Sunday, 18 November 2018

Three: Intensive Care

One Year Later…

The Triumvirate came into the Round Table Room and locked the door behind them. Keeper went to the equipment at the far end of the room and went to some effort to make it work. Yasi looked around the room, at the banners and the large polished round table that gave the room its name. "Air smells kinda thick."
"Stale." Archivist agreed. "This room has been sealed for years. I heard there was a message coming and I had to dig up records of the last one." Keeper sent him a look that shared his concern. It was rare that something so out of routine took place, and there was a feeling of tension in the room, kept only between the three of them.
"Who else knows about this?" Keeper asked Yasi.
"Only the three of us and Dorcan." The Shinobi Captain reported dutifully, her voice low with worry. "When was the last time Berlin Below called us?"
"Not since the end of the Second World War." Archivist murmured. "They wanted to send refugees here when the Allies started closing in. They were afraid of discovery."
"Did we accept?" Keeper asked.
The ghostly image projected at the opposite side of the table coalesced into a humanoid shape, before focusing like a movie projection. The image focused into being at one end of the round table, and Keeper sat down opposite, Yasi on her left, Archivist on her right. The image focused sharply, suddenly solidifying in the pale white smoke, becoming a person. The projection was of a man in a last-century cavalry uniform, complete with rank and gold trim on his lapels.
"Guten tag." He said to them, his voice heavy with a German accent. "I am VonGunn, Principal of Berlin Below."
Keeper rose. "I am Keeper, of the New York Underside." She responded with formality. "Your call was… surprising. How may we be of service?"
VonGunn fiddled with his goatee, revealing how nervous he was, though he hid it behind a very proud set of manners. "It has been too long since we have spoken last. Indeed, we owe much to our ilk in the New World. We have been shamefully lax in that regard."
Archivist sent Yasi a look. The New York Underside was the result of some of its wealthiest citizens sinking their fortunes into creating the place almost a century before; but it was human nature to abandon places that were not of use, and those forgotten moved into them. There was more than one Secret City in the world, though New York was the only one deliberately made. Their predecessors had once reached out from New York and shared that knowledge and culture with others like them.
Yasi sent Keeper a glance. The older Lostkind took her cue and let Yasi lean forward. "Principal. I am Yasi, Captain of Security for the New York Underside. It is indeed good to hear from you, but I can't help but wonder if there's something that brought us to mind recently?"
VonGunn shook his head, unconcerned. "No, nothing really. Just seemed like the time."
Yasi nodded, equally unconcerned. "Well then. It's great to hear from you. How's the weather in Europe?"
VonGunn sighed, and came to the point. "Fine. It has come to our attention that a man named Owen Niklos is currently in New York City. If you would be so kind as to arrange for his transport here, we will be ever so grateful."
"Why? What's he been up to?" Yasi demanded sharply. "Must be something big if it meant calling."
VonGunn looked uncomfortable. "At the moment, we have no evidence he is doing anything. We deeply regret that this man has become involved with you at all."
"Owen Niklos isn't involved with us. In fact, his name is not familiar to us at all." Keeper leaned forward. "If we'd known he was one of yours we would have extended an invitation…"
"He's not." VonGunn said quickly. "He is not one of us, but he's been a person of interest for some time in an... internal matter. If you will... collect him, and send him on to us, we feel sure we can keep you informed of anything he might say regarding his… activities."
"If you weren't aware of any of that, what do you want him for?" Yasi asked directly.
VonGunn hesitated again, and Keeper put a hand out quickly. "Principal, my Security Chief has a valid point, but we can see you're obviously unaware of what Owen has been up to while he's been here. If you can allow us time to insure that there is no threat to us because of him, we would be happy to make the whole mess be your problem."
VonGunn fiddled with his goatee again. "Yes… I see your point. However, his presence here is required… most urgently."
Yasi and Archivist both looked to Keeper.
"Finders keepers." Keeper cracked suddenly, fierce as a whip crack, and disconnected. An instant later, they were alone at the Round Table.
Keeper spun on Yasi. "Yasi, Niklos might not be a problem for us, but best to find out now."
The Shinobi Captain was already thinking. "Long shot. It's a big city, Keep. Finding one guy that doesn't want to be found..."
"I know." Keeper nodded. "But Berlin want him for something. Something serious enough to break a sixty year streak of not calling us. VonGunn is scared. Find out why, Yasi."
"When I find Owen Niklos, what do I do?" Yasi asked.
"For now, nothing." Keeper said, sending a look to Archivist who nodded agreement. "He hasn't done anything to us, and until that changes, he could be here because he's scared of VonGunn. All our information on Berlin Below is sixty years out of date."
Archivist agreed. "We can't plan out our next move or put our pieces on the board until we know what game we're playing."
Yasi stood. "I have to talk to Wotcha."
Officer Grey waved his badge at the Beat Cops laying out the Crime Scene Tape along the Hudson River. They checked it and waved him through. "What have we got?"
"Three bodies. Two male, one female." The Medical Examiner told him, leading the way over. "None of them over thirty. The bodies are stripped, but that's the least bizarre part of this crime scene."
"Tell me." Grey responded, lighting up a cigarette.
"The bodies washed up on shore, but this area was patrolled by the Beat Cops last night before high tide."
"So they didn't wash up, they were dumped."
"That was what I thought too, but there would have been tracks in this kind of mud. Plus, there's very little mud on the bodies, so they had to come from the water, not the road. Harbor Patrol swears that there were no boats on the water that time of night."
"So... what?" Grey drew the timeline in his head. "They washed up after the tide?"
"Best guess is that they came up from under the water at the wrong time."
"Then they must have been down there a while. Mob hit?"
"Cause of death is hard to pin down. No poisoning I can see, no wounds of any kind. The bodies are untouched. There's some bruising around the arms, knuckles and torso, but not enough to kill. Before they died, they were in a scrap."
