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Category Archives: Tobias Finch
Just joining us? Start here with Chapters 1-8 from beginning to end in one single post. And if you like what you’re reading, new chapter installments are posted every Monday. Enjoy!
Case# 121: The Edge of the Dark
Chapter One: October 19, 1942, 2:30 PM
I took a look at my pregnant secretary, the one who said this job would be temporary when I hired her. She planned to be whisked away by a rich fella within a year and find a nice house in Westchester with that damn fern plant she called Burn. Well that was eleven years ago and her and that fern were still doing everything they could to make my life miserable. This was her third kid, her husband, well he was a garbage collector: a good one and a good guy. Should’ve been sainted for marrying Eva but the Pope would have to wait seeing as hubby was whisked off to war to fight in the Pacific. Eva was left behind and continued to work. She was the image of brass and had a pair of knuckles made of the same she used in a few fights. A tough broad and an awful secretary, but a good person under all of it. It’s why I kept her around.
“Eva?” I was shouting out into the next room.
I was sitting at my desk baking like an apple pie left too long in the oven. I could feel my crust starting to burn and my insides bubbling. There was an unusual heat wave going on in the city and I was just waiting for someone to put me out on a damn breezy window sill to cool. Cigarette after cigarette came across my dry lips with one cup of muddy Joe after another following. Now it all started blending together into one hazy thick of a hot and sticky afternoon on the Lower East Side.
Eva was filing something by her desk, what I can’t be sure since I hadn’t had a case in three weeks, “What Finch?” We were both bored out of our numb skulls. Not a case in sight and we were real antsy having to spend all this time together cramped up in the office.
“You know what they call this?”
“Call what?” She was in a mood about the heat. I could tell by her tone.
“This kind of weather?”
She dragged her slender blond frame into my office with a puss the size of Delancey Street, “Yeah, Hell.” She was fanning herself with what looked like the light bill for the office.
“No smart Alec, they call it an Indian Summer.”
She wasn’t biting: “What do the Indians have to do with this heat?”
“It’s an expression. Something people say when it’s hot in the fall.”
She sucked her teeth in and gave me a look like I was making up the whole thing. “You have some strange ideas rattling around in that old head of yours, Finch.” Then she faked a half laugh as she turned around to go back to her desk, “Indians and summer. You know what would be a good idea?” I wasn’t going to waste the breath responding because I knew she would tell me no matter what I said. “A good idea is forgetting about your Indians and thinking about ceiling fans in this joint.”
“You know what’s an even better idea than that?”
“You sending me on a paid vacation?”
“Going to Jimmy’s and getting a block of ice for my afternoon scotch.”
I knew she would also have something to say about that, ”You had your afternoon scotch at noon. And then again at one.”
Her desk chair that she was starting to pull back was immediately thrown up against the opposite wall. She marched back into my office sweating from anger, “I am! All that money you waste on booze could be put toward ceiling fans so this bun in my oven doesn’t over bake.” She started blotting the sweat off of her face with a handkerchief and in one swift maneuver started wiping tears from her eyes. Lately she had a gift for stealthy water works, she said on account of the baby inside of her. Eva certainly loved to bellyache but I never saw her cry until recently. I know she hadn’t heard from her husband in awhile and she was real nervous she never would again. And with three kids and the measly salary I paid her, I’d probably cry too.
I went and put my arm around her “Awe Eva don’t lose it on me now. Go take a seat in front of the fan and relax. I’ll take a walk down to Jimmy’s.”
She blew her nose into her sweaty handkerchief and attempted to compose herself, “Sorry, Finch, it’s just been tough ya know. The kids haven’t been sleeping with this heat and I haven’t heard from Johnny in weeks.” She talked herself right into losing it again.
I engulfed the little thing into my sweaty arms. It was clear she needed a hug and although I didn’t count myself one of the types that showed his feelings very often, I’d like to think I was a good boss. “Alright listen to me. Next case I have, I’ll look into spending the money on some ceiling fans.”
She caught a hold herself and made one final swipe of her nose, “By the rate you’re going it’ll be time for those heaters we needed last winter.”
You try to be nice to a woman and they slap you across the face for it every time. “Go sit down before I take it all back.” I released her and went to the top drawer of my filing cabinet, my bar, and took out my dying bottle of sauce. Old habits from the bathtub days die hard. I was so used to hiding the stuff that I never brought it back out into the light of day. I eyed the bottle to see if there was enough for two. There really wasn’t, but Eva didn’t need a Finch-sized dose. I took one glass out seeing as mine was keeping me company on my desk. I poured most of the drink into Eva’s clean glass and the rest into mine.
