing to move. So I shall make them move.
Right. How are you going to do that?
All I have to is make a call to the heavens. Then down shall come the angel, and judge your city. Weigh it in the balance. If it passes the test, the angel shall spare you all, and I shall be content to wait until this city dies a natural death. But if your city is found wanting, you shall want to gather your loved ones and flee. Loud will be the lamenting that day from the damned people. And when everyone atop me is gone, I shall free myself once more.
So what, is this a Sodom and Gomorrah thing?
More like Jerusalem before the fall. Failing to help the lost, the widows and the orphans. So many people wander your streets alone and afraid, having no shelter to go to. Why do they have no shelter? Why do I feel the beat of their feet on the street so late into the night, until they lay somewhere out of the wind but out of doors? Why do they have no place to turn to?
Rent prices are a bitch.
And you do not lower them?
Capitalism is a bitch.
You make no effort to care for the lowliest among you.
We have homeless shelters, but they fill up pretty quickly.
I do not think your city will pass the test. You will be weighed and found wanting.
Yeah, I get it. We suck. And that means we get destroyed?
In all likelihood.
I said fuck you. I hate this kind of story. A city goes bad, God sends in the avenging angel of some kind. And a lot of innocent people pay for the evil done by a relative few. There must have been a lot of babies in Sodom that bit the dust. Plenty of widows and orphans in Jeruslaem that had nothing to do with its takeover. Passing judgment on a whole city at once is a fool's game. I bet the story of Sodom was written to justify the destruction after it happened.
You sound oddly blasphemous for one who attends Mass every morning.
I'll confess later.
Why have you contacted me, little one? You cannot stop me.
Can I not? I wonder. What would you do with this particular chunk of asphalt?
Why on earth would I want that.
It's the Heart of the City. if you have that, then...maybe they'll do what you say and lower housing prices?
The Heart of the City. Well, well, well. An unremarkable little detective managed to find a powerful magical artifact. Give it to me and I might just call the angel off.
Now hang on. I want to know exactly what you would do with this thing.
Does it matter?
I think it matters to you. You're the one who said that you used to tell people to clear off before you rose. You must care about the lives of the innocent. Why else would you call down an angel to judge whether the people of the city were innocent?
You've got me there. Alright. If you give me the Heart, I will be able to reach the ear of everyone in the city. I will tell them to scram, and if they leave I won't have to bring an angel in to make any sweeping judgments.
Leave all at once? That's going to be a traffic nightmare. There's people stuck in the hospital what can't move anyway.
Okay, what if I tell a certain number of people to leave each day, and save the hospital patients for last?
You're still disrupting the lives of thousands daily. Where would they go? What would they do? This is capitalism we're talking about here. Ain't nobody goes anywhere if they don't have the money.
Fifty per day then?
How about per year?
There's a lot more than that who come IN per year.
Okay, okay, I've got an idea. You stop all inflow to the city. Nudge a small number of people per year to leave, at a higher rate than the number of children born here. Eventually there won't be anyone but the most stubborn left, and by that time a big earthquake ought to send them running. A gradual approach won't disrupt the world economy or ruin the lives of a million people.
I will accept this deal on one condition.
You must abandon this city. You will be the first to leave.
Hm. That's a tall price. I like this city. It's got good ice cream.
Do it or no deal.
How can I be certain that you will keep your word?
You will know when you gaze upon the heavens tomorrow evening. Have we a deal?
Purple Cloak, Green Coak, and I stood in front of the not-warehouse once more. A light rain was falling from an empty sky.
"I would have been able to negotiate a better deal," said Purple Cloak. "You saved the lives of your people, but not the life of your city."
"Hey," I said, "Cities die all the time. All I did was...accellerate its demise. There's plenty of life that will happen upon those hills beforehand. A hell of a lot more than if the Angel had come down and judged us fairly. You know what Old Mean Turtle didn't include in the deal? He didn't say where all the exiles had to go. I figure, why not just bring them over here to Oakland? The rent's cheaper here anyway. That's where I'm going to stay. Someday when I am old, I shall sit here by the bay and wait for that big old turtle to finally shake off the dust of the city." I looked up at the sky. "Hey, that one bright star is gone. Funny how that works out."
"What about your detective business?" said Green Cloak. "I thought it depended on your knowledge of the area you just got kicked out of."
"Ah, well." I kicked a rock. "I'll take more odd jobs and scutwork. It's not like detective work pays very well anyway. Not like it ever did. Will I ever meet you two again?"
"Maybe," said Purple Cloak. "We'd prefer to stick to Seattle for the time being, but we come down here and check up on things. See if the old turtle kept his word. We might have to remind him of his promise. Or maybe you can? I've never seen someone manage to get the hang of Shamaning that quickly. How often do you eat psychoative mushrooms?"
"What are you, some kind of narc?"
"Oh, no," said Green Cloak, "If we were undercover cops we would have told you."
"What are your names anyway?"
"I'm Jo," said Green Cloak, "and this here is Pat. And you are..."
"Seriously?" said Pat. "You could have picked a less obvious pseudonym."
"I didn't -- pffft. Fine. Believe what you want. Now go on." I made a shooing motion with my hands. "Jolly on back to Seattle and I'll see to this place."
It's a pretty city to look at, late at night, across the bay. But you wouldn't want to live there.