Sunday, 11 November 2018

Two: Hiding In Plain Sight

Sunlight made the whole thing seem more insane still. It was harder to believe in magic once he was back in the cold light of day. He shook off the dislocated feeling. The Underworld was so beyond his sense of reality that the whole thing had seemed hyper-real, intensely different. The sheer mundane normality of real life was like coming out of a sci-fi movie into the 6pm news.
A cool morning breeze swept over him, and he raised his head blearily. He hadn't opened the window, had he? The night before, Vincent had never been happier to see his bed. He walked into his room, and fell forward, pitching face down on top of the blankets, asleep before his head hit the pillow. He still hadn't changed from his work clothes...
And then he saw the wind-up lantern on the bedside table. It was made of polished metal, and stitched together parts. All the indicators of a Lostkind creation.
The hand lantern was working as a paperweight for a scrap of paper taken from his own notepad.
Thanks for the lotion. Send more. --Y
Vincent smiled, but didn't feel happy. It was all true. He had the proof right here in his hand. He turned the key absently, making the gears turn, and the light glow.
Vincent took the lantern with him to the kitchen, not bothering to turn the lights on, or pull up the shades. The Light of the Lostkind was enough.
The hand-sized lantern was flat and round, with what looked like an old style light bulb, about the size of a Christmas light in the centre, but the glass was colored oddly. The lantern was made, or at least covered in brass and velvet, with a Victorian era windup key coming out of the top. The light gave off a soft blue glow that reached further than the size of the bulb would indicate.
Vincent didn't know how it worked, but the light in the bulb faded to nothing after a few minutes. He turned the key again, and the glow brightened. He held the lantern up close to his ear and could hear something moving inside.
Taking it with him, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. The coffee machine looked bizarre, though he'd seen it every day since he got this apartment. Compared with the elegant and mysterious devices of the world he'd emerged from, something so... plain and factory produced seemed somehow less than it was before.
Nevertheless, he needed coffee.
His apartment was small, though this was not unusual in New York. The brownstone was old, though it wasn't by any stretch broken down. His apartment was on the opposite side of anything resembling a view. The only thing he could see from his windows was the opposite wall of the alley. Being four stories up, on the top level of his building offered him privacy from his neighbors, and if he really wanted to see more of the city skyline, he could climb the fire escape to the roof.
The morning sun shone on the opposite side of the building, the afternoon sun blocked by the opposite building. The darkness of the hallway was normal, but today it gave him a chill. He remembered the Market Tunnel, where there were people in every corner. He looked over his shoulder despite himself, expecting to see things vanish into hiding places.
The phone rang.
The phone was right next to him on the wall, fifteen inches from his ear, and Vincent jumped half out of his skin and spilled coffee all over his hand.
Hissing in pain, and feeling foolish, he answered it. "Hello?"
"Oh, you are there." Gill said smugly. "I called you twice last night, and there was no answer, I figured you must have gotten a better offer."
"Gill." Vincent said his name with a rush of air. "No, I... I was ignoring the phone."
"Yeah right."
Vincent was in no mood for this. Eugene Gillard, who preferred 'Gill' as any man with such a name would, had been his friend since they'd started working together at the City Planner's Office, but he did tend to grate when he was enthusiastic about something. "Is there a reason you're calling?"
"Wanted to know if we were still on for poker tonight." Gill said, as though he could take it or leave it.
"Actually, I was..."
"Oh, COME ON!" Gill exploded, but Vincent wasn't a bit surprised or put off. He'd been Gill's best mate for too long to take his emotional outburst seriously. "I'm in the zone! On a hot streak!"
"That's what you said when you went to Vegas." Vincent retorted. "I had to wire you cash for new shoes."
"Vegas." Gill scoffed. "I lied to you. I spent that shoe money on a Poker Game and I won big. You know why? Because I didn't go back to the casinos. Vegas is for chumps. They have all the casinos rigged. That's why the house always wins."
"No, that's why they call it gambling." Vincent told him, putting bread in the toaster. "You gamble too much, Gill."
"You sound like my ex-wife." Gill waved that off quickly. "See you at the office."
"Ugh." Yasi complained. "I need a haircut. I hate that. Noale keeps cutting it way too short."
Dorcan glanced over. "Looks okay to me."
"It looks fine, but it's getting long enough that it'll get completely messed up when I take a subway ride."
Dorcan smirked.
Yasi caught it. "And we're still not telling anyone how often I do that, right?"
