Sunday, 25 November 2018

Four: The Story

Wotcha had taken a day and a half to sort out her feelings on Vincent's request, and gather what contacts she figured she could get away with. She insisted on blindfolding Vincent for the last part of the journey to meet with them, after they had traveled across a quarter of the city on foot. She found it unlikely that a cab would stop for her, and he found it equally unlikely that he would be able to take any of their secret routes. Plus, she wasn't thrilled about the idea of showing him too much of their world.
They walked a few streets with the blindfold, and she led him, safe and sure. He knew she was taking him in circles so that he wouldn't be able to find his way back. It was like the year before all over again. She was leading him out of his world, and into a whole other place.
"Long drop." Wotcha warned him, her grip around his wrist like iron. "Five feet, maybe a little more."
Vincent shuffled down to sit on the ground, and felt the ledge. He dropped down as slowly as he could till her found his footing again. He shuffled forward and tripped on something, realizing instantly. "Train tracks?"
"We're back in the subway?"
"Not quite. But we're going somewhere close. I'm not taking you back to the Underside. In fact, I really shouldn't be taking you this far. But it's your mission, so... Just... Don't tell Yasi."
"You don't like Yasi, do you?"
"Like her? She's Shinobi. She's the bleedin' Captain. You don't like Shinobi. You just don't. You say 'Yes Ma'am' when she asks you a question, and go about your business."
Vincent blinked under his blindfold. Wotcha was scared of Yasi. Granted he had only met her twice, but Vincent hadn't been scared of what he'd seen either time...
He felt the air change, and she pulled off his blindfold. He almost didn't notice at first because it was pitch black, but then his eyes adjusted and he saw electrical lights strung in the distance. "Tunnel?"
"Yup." Wotcha confirmed.
Vincent felt his heart stop for a moment, then suddenly start pounding.
"Train coming?" Vincent asked, his voice going a little high.
"Every few minutes." Wotcha agreed. "We should hurry."
The tracks were live. It was an electrical line, and he could see the indicator lights glowing every few feet along the track. Vincent couldn't help the way he kept glancing back and forth between the track and the walls. They seemed very close together. Not a lot of room between a train and the wall.
"When's the next one?" He asked softly.
"Few minutes. Assuming the subway is running on time."
"This is New York!" Vincent said, aghast. "The subway is never on time."
Wotcha grinned cheekily at him, and led him over to the wall. There was a mark about two inches square. A glyph, painted over the grime and dirt. It looked like one of Yasi's tattoos, drawn on the wall in luminous paint. She felt around the mark for a few moments before Vincent heard something click, and the wall shifted.
A panel the size of a hatch opened. Wotcha slipped through.
Vincent felt the air in the tunnel start to move faster, and a roar building in the distance. He quickly followed Wotcha as a train came around the bend with surprising speed. The noise was unreal in the small space they found themselves in. Vincent kept his ears plugged until it passed.
"You're not worried about someone getting hit by a train?" He asked one it was gone.
"It happens." She said matter-of-factly. "You're not worried about people getting hit by a car when they cross the street?"
Vincent drew the lantern out of his pocket and turned the key. Wotcha did the same with a grin. "I can't believe you've still got that."
"Where are we exactly?"
"Used to be a maintenance tunnel. It wasn't needed, and we... helped it collapse. They didn't bother to dig it out because they didn't care about it,. And we put a door in at the other end. We use it as a drop point, a meeting place, things like that."
"And I'll never find it again unless I go looking through a hundred miles of active and dangerous subway tunnel."
"Pretty much." Wotcha went over to the wall and got a single bare light-bulb going. The room was expanded from the original passage, the larger space about the size of a cargo container. Every few minutes, the room would shake with the roar of a subway train going past outside. "Get comfortable. The others will take a while to get here. Most of them aren't brave."
While they waited for the room to fill, Vincent rewound the lantern and spoke quietly. "Wotcha, can I ask you something?"
"Last night, because of the cold snap, I had a few homeless people sneak into the basement laundry of my building, so that they could get out of the cold before the frost or the wind got them... I took them down some Pizza, and they... One of them at least, knew about the Underground. Are they Lostkind?"
"If they were, they wouldn't need you to give them a place to sleep when it got that bad." Wotcha said with certainty. "Vincent, the thing about being homeless is, you're not proud. You do what you gotta do. So when we come up to scavenge, sometimes we're not the only ones. They know about us, and they know we aren't the same as them. They... There's a certain pecking order, wherever there are people. They don't know who we are, or what we're about, but they know we're real... And I think they know you're connected to us."
Vincent glanced at her. "You had something to do with that, didn't you?"
Wotcha just grinned.
Vincent turned back to the entrance and saw a small figure closing the door and coming over to them.
"I don't think you two met officially." Wotcha made introductions. "Tecca, this is Vincent McCall. Vincent, this is Tecca. He's... I guess you would call him my apprentice."
Vincent nodded a hello to the child, who watched him for a long moment with big eyes. After a while, Tecca turned to Wotcha. "We're all here." He said softly. He was missing a tooth.