"Well, check for..." Grey trailed off as he got a closer look at the corpses. They were all ghostly pale, all without a single hair on their bodies. The bruises were small but showed up brilliantly against their impossibly pale skin. "Whoa."
The M.E. nodded. "Yeah, there it is. Their skin has no pigmentation. At all. I have never in my life seen that. If they were alive they'd probably be screaming in the sun right now."
"Well, that's strange." Grey scanned around the Crime Scene, getting a feel for the area, and noticed a small boy sneaking under the tape, trying to get a closer look. "Hey!" Grey shouted. "Get outta here! There's nothing for you to see."
The kid held his hands up obediently and turned to run away from the tape. Grey turned back to his crime scene, and found an old homeless woman at the edge of the police tape, right next to the ambulance. She was leaning on the ambulance wall for support, holding out an empty Styrofoam cup to his Medical Examiner. He wandered over and cleared his throat.
The M.E. looked up awkwardly. "Forensics has photos of everything. We can move the bodies."
Grey nodded. "Good." He turned his gaze to the hunched over old woman. "You need to move along now."
"Spare some change, mister?" Her voice wavered beseechingly.
Grey slapped at his pockets for a moment and found nothing readily available. "Sorry, no. You need to get off my crime scene."
She nodded and turned to go. Grey turned to the waiting orderlies, having already forgot her. He glanced around. No sign of anyone listening. He drew his phone and dialed a number from memory. "It's Grey." He reported. "I thought you should know, there's a small mess you need to look into at the 10th Precinct Morgue."
New York City had more than two thousand public chess tables, spread out in over five hundred and thirty parks. It was a popular pastime, and in the south west corner of Washington Square Park, almost all of them played for money.
Checkov was a regular in Washington Square Park. He was a professional player. Cursed with a disorder Vincent couldn't even pronounce, his face was in constant motion with tics and twitches. His face settled whenever he spoke, but would not hold still otherwise. Most people avoided him, fear of his condition keeping them away. His illness made finding work difficult, and without medical insurance, he was frequently off his medication.
But behind his twitching drooling face was one of the sharpest minds Vincent had ever known. Whatever else Checkov was, he was a fantastic chess player, and supported himself most days by playing total strangers for money. Ten, twenty dollars at a time, he made enough to buy himself food, and sometimes his medicine. When it got cold he bought hot drinks for himself and his friends.
That was how he met Vincent. On one of his bad days, his face was twitching uncontrollably, and nobody else would play with him. Vincent was reluctant to play for money against a homeless man, but quickly found himself in the middle of a race to simply stop his defeat being humiliating.
It had been a long time since Vincent had seen the Underground. He was still friends with Wotcha, and chess with Checkov had become a regular part of his routine. Even so, he still kept the lantern, still looked through the old archives. The previous year had seemed the most interesting of his life, because that one night had taught him the importance of being observant. In his life, Vincent had never spent a more self-aware year, been more conscious of what was happening around him. He never knew if some of the strange things that nobody remarked on was part of a grander, secret world, or it was just New York, but he felt like he was seeing them for the first time.
"How did you get good?" Checkov asked Vincent as he countered.
Vincent shrugged. "My dad taught me to play, then a few clubs in school. Mostly I learned by playing a lot online." Checkov moved and slapped the clock. Vincent checked the board over and hesitated. "How about you?"
"I learned how in MIT." Checkov shrugged. "The mania was starting then, needed something to keep me from going nuts. There was a professor there, he was Grandmaster level, got me onto it to give me something to do. Funny thing though, he never once played online. His office was full of games in progress."
Vincent nodded and moved, tapping the clock again. Checkov moved faster than Vincent could believe. "CHECKMATE!" He bellowed, ferocious enough to make heads turn. It was a triumphant war cry.
Vincent grinned and put the money on the table. Checkov collected it slickly, not making a big deal out of it, like he'd no doubt done a million times before. He grinned. "Double or nothing?"
Vincent noticed Gill waving at him from across the park. "My Warden over there says I have to go back to work now." He demurred. "Maybe later?"
"Won't be here later. Park's open. Gets a lot of cold." Checkov said. "Cold wind comes in, wind chill point drops like a rock."
Vincent sobered. "The weather guy said that it's going to be well below freezing later tonight. You got a place to go?"
"Ain't the first cold snap I've lived through." Checkov got up, one hand still in the pocket where he was keeping his winnings. "Be seeing you."
Vincent turned to go with Gill, then stopped and handed Checkov a bit of scrap paper with his address scribbled on it. "Listen, there's an apartment building with a laundry room in the basement. It gets locked at nine, but tonight it'll be left unlocked. I've put a few space heaters down there. If you don't have a place to go tonight..."
Checkov looked floored by the gesture. "Thank you." He took the card carefully. "I promise, I won' tell any'ne."
Vincent made his goodbyes and headed back to the office with Gill.
"What are you doing?" Gill asked him blankly as they walked away.
"What do you mean?"
"You can't give people like that your address."
Vincent sighed. "Gill, it's freezing tonight. I'm not giving them my home address, just the building, and…"
"Them? Exactly how many hard-luck cases are you pulling off the street tonight?"
"…and the stairwell doors get locked after nine. They want to sleep in the laundry, it's not like they can go anywhere else in the building."
"Better pray you're right, or the neighbors will lynch you."
"Last year the Homeless could sleep on top of the heating vents behind hotels and office buildings to stay warm. But now a lot of the building owners have put up angled covers on the vents so anybody trying to stay warm will slide off. They got nowhere else to-"
"How do you know that?"
"Dickie Bricks told me."
"Who, or what, in the name of whoever, is Dickie Bricks?" Gill was rubbing his eyes.
"You've met him." Vincent argued. "I bought him lunch a few weeks ago."