Dorcan held up both hands. "Hey, have I ever ratted on you boss? This is me talking. I'm your guy; always have been."
Yasi smirked, pleased with that, and knuckled his shoulder.
Dorcan fell into step behind her. "And speaking of being 'your guy'…" He added casually. "I was thinking, it's been a while since the lieutenant's post was filled…"
"We've been fine without one so far." Yasi brushed it off. "I can handle it by myself."
"Yeah, but it's still not good to leave the post open for too long." Dorcan pressed doggedly. "And let's face it, you're not going to find anyone better."
Yasi looked at him sharply. "Really? You want to be my second in command?"
Dorcan grinned. "Yeah. Who would you prefer? You telling me you never thought I might want to work closer with you?"
"No. Never." Yasi admitted.
Dorcan snorted. "Well as long as you've taken the time to consider the matter from all angles."
Yasi flushed, realizing too late what her mouth had gotten her into. "Sorry, that came out wrong. It's just… you never seemed interested before."
"Well, now I am." Dorcan shrugged. "Can you think of a reason to say no?"
"Nope." Yasi admitted. "I have to run it by Keeper and Archivist, but it should be fine."
Dorcan nodded. "Great." He licked his lips as they reached an intersection and went in opposite directions. A beat later he turned and called after her. "Yasi? Don't… I mean, if your hair gets cut short again, don't stress. You have a pretty neck."
But Yasi hadn't heard him call her back. She was gone, and Dorcan was relieved to see it. "Stupid, stupid." He told himself quietly.
Vincent called up the relevant information about Keist Telecommunications once he reached his cubicle. Their plan was unchanged, but the staff email account had a few extra messages coming in about requests for an answer, or new developments on the offer. He ignored them and looked at what they wanted. Archivist and Keeper were right. Refurbishing the old steam pipes to take Fiber-Optic cable would require tunneling, as well as rooting out several of the pipes in question, to check for structural weaknesses and collapses.
If the Lostkind were using those tunnels for their own ends, they would almost certainly be discovered. Who knew what kind of additions they might have made to the hidden networks over the years?
Unable to help himself, Vincent opened a web browser and began searching. Looking for 'secret city' led him to a few sites about subterranean dwellings and stores in Montreal and Australia. Searching for 'lostkind' brought him to a few music groups, and some Role Playing Games…
Vincent sat back in his chair a moment before going to the City Planners Office's own database and doing a search. He had the names 'Werner', 'Wells' and 'Camden', and he did a search for them. They had records in the patent office; they had records in the Banking Industry… Nothing after the 1920's… A few news stories that suggested they had committed suicide, as so many millionaires did in the days of the Great Depression…
From their own records, there was no sign of anything.
Davidson, his immediate superior in the department tapped on the frame of Vincent's cubicle. "McCall, I wanted to ask you about Keist Telecommunications. They wanted to know when they would get an answer. There's no great rush of course, and I'm aware it'll take a while to get the information together, but it would get their PR guy off my back if I could tell him when to expect word."
"I'm actually looking at that now." Vincent nodded. "Give me two or three days. I'll go through the records, see what I can shake out."
Davidson nodded. "I'm sorry to dump this on you, Vincent. But this Fiber-Optic deal has the potential to either be a great source of revenue for the city, or a hideous boondoggle that'll cost someone their job over there."
"And lucky me, I get to figure out which one." Vincent said with grim understatement. He bit his lip. "Hey boss? Where would I look if I wanted to find out about the original steam pipe system? I mean the very original plans?"
"All that stuff would have been converted to digital format... But if you mean the original hard copy, I suppose that would be in the Archives Room somewhere. Under about thirty feet of crap and dust. I don't think the archives have been opened for twenty years."
Davidson was correct. When Vincent went downstairs himself, he started coughing before he got within three feet of the Archives Room door.
Vincent stared at the room for more than a full minute once he got the door open. The room had probably been organized at one point, but was now clearly a dumping ground for the employees. The door wasn't even locked, and within a few feet of the door were piles of boxes, which clearly were not city property, a few kids' bikes, and behind them, row after row of shelves and filing cabinets. It was the most crowded mess that Vincent had ever seen, even without the sheer volume of dust that made it seem like it had been snowing in here; or the huge cloudy weaves of spiderwebs.
Gill came crashing in behind him, coughing on the dust. He stopped short when he saw the room and gave it a dark glare. After a long moment, he offered Vincent his professional opinion as an engineer. "Well… this is daunting."