Vincent stared at the Watchers. They looked like homeless people. A year ago he would have been surprised how many of them were young. Dirty, unashamed, slow moving… They would fit in under bridges, on park benches. He wondered how many he had seen in his life and not noticed. One of them saw him looking and smiled at him. She knew him from somewhere, and Vincent struggled to remember where.
"You all know McCall." Wotcha said to open the meeting. "You all know the rules. We can help you out in exchange for your help with something. Today's request comes from Vincent."
A dozen pairs of eyes turned to him, and Vincent struggled to remember himself. This wasn't anything like the Lost City he'd been in a year before. He was packed into a space not much bigger than a railway car with over a dozen people who hadn't eaten or bathed in days, and one light-bulb. There was no magic here.
He cleared his throat against the smell and started to speak. "My friend Gill, he gambles too much. It got him in trouble today with a loan shark named Monroe. I don't know if that's his first or last name, but Gill told me the address of his shop. It's on the East End."
"Anyone know the place?" Wotcha piped up.
One man raised a hand.
"Right. Check with Clarence when you leave." Wotcha told them. "Go on, Vincent."
"Right, well... Monroe gave my friend a week to pay it back, then changed his mind and demanded it immediately. It looked like someone was putting the squeeze on him too. The police are looking, but he's disappeared. So I figured if the law can't trace him, maybe you can."
"Standard wage, standard reward." Wotcha put in. "Tecca?"
The boy stood and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. "Courtesy of the 10th Precinct." He reported. "This is Monroe's police sketch." The boy handed it around and they all looked at it.
"Tell your friends, report back in the usual way." Wotcha finished. "And stay off the river tonight. Cold snap may have broken, but it still ain't healthy out there. Goodnight folks."
Tecca pulled the door open and a train rolled by in the same moment. Everyone reared back from the invasion of noise until it passed, and began sneaking out.
Tecca returned to them and sat beside Wotcha. The boy kept staring at Vincent. He gave the boy his friendliest smile.
Tecca pulled a shoelace out of his pocket. "The kids wanted me to give you this."
"The kids?"
"The ones at the shelter." Tecca said, and he headed for the door, poking his head out to look for a train.
"Kids?" Wotcha asked with interest.
"There were some kids who refused to come into the Soup Kitchen." Vincent explained. "One of the people there told me that they don't dare accept charity. Most adults who try to help runaways put them in foster care."
"Foster Care is the reason most runaways prefer the streets." Wotcha said grimly.
Vincent shrugged. "So the next night I went back to the Soup Kitchen, left some food for them outside. It was gone when I left, didn't know if they got it or not."
Wotcha gestured at the shoelace. "Looks like they did."
Vincent went over closer to the light-bulb, and got a clearer look. It was a home-made charm bracelet. Bits and pieces threaded together. Wing-nuts, a bottle-cap, a paper clip, a tarnished dime with a hole punched through it... The shoelace was long enough to wear around his neck. Touched, Vincent put it on.
Tecca tilted his head, as though making a decision. "Yup. Wear it where they can see it at the Kitchen."
"I will." Vincent called after the boy, as he headed out into the tunnel, leaving him alone with Wotcha.
"So." Vincent said finally. "What do I do now?"
"You go back to your life, and wait for me to call you." Wotcha said holding out the blindfold. "And don't get hit by a train on your way out."
Going home wasn't an option that appealed to him very much. Going to the office wasn't really an option, and Gill appreciated the concern, but hated the company. He was feeling foolish and embarrassed about what he'd done; and though Vincent was certain he wouldn't try again, the hospital had procedures to follow. Vincent was content to let the hospital staff talk to him for a while.
With a day off and his brain too jumpy to settle on any specific point, he decided to make a special effort with dinner, and stopped by a supermarket, but even that brought up thoughts of the Lostkind. Did they have their own stores? Did they only eat discarded food... Were there Gremlins in this store right now 'borrowing' canned goods?
"Hi there."
Vincent looked up, jarred out of his thoughts. A familiar looking woman had sidled her shopping cart up alongside his, keeping pace with him. She had frizzy brown hair that went past her shoulders, and wire-rim glasses. She was dressed in jeans and a plain black t-shirt, with worn runners on her feet. "You don't remember me." She said as a statement.
"I remember you were at the Kitchen last night, and I remember you burned your hand on the coffee urn."
"That was not a coffee urn, that was the Anti-Christ." She said with great dignity, as she extended a hand. "We weren't introduced last night. Connie Harnell."
He shook her hand lightly. "Vincent McCall. Last night was your first time volunteering, wasn't it?"
"At the Soup Kitchen yes, but I work at the Free Clinic on Lilac Street all the time." Connie told him. "A few of the patients there mentioned the Kitchen, and I thought maybe you guys could use another hand."
"Always." Vincent said agreeably. There were millions of people in the city, and significantly fewer that volunteered to help out at Free Clinics and Soup Kitchens. Vincent held no grudge against anyone who chose not to make an effort, but held great respect for anyone that did. "You came at a great time. And for what it's worth, the regulars seemed to like you."
"They know me." Connie explained. "Like I said, they mentioned the Kitchen to me. So. Big date planned?"
Vincent looked back at his trolley. "No. Cooking is… sort of a hobby. One I take advantage of when I'm thinking about something."