"Oh lord, that guy?" Gill groaned. "Why the hell do you keep... Vincent, it's great that you care so much about the homeless, but you keep going out of your way to look after every stray cat, you're going to get clawed sooner or later."
Vincent grit his teeth. "It's not like I can pick and choose which people to help..."
"I know that, but... Look, somebody asks for change, you give him some, but then he sees your wallet and decides he doesn't need to rely on charity and you get stabbed. Vincent, you hear about it happening all the time."
Vincent didn't have an answer to that. He knew it was true; he'd read the news stories himself. "Gill, it's illegal to loiter around parks, banks, supermarkets, businesses, hotels... anywhere with people who might be concerned about seeing things they don't like to think about. You can be arrested for sleeping on the streets because you have nowhere else to go. This is the richest city in the richest country in the world, and it's illegal to be living on the street?"
"I agree, but you're not going to end poverty in this country. You're not going to end homelessness. In fact, you're not going to put the slightest dent in it... And I am trying very hard to remember when it became your job to try."
Vincent bit his tongue. His experience with the Lostkind had turned him around overnight, and Gill wasn't the first person in his life to comment on it. And he couldn't tell them, obviously.
"Gill, you're right." Vincent said finally. "I'm not going to save them all. In fact, I'm not going to save any of them. It's not like these guys are a few dollars away from becoming regular citizens again. And if they want to spend it on booze instead of food, I don't blame them. But I can't pick and choose which ones I'm going to give a damn about."
Gill sighed. "Pizza, huh?"
Vincent nodded. "Three Pizza Deal."
Gill pulled his wallet. "Get two deals. Five pizzas go further."
"Five?" Vincent took the money with a smile.
"Hey, I gotta eat too, right?" Gill shrugged.
The Triumvirate met every week in the Underground. At the highest point of the dome on Level Twelve, at the apex of all the living spaces, was the Throne Room.
The chamber was circular, with three entrances, one to the intersecting tunnels, one to the Labyrinth, one to the Twelfth Level below it. The Throne Room was large by the standard of rooms carved out of the earth. In the centre of the room was a glass circle twenty feet across, set into the floor, giving everyone who looked into it a clear view of the city Below. It was symbolic of their world being Beneath everything. In the Above, you looked up to see the sprawling city, here you looked down.
The window in the floor was circled by a wooden table, surrounding the whole view like a guard rail. There were over a dozen seats at the table, most of them facing the Big Three.
The meeting began with the Lostkind shuffling around talking to each other, until Keeper, Archivist, and Yasi all came in, and took their seats at the forward part of the table. Without a word, the rest of those assembled took positions at the opposite end.
"So." Archivist spoke, his deep bass voice rumbling across the room. "What kind of day has it been?"
"We've been having problems with the Riverfolk." Smithy reported.
"So what else is new?"
"No, I mean they've been sneaking around Twelfth Level."
Yasi sat up straighter in her seat. "The Riverfolk haven't caused trouble for the Twelfth Level in almost seven years." She snarled, more fierce than she should have been.
"Easy, Shinobi. Nobody has forgotten your first mission." Archivist chided her gently. "But we all knew they'd reorganize themselves one day. What kind of trouble have they been causing?"
"We're losing convoys into the Market. So far they've been after food. Nothing we can't replace, but…"
"But it means their numbers have increased." Keeper agreed. "Yasi?"
"I can take a team down to the Lower Levels, clear them out." The younger woman agreed. "My Shinobi haven't had an honest fight for a while. It just seems strange to be coming from Riverfolk. How can they even come up to Twelfth Level?"
"Odds are they can't. They could easily be making themselves sick coming to us." Keeper said. "Which means they're desperate."
"Yasi, don't take that team just yet." Archivist raised a hand. "If there is something happening down there to make them desperate for food or attention, then we had best find out what it is before we start another battle."
"Do we need to put it to a vote?" Keeper asked.
Yasi shook her head. "No. I'll investigate before we act."
Keeper nodded and moved on. "Surface Reports?"
Archivist looked around. "Wotcha? Your report?"
Silence. In the back of the room, a small boy raised his hand. He looked quietly terrified.
Yasi's sharp eyes picked him out in the dark. "Tecca?"
The kid looked terrified of speaking in front of the three Leaders of the New York Underside, but he stepped forward. "She's not… She's not here." He whispered. "There was something… She's not here."
Archivist sent Yasi a look, and the younger woman shrugged. She didn't know what Wotcha was doing either.
"Well." Archivist rumbled. "It'll keep. Security?"
Yasi leaned forward in her seat. "It looks like the Urban Explorers are back in business again. We've had to shoo a few interlopers away from our entrances. The one leading into the Museum of Natural History subway station may have to be closed for a while."
"Better safe than sorry." Keeper agreed. "Seal it up for now. Gopher, what's the word on Power and Water?"
"New York has raised the cost of electricity, yet again. Our taps on the grid are starting to draw attention. I've had to reroute the secondary electricity feed twice now as a result."
"We've had two brownouts this week. People are starting to worry." Keeper grated. "Wotcha, find out who-no, she's not here. Yasi, next time you see Wotcha, let her know that Papa Edison will be having a 'clerical error' soon, misplacing a few more cables."
Yasi nodded. "Anyone else have anything to say that involves me?"
Loud silence.
Yasi rose fluidly from her seat and headed for the rope ladders. "I'll be back later."
Wotcha was as still as she could get. Pretending to sleep hadn't worked. They'd sought her out deliberately.
"Come out and play old woman." The gang leader cackled. He was the eldest, and had a Mohawk. He was enjoying his moment of power. Wotcha pressed back against the wall and tried to take stock of them from where she was, hidden at the end of a dumpster. Four of them, plus the leader. Mohawk was crowing from behind all four of them. Three were pushing the youngest one forward.