"No kidding." Vincent agreed grimly.
"God, I thought the boss was making a joke when he said you were down here. Has this place even been opened since the Office went to computers?"
"Probably not. For sure it hasn't been dusted." Vincent looked down at himself and waved at the thick layer of dust that had clung to him.
"What on earth could you possibly be looking for?"
"I'm..." Vincent waved obscurely. "You know, the Fiber-Optic Deal."
"We don't have all that on computer? Somebody would have transferred it surely."
"Yeah, but I wanted to see the original." It was a thin story. Paper thin. There was no way anyone would buy that.
"Why?" Gill asked in confusion. "What are you looking for?"
"The reason they suggested the steam pipes in the first place." Vincent said. "They can't believe the pipes will actually save them money, do they?"
Gill shrugged. "Who cares? It's their money to waste."
Vincent bit his lip. "Right." He coughed.
"Lunch?" Gill offered.
"I should get into this."
"It's not that bad…"
"No, I'm sure it's not." Gill said with sarcasm. "Once we get a few more boxes of crap stuffed in here, everything will be fine."
Vincent went to the nearest filing cabinet and pulled the top drawer open. Something inside it screeched like a rabid animal at being disturbed, and both Gill and Vincent jumped back with a girlish squeal as the drawer slipped shut again.
The two friends had a moment of silence.
"So. Lunch?" Gill said finally.
"Lunch." Vincent agreed, and they both fled the Archives Room.
Vincent had mostly gone along with the Lunch idea to get Gill away from the records before he noticed something, but he was glad he'd come. Grabbing lunch with Gill, like he did every day, had given the day a dose of normality that it so desperately needed.
It finally dawned on Vincent: The world hadn't changed, he had. Gill was proof of that. He was still talking like he always did, still griping about the results on yesterday's horse races, buying a pack of menthols from the vending machine like he always did.
The difference wasn't his world, it was him. He had changed. He was suddenly more aware of everything.
" the very least I had to get off the full tar. I mean forget what they do to your lungs, they make everything you eat taste like..."
The old woman feeding the birds in the plaza, a million odd pigeons gathered around her. The kid sitting on the curb, fiddling with the storm drain. Vincent's eyes noticed all of them now.
Are they more than they seem? He thought to himself. Hiding in plain sight?
"...told him that didn't make any sense, but you know what Bookies are like. Hey? You okay?"
Vincent was startled out of his observations. "What?"
"Vincent, what's wrong? You've been off with the pixies all day." Gill laughed. "Everything all right?"
Vincent shook his head. "Fine, just fine."
Lunch was a sandwich stall at the entrance to the subway. It was close to their office, the prices were cheap and the sandwiches were good enough that they didn't bother to go elsewhere.
They left the stall, Vincent glancing back at the station entrance despite himself, and they sat on a bench to eat.
"...steered me wrong before, and you've floated me a loan when I needed it, so I figured I'd return the favor. You in or out?"
Vincent suddenly refocused. "Sorry, what?"
Gill sighed hard. "Are you going to tell me what's on your mind?"
Vincent bit his lip. "Um... no." He changed the subject quickly. "But you were saying something?"
"I got a hot tip and..."
Vincent rolled his eyes, having heard it all before.
"...and I want you to come along." Gill persisted. "The race is this afternoon. Kindled Fire at six to one odds. Come on, it's a sure thing!"
"You gamble too much, Gill; and I'm not helping you do it anymore."
"What is this aversion you have to free money?" Gill taunted him.
Vincent noticed a boy with a dirty face slip out of a narrow alley and snatch a pigeon. The boy was wearing a set of flight goggles on top of his head, and was barefoot. The pigeon didn't seem to have a problem with being carried, and the boy vanished back into the alley instantly.
His pet? Carrier pigeons? Tonight's dinner? Vincent wondered. How is it possible nobody ever notices any of this?
He noticed a homeless woman holding out a paper cup to people passing by. "Spare change?" She croaked out. She had lines in her face, etched in black dirt and grime. It was hard to tell how old she was. Her eyes were red, and she was wearing many layers.
Gill followed his gaze. "Mm. They shouldn't let people like that wander around this part of town. Who knows what they'd get up to?"
Vincent was floored for a moment. "What do you mean 'this part of town'?"
"You know what I mean. I have as much sympathy for the Homeless as you do, but if they need a place to sleep, they can go to the bloody shelters, get themselves a hot meal. They won't find it here. And if they come here, somebody will make trouble for them. People around here don't like being hassled for money." Gill drained his coffee. "We better get back. Coming?"