Connie smiled. "Heh, me too. I'm a New Yorker, I live on take out and freezer meals. When I got something to think about, a really good home-made meal is my reward for thinking about it long enough."
Vincent laughed. "Yeah, me too."
Connie smiled and held out the produce in her hands. "Oranges?"
Vincent took one.
Connie hummed pleasantly as she took a deep breath of the fruit, inhaling the fragrance. "The best oranges in the world are the Sicilian Blood Oranges. They say there that the sun kisses the leaves to make flowers grow. You can smell the orange-blossoms for miles. It's a wonderful rich perfume. I remember I was there once on a trip with my brother. We rode on bicycles through the orchards at sunset. The bees and the butterflies would come to collect the pollen, and they'd keep pace with us as we rode through the orchard. I remember we set up camp at the base of the tallest tree there, and when the sun came up the next morning the tent was covered in orange-blossoms."
Her voice had taken a low musical quality, like she was telling him a great old folk tale. Vincent forgot for a moment that there was a supermarket around them, as though they were alone here.
Yasi came to mind then. Yasi was a magical being from an otherworldly place, but Connie seemed to make magic out of nothing, conjure it into being from the smallest of inspiration. It was charming, almost enchanting. "When were you there?"
"Sicily?" Connie seemed surprised. "Never."
"Never?" That surprised him. "If you don't mind my saying, you seem to have a deep spiritual connection to camping in a place you've never been to."
Connie pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I like the idea of travel more than actually doing it… I like coffee. I like hot showers. I like soft pillows, and a comfy couch. So… Camping is something I like to tell stories about…"
"Without the hassle of actually going camping." Vincent finished for her, struggling to keep a lid on his smile.
Connie smiled impishly. "Best way to do it."
Wotcha had moved quickly, gathering her friends together. A few were Lostkind, most were just observant people she had met. They didn't know where she came from, and they didn't much care. She paid them either with cash or collateral, and she was good to them. It wasn't the first time she had asked them to find somebody, and it wasn't the first time they did so without knowing why.
Tecca returned to the Underground with a note, and for the second time in as many days, Yasi came up to the surface after dark.
Across the city the question was asked, and the description circulated. Monroe didn't know it, but all the hiding places were closed to him now. Every dark corner, every 'no-tell-Motel' every bridge that could provide shelter, every train station with damaged security cameras, every hostel that accepted cash. They were all being watched by eyes that had nowhere else to be, and nothing else to do.
Yasi perched on the corner of the rooftop, looking at Vincent's apartment window. After a few moments of watching, the curtains were opened, and from the dark window, the lantern she'd left him started glowing on the inside windowsill.
Smiling a little, Yasi leaped out into the cooling air, landing neatly on top of a streetlight, landing on the narrow point and sliding down it like a fireman's pole, without wasting a single motion. Even at sunset, there was nobody looking her way. Her quicksilver catwalk took her across the street, toward Vincent's building before anyone noticed her.
"You decided to use the door this time?"
"Well, I figured since you went to the trouble of putting a light on in the window for me." She teased back, but she wasn't smiling.
"Are you mad?"
"Mad? No. Just wondering who else you drafted. If you're going to take on the Lostkind as a secret army of crime fighters, you'll need a uniform, a secret identity, a lair of some kind…"
"You are mad." Vincent bit his lip. "Can I bribe you with something? Chocolates? Flowers? I don't know, what works on women from the Underside?"
"Vincent, I'm glad to help, and I don't need a bribe." Yasi said. "You think I like people getting wiped out by Loan Sharks and con men? Of course not. I'll help however I can. But… if you do this, there's going to be a reckoning. What you're trying right now? It doesn't happen. There will be a price to pay, and I don't know what it'll be. Back out now, I go tell Keeper that you misunderstood what was allowed, I tell her I set you straight, and everything stays as it is. You keep going, it's up to her." She sat back, brought her knees up to perch on the chair. "So you tell me: You willing to see where this goes?"
Vincent bit his lip and thought about it for a long time. Yasi didn't run the world below, and he knew that. If his friendship with her and Wotcha was going to cause trouble, it would fall on them both to clean it up. Eventually he spoke. "I spent my whole life walking around with blinders on to people around me. I did it again with my best friend. If there's anything I can do to… make up for that, then I'll do it."
Yasi rose. "Then I'll get into it first thing tomorrow." She returned to the window. "Double-tall Mocha-swirl, with caramel shots and whipped cream."
"I'm sorry?"
"Flowers don't work, because it's not like we have sunny windowsills. Chocolates don't help because we sort of have to slip through cracks for a living. You want to grovel, you owe me a decadent beverage of some kind."
Vincent grinned. "I'll be right back."
"No, you won't." Yasi said. "I'm coming with you."
One thing New York had no shortage of was coffee shops, and Vincent paid for them both.
"Let's go to the Bridge." Yasi said as they sipped their coffee.
"The Brooklyn Bridge?" Vincent repeated. "Why there?"
"You'll see."
Vincent shrugged, more pleased than he would admit to. "Well, I know a great place near there."