"I… I don't know." The kid was whispering. Wotcha almost felt sorry for him. He was barely sixteen, and in way over his head.
"Kid, who are you gonna go back to? Your idiot stepfather? Who looks after you? Who keeps you fed? Who gives you a place to sleep?"
The kid looked down. "You do, Bi-"
"No names." Barked Mohawk. "These are the rules. Nobody's gonna know it's you. Nobody's even gonna notice."
Wotcha slipped one hand under her dirty jacket. A gang initiation. She thought. Kill a homeless person to be part of the gang. She had heard of such things, but never had it happened to her until now.
"You leave me alone." She croaked at them. Inwardly, she knew they were right. In this neighborhood, nobody would see anything. Nobody would even be surprised.
The five of them closed in on her. She moved swiftly, drawing the small crossbow from under her jacket. A bolt was already notched.
Mohawk's jaw dropped. "Is that a-"
One of them howled as the crossbow bolt speared into his kneecap. Wotcha came up with a can of Mace, no longer as helpless and weak as she'd seemed a moment ago.
The gang fell back in shock as she sprayed, missing her target. She may have been cunning, but she was outnumbered five to one, and they were all younger than her by decades.
She felt a hand grasp her wrist, hard and painful, and she pulled, trying to get leverage, the can went flying. Pain exploded in her fingers as the thug twisted. She swung her other hand around. The crossbow hadn't been reloaded, but the bow was made of metal, and it served to get her some room.
For a moment there was a break in the battle. What was meant as an easy gang initiation had turned into an actual fight. They were angry, they were cautious, and they were embarrassed. They were ready to kill now.
Wotcha's eyes flicked to the can of Mace. Too far to get to before they got her. She gripped the crossbow. Too close to get it loaded and aimed. She was in trouble.
And then from above came a dark shape. Quick as a rattlesnake, it lunged from the rooftop above and hit the one closest to Wotcha, landing on him between the shoulder blades. He went down instantly and didn't move as Yasi balanced on him.
The four of them quickly fanned out as best they could in the alley, reacting to this new menace.
"Walk away." Yasi snarled, cold and deadly. "Do it now, and you may keep your limbs."
They attacked. She was more than willing to meet them halfway.
They attacked her roughly, trying to simply overpower her. The warrior woman moved like quicksilver, her slender body folding into impossible dodges and evasions. They kept thrashing, trying to make contact with her somehow, but she simply kept moving. In the darkened corners of the alley, nobody could say for sure where she really was, getting tangled in each other.
And then she struck back.
They couldn't believe how much power she packed in her blows, getting in too close for them to muster any kind of serious punches. She struck tactically, using her elbows and knees to deliver one short sharp body blow to each opponent, smacking out at joints and eyes and throats, knowing every weakness, moving too fast for them to evade or block.
The Gangs of New York were tough as any young people could get, but Yasi had five of them completely outdone.
They rushed her, all at once, trying to keep her from getting around them through mass of bodies. She dashed backward two feet and planted her foot on the wall, flipping over them like an acrobat, sending the biggest of them sprawling down the alley, the smallest of them running into the brick itself.
Mohawk got to his feet first, and pulled out a switchblade.
The click of steel springing open drew Yasi's attention instantly. All of a sudden there was a break in the combat, leaving Yasi and Mohawk staring at each other, with four bodies writhing at their feet.
There was another switchblade click, and Mohawk suddenly had two blades, one in each hand. He flashed the switchblades back and forth over his knuckles, clearly experienced with them. It was a show meant to frighten the opponent, showing off the blades in elaborate ways.
Yasi sized up the Gang Leader as he settled into a combat crouch. Her eyes blazed at him demonically, and she reached over her shoulder. An instant later the streetlights flashed off a samurai sword, gleaming wickedly in the night.
Mohawk took in the blade and quickly realized he was outclassed. Putting his knives away, he drew back two feet and held his hands out, palms up. Yasi lowered the tip of her sword, and made no move to stop the five of them as they rolled to their feet and retreated. They all stayed well away as she moved to stand between them and Wotcha. Message sent, Message received.
Yasi kept her sword low, the blade covering the entire width of the alley, gleaming against her shadowy silhouette, as they retreated with as much dignity as they could muster.
Once they were gone, Yasi sheathed her blade and turned on the elderly Watcher. "You missed the meeting." She said lightly. "I wondered what was going on, but now I understand you were doing this!"
Wotcha ducked her head, nervous before the younger woman. "I am… sorry, Shinobi."
"What the hell were you doing here?" Yasi demanded, waving at the deepest end of the alley. "The entrance is right there. Why didn't you take it?"
"Solving a mystery." Wotcha defended. "By now you'll have heard that there's trouble on the lower levels, on the way into Market."
"The Riverfolk? What about them?"
"They aren't coming from the lower levels." Wotcha cracked. "They're coming from up here."
"From the Above?" Yasi repeated, shocked. "How is that possible?"
"There are bodies… At the Hudson." Wotcha reported. "They're Riverfolk."
Yasi reacted. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. I let myself in to look at the reports. They died of nitrogen narcosis."
"They got the bends?"
"Result of pressure change. Nobody can figure out how they died, so they're writing it off as amateur scuba divers being stupid, but the one thing they can't explain is why the three bodies are so pale. Three corpses that never saw sunlight before."
"Riverfolk." Yasi agreed. "How did those monsters get to the surface?"
"I don't know. They don't even come up four levels in the Underside, let alone to the Hudson River. Someone had to drag them up. Which means someone had to get to them." Wotcha waved to the entrance. "And as you say, the entrance is right there."
"Someone found an entrance to the Underground?" Yasi got to the point. "Vincent?"
"No, I can't believe that."
"He may have been starstruck, but he's not one of us." Yasi countered. "It's been a year. A lot of things can change in a year."