Vincent bit his lip. "I'm… going to get a coffee myself. You head back."
Gill nodded. "Last chance? Kindled Fire, six to one?"
"No deal."
Gill scoffed. "Just remember, I gave you the choice."
Gill headed off and Vincent bought a coffee and another sandwich from the sandwich stall, making his way toward the woman.
"Spare some change, Mister McCall?" The woman held out her cup to him.
Vincent put some money in her paper cup, and offered her the sandwich too; not at all surprised she knew his name.
"Yum, roast beef." She seemed very pleased with that as she took a bite. "You don't remember me, do you?" The woman said after a moment, her voice suddenly a lot more aware and alert than a moment before.
Vincent grimaced around his coffee and looked down. "You're her, then? The one out the front of my apartment building."
She tipped her hat to him coyly. "Wotcha, at your service."
"Wotcha." Vincent repeated. "As in 'Watcher.' Because you... watch."
She cackled. "We all have our parts to play. The ones that came from the Upside pick their own when they find their place, because the only thing we really bring with us is our name."
Vincent glanced over. "Then you... and Keeper and Archivist..."
"Are all from your world, yeah." Wotcha took a bite big enough to puff her cheeks out, and she went silent a moment as she chewed.
"You're not worried about... I don't know, being noticed?"
Wotcha just looked at him like he'd just drooled on his shirt. "Please. Nobody notices."
"Nobody notices homeless people, but... Well..."
"One having a conversation with a 'normal' person gets seen?" Wotcha grinned. "Let's find out, shall we?"
"How?" Vincent asked curiously, but she was already moving.
She walked out into the sidewalk and started screaming at the top of her lungs. "EVERYONE! Listen to me! THERE'S A SECRET WORLD LIVING UNDER YOUR FEET! A WHOLE SECRET CITY!" Wotcha started grabbing people at random as they passed by. "I'm telling the truth! They're everywhere! Right under your feet! A WHOLE CITY!"
Vincent felt his jaw drop open. Sure enough, nobody was stopping, nobody was listening, nobody was even making eye contact. Further along the street in both directions people were noticing, and crossing to the opposite side of the street without hesitation, turning around and walking the other way.
Wotcha didn't try to hold on to any of them, moving on before any of them could fight back or break free. After several seconds of this, she lost interest and returned to Vincent's side and took the last of his coffee from him. "Thanks for the sandwich."
"That's my coffee." Vincent pointed out.
"But you only bought it so you'd have an excuse to stay here when your friend went back to work. You didn't want it, you just wanted to see if I was homeless, or Lostkind." Wotcha grinned and toasted him with the cup. "Waste not, want not."
Vincent grinned and went back to work.
Six hours later, he was still staring at the offer from Keist on his computer screen.
They are down there illegally. The Underside is a deathtrap... Wouldn't it be better to have the place discovered? There are kids down there, living so deep there is no way it could be healthy for them... Wouldn't it be better if they rejoined the surface? Nobody lives that far underground that long because they're afraid of the sun.
Vincent looked at the lantern Yasi had left him. Something special, admittedly...
He thought of Wotcha. He had seen her for the first time. He had treated her like a person for the first time. She had been on his doorstep for a week, and he only looked in her direction when he knew about what was down there... if the whole world found out about it, maybe the Underside would be closed... but maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it would just make people realize as he had; make them notice things, as he had…
Keeper's voice came back to him. "If you won't help us, there's nobody else who can. And all this will be remembered. And being remembered is the worst thing that could happen to us."
No. Vincent decided finally, and began typing. The place is... magical. I can't just let it die.

To: Keist Telecommunications
CC: New York City Planners Office
Re: Fiber-Optics Approval Still Pending

Dear Sir,
The original plan to lay the Fiber-Optic through the now defunct underground steam pipes is not as cost effective as first thought. The pipes are only convenient in their locations, networked through five boroughs.
With the added costs of reactivating the network distributors, and replacing all the hardware to protect your Fiber-Optics, plus the inevitable corroded pipes in various locations around the city, maintenance costs will be far higher than previously thought.
Also, it should be considered that the steam pipe network is still active in some places and non-existent in other, newer neighborhoods and buildings.
It is the opinion of the NYC Planners Office that a newer network is far more affordable. Adding your Fiber-Optics to existing pipes still in city-wide use is far less practical for your company, and your investors.