Eva was already back at her desk sticking her face in front of her little table-top fan. As I walked in she turned over to that monster fern plant she showed up with years ago and started doing some pruning. That also meant she would start talking to it, ”Oh baby, you’re so dry. Someone needs water and a nice island breeze or at the very least a nice ceiling fan breeze or someone is going to wither up and die.”
I walked over to her desk and placed the drink in front of her. “Here try that for your troubles.”
She grabbed the glass, swirled it around and wrinkled her nose at the smell of it. She wasn’t a scotch girl, this I knew, but I also knew that every little bit helped. I guess she agreed when she held up the glass, “Hey I’m desperate,”
I held up mine, “Aren’t we all?” I swallowed the contents so quickly I went to do it again just to make sure. Eva took a sip and her face pruned up immediately.
“Ahh, I don’t know how you drink this stuff straight.” She tried again and made the same gesture. “No I can’t with this.” She turned and dumped the rest out in Burn’s pot. “I’m strictly a gin girl.” Her hand grabbed her top drawer and flung it open. It reached inside for a silver flask which she couldn’t get to fast enough.
“You had to give it to the plant?”
She took a slug, screwed the top on and threw it back in her desk. “Now that’s better.”
“I thought you were desperate?”
“My stash is only for dire emergencies.” Suddenly we both perked up at the sound of cautious footsteps working their way down the stairs toward my office. “That could be the sound of our ceiling fans Finch.”
“Don’t hold your breath sister.”
The knob to the front door turned with a painful creek. My palms suddenly became itchy. That meant either there was trouble coming through that door, someone needed to hire my services or it was a little bit of both.
The door opened like molasses. The silhouette behind the frosted glass became a bleak vision of an older man down on his luck. There was nothing in his eyes. His pupils looked like two black pits with no color around them. His hair was knotted and long, growing out in a mess of unkempt graying curls. You could tell he and a comb hadn’t been acquainted in a long time. Blotches of soot and dirt covered his face and hands. The clothes he wore hung off of him in a haphazard way and were just as dirty and worn as the rest of him.
His mouth, hanging half-way open finally mouthed two words: “Tobias Finch?” I hesitated like I wasn’t sure whether to throw a punch and run in the other direction or scoop this character up and give him a good scrub. “That’s me. What can I do for you, mack?” Either way the look of him was bugging me and I had no control over it.
“I need your assistance.” He moved slowly past Eva’s desk and walked directly up to me. He stood close, a little too close. He didn’t smell, which was a shock, but who knew what could’ve been crawling all over him. “My name is Jasper Vander Dunk and my son has been murdered.”
I looked into his dark eyes and saw the tears begin to run through the black smudges caked onto his face. The man was badly shaken. He needed care, more care than I could give him. “Well Mr. Vander Dunk, step through here and let’s have at it to see if I can be of assistance.” My hand guided his dusty shoulder through my office door. “Just have a seat and I’ll be right with you.” He labored over to the chair opposite my desk and used every muscle he had to sink down into it.
Eva looked at me with big puppy dog eyes. “Finch that man is a genuine article charity case,” she said under her breath. “Help him. Poor thing!”
“How do you know what he is?”
“Look at the way he’s dressed.”
“So? What of it? He coulda sprang himself from the loony bin for all we know.”
She looked over to him with a bushel full of pity, “No, I don’t think so. He’s hurting. Look at how he’s let himself go to pieces.”
“Well Miss Analyst why don’t you go in there and tweezer out his feelings for me.”
“Clamp it. He obviously needs a detective.”
“Well I doubt he can afford me.”
She chuckled, “You’re not exactly high-end, Finch. Go in there and help that man and stop being a chicken.”
“Who says I’m being a chicken?”
“I am. You’re spooked by him, I can see it.”
She was right. I was. Those eyes were what did it. They were dark and frightened like they’d seen too many unspeakable things. Things I didn’t want to see. Give me a tough guy, or a crooked cop or a crazy frail and I could run circles around them on account of their eyes. I can always read a set and know all I’d need to know. His were blanked out. “Give me your emergency stash. I want to offer him a drink.”
She went around to her desk drawer and pulled out the flask. “Try not to use it all up. You never know when I might have another emergency. ”
“I’ll cover you this time. We can call it an office expense.” I grabbed the flask and slowly entered my own office. I brushed by the seated man cautiously and took my seat trying my best to ignore his stare as I sat down to face him.
“Forgive me for not calling ahead for an appointment. I own no phone.” His words and posture were gaining strength now that he was seated. “You come on a recommendation, Mr. Finch.”