"More than you know." Wotcha said. "Vincent… he's different."
"Different how?"
"Well, back before you went and kidnapped him, I was the one watching. I can tell you, seeing our world changed his whole view."
Yasi was more interested in that than she should have been. "Oh?"
The cold snap that year was very harsh. More than a few who were caught out in it did not survive. Vincent felt awful for ordering pizza, forcing the delivery boy out onto the street during such a night. The ice was getting thick on the roads and the radio was reporting fatal accidents all over New York. The City was hunkering down to wait it out, and Vincent fully intended to do the same once he collected the Pizzas at the door.
The building Super had handed over the key when Vincent asked to lock up the Laundry himself that night. Vincent knew the reason he gave wasn't convincing anyone. The last year had seen a swift change in Vincent's method, and everyone saw it. The building Super was not unsympathetic, and as long as nobody complained and nobody caused trouble he would turn a blind eye.
Vincent had promised that his temporary charges would behave themselves for one night, and took the stack of warm pizza boxes downstairs himself to make sure of it. The biting cold seemed to suck the warmth right out of the food, but it was far worse outside in the wind.
He left the laundry door unlocked. They would have to let themselves out early. It wasn't likely anyone would be near the laundry room until well after dawn, but better safe than sorry.
"We know your neighbors wouldn't like it." Checkov had promised him immediately. "We won't let you down. Besides, Wotcha vouched for you, and her friends are scary as hell."
The comment caught Vincent short. He didn't know what the connection between the regular homeless and the Lostkind was, but apparently some of them knew more than the general population. It reminded him of when Wotcha had screamed out the truth for all to hear and been avoided because of who was saying it.
Such thoughts chased him all the way back to his apartment, and he let himself in. The second he opened the door, his nose twitched as he picked up the smell of food. He was surprised to find cardboard take-out boxes on the coffee table in front of him. Someone had brought over Chinese food in the three minutes he'd been downstairs.
Vincent spun. Yasi was sitting on his windowsill, pressed up tight against the glass, looking out at the slush. Somehow she managed to sit cross-legged. "Something we don't have a lot of? Windows." She admitted quietly. "You've seen our living spaces. We have huge openings in the walls. Our view is our window and door. I've never looked out over a space and had something in the way. If I want to see the city while it rains, I have to get wet. I want to see the city on a winter's night, I'll get cold. Never had a window before."
Vincent stared. She hadn't changed a bit. Her slender silhouette was as intimidating as he remembered it. She had simply appeared out of his memory like the last year had never happened. Her teeth shone palely in the darkness as she smiled over her shoulder at him. "I came up to find some friends of our Watchers, see if they had somewhere to ride out the cold. Apparently, they're all here now."
Vincent flushed for a reason he couldn't really define. "Are you going to get in trouble for coming here?"
"Maybe." Yasi admitted. "You're not going to tell anyone though, are you?"
"Of course not, but I meant..." Vincent waved out his window. "I meant, are you going to get in trouble for coming up?"
"Up Above?" Yasi blinked. "It's... it's uncommon for Shinobi, but it's not forbidden. People from my world come and go all the time. Look at it this way. You live in New York. How often do you go into Jersey City?"
"Not often." Vincent admitted.
"It's only a bridge away; there's nothing stopping you. It's just unusual, because you don't usually have anything there to draw your attention for long." Yasi explained. "In the Underground, on the lowest levels, there are people who can never come up to the surface. They've lived too deep too long, they get the bends. On the higher levels, like me? We try to move as much as we can, so that we can come and go as we will. But we stay invisible."
"Go places without windows?" Vincent smirked.
"Oh no, plenty of windows, but we're usually on the other side of them." Yasi shrugged, answering the question honestly. Vincent suddenly realized that she wasn't wearing an overcoat. The cold didn't seem to touch her at all. Yasi looked back to the window. "Sometimes on clear nights, I walk out by the river. When the air is still, the water reflects the city like a mirror. The reflection turns the city lights upside down, like the towers are reaching down instead of up."
"Reminds you of home?" Vincent quipped.
"You've seen it. My home is like a domed honeycomb. One thing I don't have is a skyline."
Vincent came over to the window, sat down next to her. The streetlight outside struggled mightily to shine through the slush and sleet that was riding the howling winds. "Wotcha says that people who come to your world from above choose names for themselves when they get there. Your name isn't a profession, so I'm guessing you were born Below."
Yasi nodded. "I remember the first time I came to the City. First time I ever saw the sky. It was beautiful."
"How old were you?"
"Six or seven. We've got lights and lamps for UV, so we're not… allergic to the sun. The first thing any child of the Lostkind is taught, even before we learn to read or do sums… We learn to be invisible. To come and go without being caught. For all that, it would only take one person with their eyes open."
"You told me that once." Vincent said. "I've had my eyes open ever since."
Yasi turned away from the window enough to glance at him from the corner of her eye. "Yeah. Yeah, you have."
It was a sincere compliment. She seemed awkward about it. Vincent was suddenly quite certain that Yasi had never had a conversation that lasted this long with someone that was not already a part of her world.
"Lostkind are talking about you." Yasi said finally, as if to water down what she had said a moment before. "They have places to go when the cold snap comes, but... most of the Homeless in this town aren't us. We can't take in everyone, because sooner or later word would get out about us, but... We try to help where we can, y'know?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." Vincent agreed.
The lights went out. The streetlight too, and with it the whole street. For a moment, the wind was the only thing they could hear in the pitch black. It seemed to strengthen as it howled defiantly, exulting in the powerless reality of the city.
After a moment, there was a gentle clicking sound, and Vincent's face was bathed in a light blue glow from the lantern.
"You've still got that?" Yasi seemed surprised.
"Of course." Vincent said with a smile. "It's a memento of a place I will never forget."