Their coffees were finished, and the sky was a brilliant orange by the time they reached the East River. Not wanting the moment to end, Vincent immediately bought them refills and pastries from a closer coffee chop, and they wandered to a park bench near the Brooklyn Bridge.
New York was lit up brilliantly before them. The skyline was one of the most famous in the world, and at that time of night, they had an unobstructed view, and privacy to enjoy it. The towers of the world's first mega-city were lit up with a million points of light, bathing them in a soft glow. The skyline in front of them, the orange sky slowly darkening in contrast.
"When I first moved to New York, I came here every day." Vincent said. "I was trying to get my head around the notion that I lived here now. I was a New Yorker… Well, Brooklyn. Until 9/11, it was my favorite place. After that, it just… I kept staring at the spot where they used to be."
"But you came back." She observed.
"I did." Vincent confirmed. "It's still my favorite place. I still see the whole city from here. I won't… I can't let one thing that upset me destroy the way I care about things that still remain."
"Amen to that."
For a long time, they sat silently. Vincent glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She wanted to say something, but she hesitated, unwilling to share it. He waited, letting her get used to the idea of opening up to him.
"We were scared that day too." Yasi said quietly at last. "Nobody spoke about it, but we all knew. I think, in a way, 9/11 was actually scarier for us than it was for you up above."
"How so?"
"Because you guys all knew that the way to get through it was to band together and support each other. The whole city united. We couldn't even risk coming up to help. We're always working to be invisible. Suddenly every corner was being watched."
Vincent nodded. "I did a little research after I met you. I spoke to some Urban Explorers, people who do stuff like climbing through forgotten tunnels and perching on rooftops all the time for fun? They've pulled back what they do. Someone calls in a trespasser to the police before 9/11, it wasn't a big deal, just kids having fun. After that day… a lot of folks would have been willing to shoot on sight, to say nothing of distracting police."
"World got woken up. When you live in the shadows, there's nothing worse than having all the lights on." Yasi said quietly. "Eventually, the panic faded, and we all went back to our lives. But for the first few months, our people were sitting down there wondering: is this the day they find us? Is this the day we get noticed?"
Vincent bit his lip and pushed the bag of pastry toward her. "Yasi… I wondered for a while… if that would be such a bad thing."
She looked at him sharply, coughing on a mouthful of pastry. "What?"
"When you wanted me to cover for you all… I wondered if it would be so bad, the world noticing you."
Yasi sipped her coffee, not taking her eyes off his. "We've created something… unique. Something that's never happened before. Our culture has grown, right under your noses. It gets dragged into the spotlight, and more than the people losing their homes, the place itself will become a sideshow. You drag us out of our element, and what will be left… it won't be us."
"I agree." Vincent nodded. "Which was why I let it alone."
Yasi's face softened. "I never said thank you for that."
"You didn't have to." He assured her. A moment later he was suddenly aware of how close they were, sitting on the bench, close enough to brush against each other innocently. Yasi's expression was relaxed and open for the first time since they had met. With her face lit by the soft glow of the distant city, Vincent was suddenly aware of how beautiful she could be.
She turned her head to face him, their gaze bringing them closer. "Thank you, Vincent. Thank you for keeping the secret, and protecting my home." She said, soft as a psalm.
There was a loose strand of hair falling across her forehead. He reached out and tucked it behind her ear without thinking. She didn't stop him.
After a heated glance, Yasi leaned in and kissed him gently. Vincent returned it. It was hesitant, uncertain. After a few moments, Vincent pulled back.
They sat like that for a long moment, their foreheads touching gently.
"We can't." Yasi said finally, ignoring the fact that she'd started it.
"More than that, we shouldn't." Vincent agreed. "I mean… Yasi, you're here because I got your Watchers to hunt down a man without your permission."
Yasi pulled away, sliding back on the bench, giving them some distance from each other. Two feet was all they needed. "When this is done, I'm going home, and we most likely won't see each other again."
Vincent scrubbed his face with one hand. "Plus, we're only having this conversation because my best friend is lying in a hospital bed. This is most definitely not right."
"Agreed." Yasi stood up, and so did Vincent. The intensity of the moment faded, but not awkwardly. They were still smiling at each other, Yasi tucked her hair back herself, and Vincent collected her empty coffee cup, finding a bin to drop their garbage in.
"Why here?" Vincent asked finally. "I know why I like the Bridge, why do you?"
Yasi grinned at him, her teeth flashing brilliantly again. She drew a fob watch out of her pocket and flipped it open. Vincent glanced at it casually and noticed it had four hands instead of two. Yasi flipped it closed again and took his hand. "Come with me."
She led him to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge support struts. Vincent followed her to the foundation. Yasi drew a small metallic handle out of her leathers, and fit it against the brick surface of the wall...
There was a clicking sound, and suddenly a hidden door opened, revealing a space behind it, narrower than a coffin. Vincent could hear wind whistling and peeked inside. The narrow space was completely hollow. There was a rope hanging a down from above in the hiding place, with a loop at the end.
Vincent divined its purpose immediately. "Oh lord. Really?"
"Afraid so." Yasi nodded. She gave him that look again, daring him to chicken out.