That's it, Vincent. He told himself. Do it quickly, don't think about it.
Davidson tapped on the frame of his cubicle, the wedding ring making a loud clinking sound. "Hey. You still here?"
Vincent stood up automatically. "Yessir. Just finishing up the proposal for Keist Telecommunications."
"Already?" Davidson seemed impressed. "They only came to us two days ago. You got it done that fast?"
Vincent only shrugged, but inwardly he kept the reason to himself. He got through it quickly because he'd started with the conclusion he wanted and found the evidence, instead of actually weighing the options.
"Well, good work." Davidson said finally.
"Sir?" Vincent called before his boss could leave. "Can I ask... why did they even bother to come to us?"
Davidson smirked. "Noticed that, did you?"
"The whole plan makes no sense." Vincent said simply. "They want to protect communications, why not start with the cell towers? Or the regular phone lines? Fiber-Optic is usually for cable TV and Internet, and there's no reason to make it go underground."
"Truth is... I don't know. Maybe there's more to it than we know about, maybe somebody read the idea in a sci-fi novel somewhere and figured money was no object."
Just then, Vincent's phone rang.
Davidson nodded and stepped back. "Get some sleep, McCall; it's getting late."
Vincent answered the phone. "Hello?"
"Vincent McCall, you poor dumb loser!" Gill shouted cheerfully. "Kindled Fire! Six to one! What did I tell you!?"
Vincent pulled the phone away from his ear at the noise. "Gill, are you drunk?"
"God, I ho'p so, or I've wasted an awful loot of money on schotch!" Gill shouted. "Listen, the Barten'r says I can't drive. I tried showing him my license, but he won' belie' me, so I can't getim to gimme my keys back. Can you come'n get me? I'd take a cab, but I can't remember where I live."
Vincent snorted. "I'll be right there. How much did you win?"
"Ooh, a bundle, I've been showing it off all night. These people love me. Right?" A cheer came through the phone. "Yeah, they love me. All you gotta do is wave a big wad of money around and everyone wants to be your friend."
Vincent stood up quickly. "On my way." He knew where Gill would be. There were only a few bars that close to the track.
As he headed for the elevator, he glanced out the window to check the weather, and noticed Wotcha across the street.
Biting his lip, he grabbed a pen and a post-it note off the nearest desk and scribbled down a note.
He waved down a cab as soon as he left the office. He asked the cabbie to hold on a moment, and went over to Wotcha.
"Spare change, mister?" She grinned at him.
Vincent pulled out a fifty dollar bill with a post-it note attached and put it in her cup. He went back to the cab without a word.
Wotcha smiled at the note and vanished into the darkness without looking back at him.
"Come on, make it interesting at least." Dorcan challenged.
Yasi smirked, but didn't turn. "Three in the centre... blindfolded."
Dorcan pulled the blindfold down over his eyes and notched an arrow, aiming his longbow at the target on the far side of the Chamber. The Shinobi were trained in the dojo, but at this time of night there was rarely anyone there. One or two came to use the workout equipment. Yasi came to train, and maintain her equipment. Dorcan had been stopping by while she was there, polishing his skills with the bow.
Thwapp! Dorcan released the arrow, and it speared across the large chamber, to the targets set up at the other end. Dorcan rapidly notched another arrow and let fly, then a third before the second had even reached its target.
Dorcan lifted his blindfold. "Did I?"
Yasi didn't even turn to look. "Of course you did, you always do. How often do you miss?"
"Not often." Dorcan admitted proudly.
Yasi went back to methodically sharpening her sword, but looked up as she heard someone coming to the entrance to her chamber. "Come in."
Archivist came up from the ropes to her room and smiled at her. "We got word from Wotcha."
Yasi sat up straighter. "And?"
Archivist handed her a note.
It's done. You're safe.
Yasi let out a breath in relief. "Good."
"Wotcha tells me he's undergone something of a revelation. She says if the personality change sticks, he might be worth recruitment after all." Archivist considered her a moment. "If he'd gone the other way… If he'd decided to out us all to the world… would you really have done it?"
Yasi didn't answer for a moment. She drew her sword and ran the stone down the length, sharpening it carefully. "I'm supposed to protect these people from those that would treat us as freaks. A week ago, he was just like all of them. Blind, closed-minded, cold… The First Duty of the Shinobi is to protect The Secret. Yes, I would have done it." She drew the stone across her blade again. "But I'm always glad when I don't have to."


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