Yasi just turned back to the window. For a moment, Vincent wondered if she was laughing at him. "We use them all over the place." She said. "They get made out of scraps, and metal that gets polished up to look new, and… We go through about thirty of them a year. They're so… disposable. Replaceable."
"Really?" Vincent asked in surprise. There hadn't been a day in the last year that he hadn't looked at the lantern and wondered about it, thought about the place. And now it seemed he was idolizing a light-bulb.
They sat silently for a while till Vincent noticed the takeout still sitting on his table. The cold was creeping in through gaps that he'd never known were there, and he knew the food would likely be getting cold quickly. "Stay for dinner? Looks like you brought enough for two, and if you're not in a hurry to be somewhere…"
Yasi hesitated. "I… I'd like to, but I'm not…"
"Yasi, if I'm not going to send strangers out into a storm like this, you think I'm going to let you go?"
Yasi glanced at the takeout and bit her lip.
"Will you even make it home?" Vincent asked. "The last thing I heard from the weather report suggested it's time to start buying survival gear."
Yasi grinned. "Worried about me?"
"I find I worry about a lot of people these days."
Yasi rose from her cross-legged pose. "So I hear."
Vincent reacted. "Is that… why you're here? In my apartment I mean, not the city itself. You came to visit because you heard my… conduct has changed since meeting you?"
"Did you think we hadn't noticed?" She said, sounding eerily like Archivist.
"I know you noticed. I bought five bottles of skin lotion in the last year; they've all vanished out of my bathroom within a day or two."
Yasi laughed musically. "You don't strike me as the type to use it yourself."
Vincent laughed too. "I thought about tossing them down the sewers, but I figured people may talk." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Your guys don't go looking through… everything, do they?"
"Of course not." Yasi said instantly, with a smile on her face. "Especially not the back of your closet."
And they stayed like that a while, laughing in the small freezing apartment, with a Lostkind Lantern between them to hold back the darkness.
"Evening, Miss Connie."
Connie Harnell looked up from her roster. "Wotcha." She greeted warmly. "It's good to see you. I was worried when you didn't check in at the shelter. It's going to be a bad night to be outdoors...."
Wotcha seemed to study her for a moment, and finally relaxed into an easy smile. "A bunch of us were worried, but there's a new volunteer at the Kitchen on Blanchett and Fourth; he offered to sneak us all into his apartment building until the sun came back."
"Really?" Connie seemed impressed by that. "Not many that would go that far."
"Vincent's got a strong sense of… kindness to those in need." Wotcha said approvingly. "You don't mind me sayin' so, Miss Connie; you're like that too."
Connie flushed bright pink. "I don't know about that."
Wotcha nodded slowly. "Hm. Well, you'll have to take my word for it."
"Because I've met him, and you haven't." Wotcha fought to keep her expression even, but she was pleased, having baited the hook.
"Right. Duh." Connie nearly slapped her forehead. "The doctor will be with you soon. Hopefully. We're running a bit behind tonight."
"Like usual, then." Wotcha took the opportunity to slip back over to her seat and wait for the doctor.
Tecca leaned over and whispered to her. "What was that about?"
"Vincent's done right by us, and he's working really hard to look after everyone, even when they're total strangers. Enough that he's not looking after himself like he should." Wotcha explained. "I figured maybe we should reward him. And if it distracts him from Yasi, so much the better."
"The Shinobi?" Tecca frowned. "I don't get it."
"You will when you're older."
Yasi had stayed for dinner, and Vincent had chatted with her about the things he had learned, or noticed. Things that he had never known before. She listened with an indulgent smile, until it dawned on him suddenly that she must have known the whole story already.
Then he told her about the chess games with Checkov, and she'd laughed delightedly.
"What?" Vincent said with a smile.
"You're not the first one he's grifted out of a hot meal."
"Obviously, but I didn't know that at the time."
"He took me by surprise too, because I thought I was pretty good at it." Yasi said forgivingly.
Vincent was quietly thrilled. "You play chess?"
"Archivist taught me. It's a hobby."
That led to a conversation about Vincent's own game with the Russian, which led to the inevitable challenge, which resulted in them tossing out the empty takeout containers away and pulling out a chess board.
"Checkov isn't Lostkind, is he?" Vincent asked quietly while Yasi weighed her next move.
"No. Why?"
"Well, you said you played with him, so..."
Yasi shrugged and moved her rook forward. "The Watchers and the Shinobi have a certain... office relationship going on. They're our eyes in the World Above. Our Intel, for lack of a better word."
Yasi blinked. "Didn't I tell you that part?"
"Oh. Well, Shinobi is the Japanese word for Ninja. During the war, a few Japanese families that lived in America went into hiding after Pearl Harbor and found their way to us. One of them was a martial arts master, knew all about Samurai. They traded some training for a place to stay. Decades later, and they actually put me in charge."
Vincent just stared at her. "So you're Captain of the New York Ninja."
Yasi's teeth flashed at him again. "Why do you think I'm smilin'? Anyway, I was up here talking to Wotcha years ago, she introduced me to a few people. Checkov was one of them. He took me for fifty dollars."
Vincent was surprised for a number of reasons. "You use money in the Underground?"
"We trade. You've seen our Marketplaces."
"Regular American currency?"
"Nope." Yasi said easily. "Wotcha had to give me a loan."
Vincent found that to be hilarious, and the two of them laughed loud and long.
After a wretched night, the city managed to dig itself out from under a layer of ice and slush. New Yorkers took many things in their stride, and life returned to normal.
Vincent woke up on his couch and found someone had spread a blanket over him, the pillow from his bed was under his head. The air still had a bite after the storm, but the constant howl of the wind from the night before was mercifully silent.
Vincent looked around and noticed that he was alone. Yasi had apparently departed sometime during the night. He wondered briefly how long they'd stayed up talking to each other. He remembered seeing the clock at two in the morning, but he didn't remember falling asleep.