Forcing himself to squeeze into the stone hollow, Vincent fit his foot through the loop, and held onto the rope tightly, like a childhood rope swing. His weight tugged the rope down slightly, and Vincent heard something click...
And suddenly he was rising. Extremely quickly.
There were only a few inches of clearance on either side, and Vincent pressed his face against the rope awkwardly. If he hunched his shoulders, or ducked his head, his profile would change and he would be scraped along the walls like roadkill...
Quite suddenly it was over. A shock of cold air hit him, and he inched one eye open. At the top of the shaft, a grate over his head. The drop beneath him was far enough he couldn't see the ground any more, and he quickly pushed the grate up, climbing above. The rope pulley unspooled the second he took his weight off it, and he clambered up out of the way.
He was suddenly up above it all, at the top of the Brooklyn Bridge tower. Above the gantries, above the walkway, above the safety rail. He was literally on top of everything he could see.
There was a whirring sound as Yasi appeared next to him, and she set the grate back into place. "Have fun?" She teased brightly.
"More or less. Why are we here?"
"We're meeting someone."
Vincent looked around the twelve square feet of bare rooftop. Nobody here but them and a few pigeons. "Who, in the name of whatever, could we be meeting? And will they get here before the cold makes my legs go numb and I fall over the side to my horrible, horrible death?"
Yasi grinned. "They're already here." With that she went over to the pigeons.
"Carrier pigeons?"
"Yup. Pigeons are like Lostkind. They're everywhere and nobody even looks at them. You train one or two to fly between specific places, and nobody notices them among the thousand odd sky-rats that just happen to be there."
The Warrior Woman picked up the one pigeon that hadn't flown away in panic. There was a message tied to its leg.
Vincent looked out over the city. He wondered how many people had come here. Not to the bridge, but to this point, several dozen feet above the gantry.
Yasi unrolled the message. "Wotcha found him." She said sharply. "Your Loan Shark is in an ask-no-questions Motel on the edge of the Bronx."
Vincent felt his face harden. "Call the cops."
"The cops will want to know where this information came from." She put a hand out gently and rested it on his shoulder. "We've done this before, Vincent. Watchers see a lot of things. Some things we have to tell. I'm telling you, there might not be a lot the police can do. Monroe loaned money. That's not illegal. Gill tried suicide. It wasn't an assault."
"You're not telling me to leave it alone." Vincent stared at her. "Are you?"
"Of course not. I'm telling you to let me handle it." Yasi said seriously. "I am Shinobi. I protect the Underground. I know how to get the truth."
Vincent suddenly realized how... terrifying Yasi could be. "Are you... Will you... Is he going to..."
Yasi straightened, her posture becoming like a statue. "Do you really want to know?"
"Not really, but I'm the one that asked you to find this guy. If he's found dead in his room tomorrow…"
Yasi didn't smile. "Don't stress, Vincent; I'll handle it right."
Vincent nodded, accepting that at face value, as she launched the pigeon up in the air, its wings flapping furiously.
"Do we have to take the same route down?" He asked plaintively.
"You can take the stairs if you like, but there are cameras. Someone might notice and wonder why you're going down if you never came up."
Vincent sighed and made his way back to the rope.
He turned back to ask her something…
She was gone.
Yasi considered the motel for a moment. The place was not unknown to the Lostkind. In fact, they used it themselves sometimes. They had little use for currency in the Underside, but they had access to it from various sources. If someone was injured and needed a safe warm place to stay for a few hours, or someone had something to hide...
Places like this asked no questions, kept no records. Cash was preferred, and no one came by their room unless asked for.
The Lostkind liked it that way.
Yasi went into the lobby, checking for cameras. There was one, but it didn't seem to be hooked up. She glanced around. Front counter, office behind it, storeroom to the left. Paint was cracked and wallpaper peeling, the carpet had old cigarette stains...
She could hear the desk clerk in the storeroom, not expecting customers at this hour. She picked up a pamphlet about the motel and went to the payphone at the lobby. She dialed the number for the Motel, and heard the phone ringing in the office behind the counter.
A muffled cursing came from the storeroom, and the clerk came out, moving quickly through the lobby, a few mini-bar bottles in his hand. She left the phone off the hook and vanished as he passed. He never noticed her. He went around the counter to the office and picked it up. "Hello?"
Yasi wasn't there. She was already at the counter, grabbing the motel roster. A quick scan of the page saw four men giving the name 'John Smith' had checked in over the last two days. She found the most recent one, who had checked into room five, and put the book back.
"Hello? Anyone there?"
Yasi catwalked out, not making a sound, hanging up the payphone without breaking stride.
The door to Room Five was locked. She went in the window. Getting it open from the outside was a trick that all Lostkind knew.
She found Monroe a moment later.
The Loan Shark was dead.
"Dead?" Vincent repeated in fear. His eyes flicked to the sword slung across her back before he could stop himself.
"Before I got there. For at least half a day from the look of him." She assured him. "Which would be almost the moment he checked in at the Motel. He was stretched out on the bed, throat slit from ear to ear."
"Any ideas who did it?"
"I didn't stop to investigate. You said Gill believed he was feeling the pressure. Somebody must have got to him."
"Wasn't a suicide?"