“Can I offer you a drink?”
“No thank you. I don’t drink.”
“Do you mind if I do?” I was intent on using the glass sitting on my desk, when I heard Eva’s chair fly back yet again.
“Oh no.” She charged into my office. “Excuse me Mr. Vander Dunk.” She grabbed the flask right out of my hands. “None for you. That was for our guest only. Otherwise it’s mine. I’m sure you got something else eating away at the metal in that filing cabinet.” She marched out with her flask in hand feeling smug that she had denied me a drink.
“It’s so hard to get good help these days, Mr. Vander Dunk. It’s a wonder why I even keep her around!” I said the last part loud enough so she could hear me. She simply snorted out a confident laugh. Vander Dunk did not change his expression at all so I got down to business. “Can I ask who recommended my services?”
A small smile flashed across his lips, “Your father, Mr. Finch.”
My face flushed over and went as blank as his eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the punch in the gut when he mentioned my old man but I suddenly felt dizzy. My father had been dead for twenty five years.
“You must talk to ghosts Mr. Vander Dunk. My old man died when I was a kid.” Of course it wouldn’t have shocked me to know that this kook could talk to ghosts by the looks of him.
The expression on his face didn’t change at all. “Yes I know. I was there when he died, Mr. Finch. He saved my life. Led four of us out of a bombarded trench to a retreating convoy.”
No one ever spoke of my father after he was killed. Mother never did. I was always under the impression she didn’t like him much and around my brother and me he was tight as a clam. Didn’t like to talk too much unless he really had something to say. He was asked to join the Army during the Great War because he had the carpentry experience needed to help set up camps and build trenches. All we were told was that he was killed, no details and no medals for bravery that was for sure.
“Tom told me he had two sons. Tobias and Roger. He said you were both good boys and would turn out to be fine men.”
Well Roger was a cop so he was half right about that.
“We were like family in the service, Mr. Finch. Brothers really. So when this happened to my son and I heard your name associated with this line of work. I knew I could depend on you.”
Of course, you know what this was sounding like to me? A hobo looking for a handout because he was in the war with my old man. For all I knew he could be making all that mushy stuff up about what good friends they were. But again I couldn’t tell with the blank stares. “Look Mr. Vander Dunk, if you could give me some details about what happened to your son, maybe we could figure out exactly how I can be of service to you.”
“Money is no object Mr. Finch. I know my appearance may be deceiving but I have enough to pay whatever you charge… My son was murdered. Stabbed to death in cold blood.”
I was just about to finish thinking that he was a rich eccentric when he dropped the next bomb on me. “We live underground in a community where everyone knows everyone else very well.”
“I’m sorry, what now? Underground?”
He smiled in a demented way, “Under this very city and very few from above know about us. It must stay that way as well. If you choose to take on this case you have to take a vow of total secrecy about where you are going.”
“And where will I be going?” It had just occurred to me that I hadn’t lit a cigarette in nearly a half hour and this whole business was making me Jones for one. I pulled my pack out of my shirt pocket and found my silver lighter staring me in the face. “Smoke?”
He waved his hand, “No sir. I have no vices.”
“I’d hardly call smoking a vice.” I lit my cigarette and puffed a cloud of smoke in his direction.
He frowned at the smell, “To each his own. I find the whole thing vile.”
Well I don’t like being preached at and was getting antsy with all this goofy talk, “So brass tacks, Mr. Vander Dunk. Where and when was your son murdered?”
“Two nights ago, in the Underground.”
“Did you bring in the Police?”
He looked dumbfounded at my suggestion: “Of course not! The police can never know where we live or they would force us all out.”
“So what do you want me to do if I can’t turn anyone over to the cops?”
“Identify the killer so he can be brought to justice.” He boosted up his shoulders. I could tell he was once a proud man. “Our kind of justice.”
I took a long drag on my smoke. This was not going to be an ordinary case if I took it. No cops involved in a secret community of people who lived in God-knows-what or where. It certainly wasn’t your typical jilted-dame-shoots-unfaithful-husband case. The nice, easy kind. “Sounds scary. Any suspects?”
“None. My son was well-respected among us. He never crossed anyone or owed a debt. Besides our community would never harm one of its own. We look out for each other and always take the best care for our citizens.”
“Just your average little paradise.”
He ignored my comment. “When you accept, I will tell you where and when to meet someone who can guide you down to us.”
“Now now, don’t get ahead of yourself, sir. We haven’t discussed my price.” I took out a handkerchief and blotted the sweat from my brow.