And that was when he realized how long he'd been sleeping.
Scrambling to his feet, he quickly ran to his bedroom and grabbed the first set of clothes his fingers touched. Cursing up a blue streak at having to change clothes in the cold, he got ready for work.
His guests downstairs had already left, probably as soon as the sun came up. He ran to the subway station and got there just in time.
As he arrived at the office he noticed people glancing at him. He wasn't imagining it. They all saw him coming in late, and were trading significant looks.
Inwardly, he didn't think it would matter that much. The city was in semi-gridlock from the icy roads and storm damage. He was no doubt one of many people getting to work late that morning, so why was everyone reacting to his arrival this way?
The fact that he was late felt glaringly obvious as he came into his cubicle, as was the fact that he hadn't had time for a shower or breakfast. He felt obvious, and everyone was looking.
The feeling of confusion only got worse when he made it to his desk. Usually Gill was at the desk behind his, but today there was a new face. The man sitting at Gill's desk was average height and build, with neat but inexpensive clothes, and wide-rimmed reading glasses over his eyes. The man ran a hand through his thinning brown hair and looked sheepish. "I… You must be Vincent McCall."
Vincent nodded. "Yes, I am."
The man stuck a hand out. "Owen." He said. "I… didn't think you were coming in today."
"Vincent?" Came another voice.
Vincent turned from Owen as the boss came in.
"I thought you weren't coming in today." Davidson said. His voice was full of sympathy.
"Seems to be a trend." Vincent responded. "I... the storm made getting in difficult." He wasn't lying, but he wasn't telling the truth. He was confused. Something was going on here, and he didn't know what it was.
Davidson came in and made introductions. "Vincent, this is Owen Niklos, he's going to be covering for Gill while he... recovers."
Vincent turned sharply. "Recovers?"
Davidson's face fell. "Oh God, I'm sorry; I'd thought you'd heard. The phones have been up and down since the storm and when you didn't show up at the regular time I honestly thought you'd heard and..."
"Heard what? What happened?"
"Should I...?" Owen started to ask. The implication was obvious; he was offering to let them talk privately.
Davidson nodded, and Owen stepped out of the cubicle, all but melting away, leaving them alone for the moment.
"Vincent, last night, Gill tried to kill himself." Davidson explained gravely. "He slashed his wrists with a knife from the staff break room, and Angelo found him in the bathroom. We were able to get him to a hospital in time; the doctors say he'll recover."
Vincent was floored. "My God... I just spoke to him yesterday."
"I know. None of us knew what happened, but he came back from lunch and..."
"I... I was with him during his lunch break yesterday. I left early to..."
"We know. We tried to find you last night, but the storm was causing problems. He was going to be okay, so we figured it wasn't worth trying to get out to your apartment in that mess..."
"Where is he?"
"New York Presbyterian." Davidson said. "Vincent, even after he recovers physically... there'll be a while, maybe a long while, before he's ready to come back. Owen can cover for him, and a lot of things have been put on hold while the city digs itself free of last night. If you need to be somewhere else..."
Vincent rose. "Thanks boss."
The Intensive Care Unit was the most depressing part of a hospital.
"The story of a city is told in the memory of all those that walk through its places. Look around sometime, and you can see the fingerprints of a thousand lives in the walls." Archivist had said. "We are the living memory of this city, and we have been for a hundred years."
Vincent almost laughed. Archivist wasn't just talking about the Lostkind, he was talking about everyone. A plaque on the wall drew his attention. King George the third had commissioned the construction of New York Hospital. The second oldest in the United States.
This building predates the Underground. Vincent thought. It was old when the Lostkind were new, and this place did not fall through the cracks into oblivion.
Vincent looked again, observing now, instead of just navigating. These were the rooms where prayers had been whispered, even more than churches. These were the rooms where lives began. And ended. It was a teaching hospital, where doctors learned their trade. It was used as a barracks during the Revolutionary War.
How many stories began and ended here? He asked himself. And Gill is only one of thousands currently being played out.
"Mister McCall?" The attending Nurse called to him. "You can go in now."
Gill's wrists were bound tightly. There were restraints holding his arms lightly to the railings along the sides of the bed. Vincent felt a cold hand squeezing around his stomach. His best friend had tried to kill himself. Nearly succeeded, and was now strapped to a hospital bed, for fear he would try again, looking tiny and pale.
"Gill?" Vincent called softly, hating the way his voice shook. "Gill? It's Vincent."
Gill's eyelashes quivered, blinking open awkwardly. "Hey. Can you scratch my nose?"
Vincent choked out a chuckle around unshed tears and did so.
"Don't stress." Gill croaked. "The restraints are standard operating procedure, or so the nurse said."
"Gill, what happened?"
Gill looked away from his friend, and his eyes focused on a cup of water. Vincent reached out swiftly and brought the straw around to let him drink. Gill swallowed thickly, taking small sips, before telling the story. "I had a bad run. You know how it is… you gotta play it out, just till you find that perfect hand. That one perfect hand can undo a whole bad night." He sighed. "But staying in long enough to find it… that's the hard part. So I had to go to… someone else to get a stake. I've been at one table or another for most of my adult life, I can tell when things are about to come back around. This time it didn't."
Gambler's ruin. Vincent thought. "If you needed money, why didn't you come to me?"
"Because… I've done it before." Gill admitted quietly.
"Oh no you don't, you can do better than that. Why didn't you tell me?" Vincent demanded kindly.
"I… I wanted to. I tried to." Gill rubbed his face. "But I came to tell you when we were away from the office and you were hunched over a chess board with… It's not your fault, but you had a basement full of health risks, and I figured I had some time." He looked away again. "I was wrong. He wanted his money back much sooner than he said he would. I had a week, and then suddenly I had six hours."