"Nobody kills themselves with a knife across the throat." Yasi waved that off. "I snuck out, fixed the window so that nobody knew I opened it, and I got out of there. The Motel staff will find him sooner or later."
"How'd you close the window from the outside?"
"We're good at getting into places. What worries me is: How did the killer do it? The door was locked, so it was the only way. But that's not our problem. You can tell your friend his Loan Shark won't be back."
Vincent smiled his thanks and they stayed that way for a moment, he standing against the kitchen counter, her perched on the edge of it, ankles crossed. She never sat in a chair.
Short silence.
With the mission over, reality was catching up. "You're going to get in trouble for this." Vincent said. It wasn't a question.
Yasi answered him anyway. "Probably. I'm on pretty good terms with Keeper and Archivist. They hate extortion too."
"What do you think will happen?"
"To me, I don't know. To you... Well, for sure this is the last time you get to play Lostkind."
He chuckled despite himself. "I know. It was worth it. Gill's a friend, and I've been neglecting that friendship. The result of which was him winding up in hospital."
"You can't blame yourself for that." Yasi said kindly. "You can't confess to a suicide attempt."
"I don't blame myself, exactly." Vincent agreed. "But I was so proud of myself for being aware of what was going on around me for once... I didn't see my best friend was in trouble." He let that go for a moment, before chuckling a little. "Tonight was... exciting." He said finally. "I know it must be normal life for you, Captain of the New York Ninja, but for me..." He actually laughed. "Sending a secret team to track down criminals, and avenge a friend in trouble? That was... that was like something out of a comic book."
Yasi chuckled. "Felt good?"
"Felt great." He chuckled. "Thank-" He turned to face her mid-sentence. She was gone. "-you."
Returning to the Underside was always a relief. When she made it to Second Level, the solid darkness welcomed her peacefully.
Yasi made her way through the Labyrinth and paused. "Dorcan?" She called. "You trying to sneak up on me?"
"Sort of." He called back casually, and fell into step behind her. "So, here's something interesting." He said after a while. "Wotcha found Owen Niklos."
Yasi straightened. "Where?"
Dorcan sighed, as though something he'd secretly worried about was just proven true. "He's at the City Planner's Office."
Yasi flushed. "What?"
"He got a job there very recently."
Yasi kicked herself mentally. "Gill."
"I'm sorry?"
"Vincent's best friend tried to kill himself because of some gambling debts being called in unexpectedly. That's what started this. God, I want to kill myself from the sheer 'duh'."
Dorcan licked his lips, and leaned a little closer, lowering his voice. "Keeper knows you were up there with him tonight. She plans to put a stop to it."
"No surprises there." Yasi admitted quietly. "If I go to Keeper and tell her that Vincent is now working two feet away from the man we've been hunting all week, and then confess to her that I missed it, despite the fact that I was up there with Vincent personally..."
"That would be... how shall I put this?" Dorcan considered lightly. "Bad?"
"Bad." The Shinobi Captain agreed. "Bad is the word."
"Then maybe Keeper doesn't need to know about this." Dorcan suggested casually. "Maybe this stays our secret. Maybe your little field trip just became strictly business?"
Yasi grinned. "Dorcan, you are far too good to me."
"I know it." Dorcan smiled back. "And I live in hope that you'll realize that one day."
Yasi climbed up the rope hand over hand till she reached her room. She kicked her boots off gratefully and tossed her overcoat, not even caring where it landed. She was in peak shape, but it had already been a long night, and she couldn't be bothered waiting for the 'elevators'.
She made it back to her chamber, and found the lanterns already lit. Keeper was perched on the edge of her hammock, hanging lower from the ceiling.
"So after the meeting I came to find you. You weren't here. I sent word for you to come find me. Half an hour later I got sick of waiting."
Yasi swallowed, staring at her mismatched socks. "I was... Upside."
"I know. I spoke to Wotcha. She was expecting you to be back over an hour ago. She sent word less than ten minutes after you two finished your conversation."
Yasi flushed. She was having coffee with Vincent the whole time that pigeon was waiting for her.
Keeper studied Yasi with a critical eye. "You were with him."
She saw no reason to deny it. "Yes."
Keeper sat down on the nearest floor chair, and waved Yasi into one opposite. They sat facing each other, cross-legged on the padded seats.
"I don't like to begrudge you your friends. And of course I want you to have a social life." Keeper said kindly. "But understand, he's not objective when it comes to you. He works in an office, never risks more than a paper-cut, and suddenly here's this attractive Amazon from a mysterious world. How can he not be fascinated by that? How could he not see more than what's there?"
Yasi fought back the memory of the quick kiss. "He knows that too."
"Yasi, you took over the Shinobi younger than anyone else in the history of the Underside. You did it by being the best, and the most driven."
"I wanted you and Archivist to be proud of me." Yasi offered.
"And we are. We always have been, dear. But it cost you. How many close friends do you have? How often do you spend any serious amount of time with people Up Above? His world is a mysterious place to you too. And you know that it cannot possibly work out. Leaving aside the fact that you come from different worlds, we're only here because we can keep a secret. If he keeps using our guys..."
"That won't happen again." Yasi promised. "We've settled that."
"Yasi, what happens if this goes on?" Keeper demanded. "Sooner or later, one of his Above friends is going to find out you exist. Someone asks you what your last name is, where you work, where you live, where you got that bleedin' samurai sword... what are you going to say?"
Yasi didn't have an answer to that.
"Vincent's a city planner. He decides to come visit you the way you've gone to visit him... sooner or later he'll find a way in. What happens then?"
Yasi didn't answer that either, but inwardly she shivered. Be Invisible. It was Rule Number One. It was The Law, carved in stone.
Vincent's probably already found a way in. She thought to herself.
"Yasi... I want you to have friends. But it can't be someone that could expose the rest of us. You're the head of our security. You of all people know this."
"Yes. I do." Yasi admitted. "But there's something you should know."
"What's that?"
"Not here. And we need Archivist too."
It was his first time coming to Connie's apartment. They'd only known each other a few days, and spent a lot of their time at the Kitchen talking. Neither of them had a car, like a lot of New Yorkers, and they'd split cabs several times.
They knew little about each other personally when they'd started, but their friendship was real nevertheless. There was a real sense of being in the same foxhole when you volunteered with the homeless. The rate of homeless people in New York City was at the highest it had been since the Great Depression of the 1930's, and had a high proportion of mental illness or chemical addictions. Though they rarely bit the hands that fed them, the volunteers looked out for each other.
A conversation about movies had earned Vincent an invitation to stop by her apartment and pick up a DVD. She led him up the stairs and unlocked the door to her apartment. The sounds of conversation in progress rang out from within as the door opened.
Connie sent Vincent a smirk over her shoulder. "I want to apologize in advance for what you're about to experience." She said with a smile. "Come on in."
Vincent came in behind Connie and suddenly found himself at the receiving end of three stranger's stares. Connie's furniture was all second-hand, but in good condition. The walls had a few cracks that had clearly been there longer than she had, and she had posters and painting replicas from all over the world on the walls. Her living room had a bookshelf against one wall, but barely any books. The coffee table, the shelves, every inch of shelf space was covered in knickknacks.
Her couch had three men Vincent had never met and they all fell silent the second they saw him.
"Guys, this is Vincent." Connie made introductions. "He stopped by to borrow a movie."
"So, this is Saint Vincent." The tallest of the three of them commented. "Bout time we met you. The way Connie described you, I figured you'd be three feet taller and have a shaft of holy sunlight following you around."
Connie interrupted him in a tone that suggested this was an ongoing argument. "Vincent, I'm going to ask you to ignore my older brother Drew. He was tragically born lacking a brain. The DVD is in my room."
"Convenient." Drew commented blandly. "You understand, of course, that as the older brother I am required by law to beat the hell out of you once you screw up and make Connie cry-yowch-yowch-yowch."
Connie had twisted his ear tightly, and Drew struggled not to fall out of his chair as she tugged. The other two strangers tried not to grin.
Connie released Drew and made introductions. "Vincent this is my brother's posse, Benji and Tony. I'm not really sure what they do or where they come from, but they never go anywhere without the other, or without my Drew."
"Nice to meet you." Vincent said dryly. "How do you guys know Connie?"
"She feeds us." They both said in unison.
Connie snorted and ruffled Tony's hair on the way through to her room. "Give me a minute." She told Vincent, and left.
Immediately, the patter began, all three of them speaking in raid-fire succession, till Vincent's head was turning back and forth non-stop to follow it.
"Cheap shoes."
"Nice Jacket though."
"Taller than the last guy."
"No tattoos on his neck."
"We approve of that."
"Volunteers a lot, from what I hear."
"Good quality."
"No it ain't, if he volunteers it means he's broke."
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
"Hands in his pockets, he's probably got a great personality."
"Which means Connie is the pretty one."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Means we can ease him out of her life when we get bored with him."
"Ease him out? Please."
"We roasted the last guy. Remember him?"
"Ahh yes, poor man. Broke the rules." Drew waxed philosophically. "Whatever happened to him?"
"He moved to Boston as I recall."
"Vincent, you like clam chowder? Because I hear they make it great in Boston."
"Now now, he's not her boyfriend. You can tell when she's got a boyfriend, she starts whistling to herself. Buys new underwear too."
"Benji, do I wanna know how you know so much about my sister's underwear?"
"Um, no."
"Remember that guy she had two years ago, Clive Something? Man, she was gushing all over the walls about that putz. Whatever happened to that one? Don't you hate it when you lose track of a collectible like that?"
Connie came back into the room quickly, apparently having changed clothes in a hurry, soon enough to hear that last part. "Clive met the three of you, and I never heard from him again." She drawled. "Come on through, Vincent."
Vincent nodded. "I love Clam Chowder." He told them as he followed Connie. "You add a few carrot strips and a bit of parsley to the pot, it really makes it look nicer, just for presentation."
"He can cook?" Drew blurted.
"He can cook." Tony confirmed.
"We might just approve of this one." Benji added brightly.
"Glad to hear it." Connie called from the hall. "Vincent, flee the living room; save yourself!"
Vincent chuckled and followed her as Drew snarled at his friends. "We do not approve of my kid sister's boyfriends."