"So you figured you had nothing to lose?"
"More or less."
"Did you talk to the police?" Vincent asked kindly.
Gill nodded. "I gave them his name. But they can't find him."
"They can't? He loans money, I can't imagine he'd be hard to find." Vincent countered.
"That was my mistake. Monroe was closing up shop. I think he had problems of his own and needed the money fast. The police mentioned that he'd been hassling his other… customers."
Vincent bit his lip. Monroe. The crook has a name.
"If he's skipped town… with enough money to stay hidden a while…" Vincent started to say, more because he was thinking out loud than anything else, when he noticed Gill starting to drift off again from the medication.
Vincent sat beside him for a long time, staring into space. The guilt hit him suddenly. He had done it again. He had noticed his friend getting shifty, he had noticed him starting to panic. He had noticed Gill making wilder bets on longer odds. He was trying to bet his way out of his debt. Vincent had missed it. He'd made the same mistake, only in reverse. He'd focused his attention on the hundreds of people he could barely help and practically ignored his best friend. A year and a half ago, he'd dug himself deep like this, and Vincent had stopped him before he'd gone as far as taking money from Loan Sharks.
Vincent couldn't help the guilt that hammered him. He'd ignored his best friend, and he'd been doing so for the better part of a year now. A mistake that nearly got poor Gill killed.
And for all that, the Loan Shark in question was going to get away with it. The time for Vincent to do something was long gone. There was nothing left he could…
That thought stopped him dead. There was something.
Wotcha looked up at Vincent and smiled as he presented her with a cup of coffee. "Hey. Thanks again for the other night. There's a dozen people who pretty much owe you their lives. Just so you know, Dickie Bricks had a brother who wasn't so lucky…"
"Wotcha." Vincent interrupted. "If I wanted to get you and your team to find someone who was trying to stay hidden, how long would it take you to find him?"
"What is it?" Yasi asked.
"We don't know exactly." Archivist admitted. "That's why we decided to call you."
Yasi watched the tunnel for several seconds, as though expecting something to jump out at them. It had been seven years since she had come to the River Level, but she had no doubt that they would remember her... or that they were watching right now. "You made the right choice."
It was one of the lowest levels of the Underside, in an area where the lights were rarely on. The underground river was behind them, and none of them liked to be too close to it. The river was the outlet of the Secret City below. It was the deepest part of their world, down too deep to be a home for anyone. Even the Lostkind had to follow the laws of biology, and down this deep, under pressure, a person's body adapted far easier than going back up again.
This was the place where the Riverfolk lived.
The dark water behind them was still, like something out of a horror movie. It waited behind them, calm and steady. They glanced back at it nervously from time to time, but stayed focused.
Written on the wall in the same luminous paint they used to mark entrances, covered by the omnipresent grime of this lowest part of their world, was a message.
Dorcan shrugged. "Anyone have any idea who Keist is?"
Archivist sent Yasi a look. She shook her head, just slightly. The fewer people who knew about this, the better for now.
The water behind them shifted. A ripple that came from nothing they could see. Everyone froze. Yasi's hand went straight to the sword at her back, ready to draw.
Nothing more happened, and after a moment, they all relaxed.
"How many people come down here?" Yasi asked. "Obviously the message isn't for us, so who is it for?"
"Nobody comes down here any more. It's way too deep." Dorcan insisted, sending another glance back at the River. "The last time any of us were down here officially was seven years ago."
"I know. I was there." Yasi said blandly. "Any reports from the Lower Marketplace?"
"Last raid by the Riverfolk was over a month ago."
"A month?" Yasi said in surprise. "No, you've got that wrong. They've gotten sneaky instead of just non-violent, but..."
"Yasi, I've spoken with the stall-keepers and the Scavengers. There hasn't been anything taken in over-"
"That cannot possibly be right." Archivist boomed, agreeing with Yasi.
Dorcan was surprised at their reaction. "Why?"
The water shifted behind them again. The three of them tensed, Yasi putting herself between the water's edge and Archivist swiftly.
Nothing happened.
Yasi picked up the thread of the conversation once they all relaxed. "They've been taking supplies forever. There's nothing down this deep that works, they can't survive to reach the surface the way we do..." She bit her lip. "We were hearing about raids on Borrowers as they go on their way a few levels up, but nothing at their usual scavenging grounds? They're... They've gone quiet for a month. They don't go completely quiet. They can't. If they stay away completely, then they starve... So where have they gone?"
"I got a better question." Her lieutenant said. He hesitated a moment. "It's none of my business, but you know how this place gets real small, real fast when it comes to gossip..."
Yasi's face turned to stone. "Hear anything interesting?"
"You know what I'm talking about. Are you going to tell your pet?"
"The Upsider."
"He's Wotcha's friend." Yasi warned, sounding like someone who had never used the word 'friend' in her life.
Dorcan swallowed. "Yes Ma'am, but are you going to tell him?"
Yasi bit her lip. "How long has this message been here?"
"There's no way to know. Like I said, nobody ever comes down here. Not on a bet, not for an emergency, not on a dare. But near as we can figure, months at least."
"Then there's nothing more for us to do." Yasi said. "Keist Telecommunications made their pitch, and Vincent waved them off over a year ago."
"So Vincent is probably safe." Archivist agreed. "But if there was more to Keist than just running Fiber-Optics, then we may have a real problem here."
Yasi said nothing.
Archivist sent Dorcan a look, and the younger man found something fascinating to do further up the tunnel, back toward their boat. Once they were alone, he leaned in a little closer to her. "I got a message from Wotcha. I heard about McCall's crusade." He said quietly. "You're going back to the surface, aren't you?"
Yasi gave him a long measuring look. "Tonight."
"Are you going to ask him about this?"
Yasi bit her lip. "Maybe."


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