"He's not my boyfriend!" Connie called as Vincent made it to the hall. "I only met him two days ago." She had flushed bright pink. "They like to make me crazy, and they are very very good at it; but they're good people, really."
"So this is what I missed, growing up without siblings." Vincent chuckled.
"Pretty much." Her room was much the same as her living room, filled with bits and pieces. She pushed the DVD into his hands, and waved a hand at her bedroom. "So, is it everything you imagined it would be?" She teased.
Vincent felt his face grow warm at the implication that he spent a lot of time imagining her bedroom, and found something fascinating to look at on her shelves. There were plenty of things to choose from. "Where did all this come from?"
"Various places. Everything has a story." She pointed to each one in turn. "The Stone-Head was off an Aztec Arrow, recovered from the site of a battle against Cortez. The Porcelain statues of the kittens came from Milan. I don't know if you've ever been there but there are thousands of stray cats in Milan. They're practically the town fixtures."
Vincent looked over the shelves and picked up a small ornamental box, painted with Oriental Designs.
"Oh, good choice. It's said that box was the last work of the great masters." Connie told him, in that same soft melodic tone. "They say that whoever can open the box will find the secret of life's mysteries, but nobody has been able to solve the mystery for two thousand years…"
Connie trailed off as Vincent proceeded to slide a few panels on the box and promptly pop it open. He shook the contents into his palm. A dime, two pennies and a few paperclips.
"Well…" Connie said after a moment. "They say good things come in small packages. How'd you do that?"
"Well, this ancient puzzle-box, hand crafted by the ancient masters?" Vincent said smugly. "I bought one just like it off eBay."
Connie smiled widely, despite herself, and looked down, a cute blush appearing. "Okay. Well…"
"You're making it all up!" Vincent challenged with amusement.
Connie looked down, like he'd caught her out in a silly childhood game. "Look, we didn't have a lot of money growing up, and there was this woman next door who traveled constantly. I was the middle child, my brother went to work early, and my baby brother wanted to find exciting things. We couldn't afford any exciting things, so…"
"So you invented some." Vincent finished.
"It worked." She excused. "It became something of a game. One I liked. And then I grew up, and I had the chance to actually go visit a few exciting places… So I started saving, and then it was all 'don't go to this place' and 'don't drink the water' and 'have you had your shots?' So I figure why go to all that trouble when you can just pick up this stuff online?"
Vincent burst out laughing.
Connie smiled impishly. "Ask me about the snuff box. I've got a great story about that one."
"So. The question on the table. Do we involve Vincent in this, whatever it is?" Keeper said crisply. "We don't know what the big deal about Owen Niklos is, but it's something. We've already agreed that until he actually does something of concern, we're just going to keep an eye on him. So, do we enlist Vincent to help us again?"
"There's no doubt he's in a good position to keep an eye on Owen. And since he's supposed to be there, there's very little chance that his attentions will be noticed." Yasi said. "I vote yes."
"And I vote no." Keeper said. "The more connections between Vincent and us, the more danger we are all in. Him included."
Archivist was the deciding vote, and he looked solemnly at Yasi. "Yasi, you know I care about you. I get that he's your friend, which is a not so minor miracle, but Keeper's right. If Owen is connected to anything involving us, then the fact that he took a job so close to a friend of yours is bad on many levels. Make a clean break, and maybe Owen loses interest. If not in whatever he's doing, then maybe in Vincent at least."
The vote was two to one, and Yasi took it stoically. "I'll have to get some other eyes on Niklos then."
The two elder Lostkind nodded and the meeting broke up. Archivist followed Yasi, waiting until they had their privacy.
She looked back at him once they were alone. "Something else?"
"You changed the subject with Keeper, but you didn't answer her question." He rumbled. "She and I have looked the other way so far because we're willing to treat you like an adult, but after what we learned tonight... Yasi, if this was anyone else..."
Yasi looked up challengingly. "'If this was anyone else' what? If it was anyone but me, what would you do?"
"Me?" Archivist responded with dull amusement. "Nothing. You're the Gatekeeper, not me. If anyone else in the Underside had a connection to a city planner, to someone who was friends with our Watchers, and apparently was comfortable enough to get our Eyes together for a personal mission... What would you say to them?"
Yasi looked down. "I would tell them to knock it the hell off before they brought all of New York down on our heads."
Archivist nodded. "Yes. You would."
Yasi's face hardened, echoing the familiar refrain. "The First Duty of the Shinobi is to Protect the Secret."
Archivist softened. "For what it's worth... I like seeing you like this. You skipped the rebellious phase so completely, I was starting to worry about you."
They walked in silence a moment, approaching the Twelfth Level. "I love you, Yasi. I want you to be happy. And I don't think badly of Vincent. Wotcha sang his praises to me too. He's a good guy. But he's not one of us."
Yasi nodded without complaint. "I know. It's my job, it's what I do."
"When it gets dark, you can go back up." Archivist said seriously, but kindly. He was telling a hard truth to her, and breaking it gently. "Give him the news. And say goodbye."


If you're enjoying 'The Lostkind', but don't want to wait for the next chapter, you can get the whole thing here in ebook and paperback format.