I saw him fish into one of his tattered pockets. His hand pulled out the fattest wad of scratch I’d seen in a long while. “This is $5,000 on good faith that you’ll accept. When you make it to the Underground you’ll be given $10,000 to see you through and another $15,000 upon delivering the murderer to me.”
I’m pretty sure I heard Eva go into labor over the shock. With that kind of commission he could be sending me to the planet Mars and I’d still be a fool not to take it. “Well Mr. Vander Dunk, you’ve got another Finch on your side. I’ll do it.” I smashed my dying cigarette into the heaping ash tray on my desk.
For the first time in our conversation I saw a bit of joy flash across his face. “I knew Tom’s son wouldn’t turn me down.”
“For the money you’re throwing at me you’d get the son of Satan to go church every Sunday.” I got out of my seat to give him a clue that it was time to leave.
He practically jumped up out of the chair to shake my hand. “You have the same wry sense of humor your father had.”
“Got to get if from somewhere. If you knew my mother, you’d know it wasn’t from her.” I smiled as I walked him out past Eva to the front door. “So tell me, Mr. Vander Dunk, how do I get down to your neighborhood?” He looked over at Eva uncomfortably. I lowered my voice. “She’s on the level. Eva won’t rat you guys out.”
“I’m sure she is, but I can’t take any chances. The anonymity of our whereabouts is paramount. You will meet my grandson tomorrow afternoon at 4PM on the corner of 32nd and 11th Avenue. His name is Joshua and it was his father who was murdered.”
“I’ll look out for him.”
“He will find you.” He grabbed my hand again. “I can’t thank you enough for this. I will see my son’s killer brought to justice.”
“I promise to do whatever I can.”
As he left the office, I turned to Eva whose smile couldn’t get any wider. “$30,000 Finch! That’s ceiling fans, heaters and a nice Christmas bonus.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself missy. I’m not quite sure what I’m getting into with this job.”
“You’re gettin’ into money, Finch. Get happy about it and be sure to spread it around.”
I couldn’t get happy. I knew I should’ve been, but I wasn’t. Something about the whole thing didn’t feel right to me. I felt blind going into a case with a guy who knew a father I never really knew and lived in a place that sounded like a bad dream. Who were these people? Why come and seek me out and offer all that money on top of it? What if it was a trap?
Then it hit me: I knew someone who might just have an idea or two about these underground birds.
Chapter 2: 4:15PM
Foxie’s was a hole-in-the-wall kind of place across town. The bar tender, Jimmie Fox, started the bar with some money he found stuffed under his mattress. That’s a longer story that needs more time than I’m willing to spend telling it. Maybe someday if we’re all lucky, I’ll get to it. Before he went out on his own, Fox and I had a history that dated back before the dawn of man. He was a private dick’s treasure chest: a gin pusher who knew everyone else’s business in town. For years he was working for a secret society called the Light Keepers. It’s a group I still only know the bright and shiny details about. But from what I could gather, they were a bunch of rich families who spent most of their time chasing after some old city artifacts. I was a part of two cases that involved those old blue bloods and all the particulars were given to me on a need-to-know basis. I’m never a fan of working that way and never really liked working for them. But that’s were Fox would come in. He used to fill in the blanks for me when he could. You see, he worked in an establishment run by one of the big head honchos. That guy found himself dead 6 years ago and once Fox came into some of his own green he left that scene and bought his own little dive.
It was through Fox and these Light Keepers that I came to meet up with Velma. I was hired by a rich tycoon type to go looking after a lost antique compass of his and it turned out Velma was the Light Keeper’s gal Friday who delivered the goods to him. When the theft turned into a murder, it was Velma who helped me track down the culprit and finally recover the compass. Both were both very important to her and that little society.
You’d never meet a dame smarter or with more grit than that girl. Yeah sure she’s no knock-out, a bit of the librarian type, but she’s never once shied away from the heat of a hot kitchen and a couple of times she pulled me out of some jams I thought would be the end of me. Of course, like any brother Shamus, I returned the favor. Today it seemed like I was tipping the scales back to her with me here asking for help.
When I walked into Foxie’s I found the usual folks nursing their poisons. Velma was not one of them. Even though she was smart, tough and a damn good gumshoe herself, you could run your watch by Velma being at a half hour late to everything.
“I’m startin’ to get the feelin’ you only come around these days when you need somethin’.” Fox always had a glass in his hand and a bar towel on his shoulder.
“Fox, you’re a barkeep, everyone who walks in here needs something from you.” I found an empty stool at the corner of the bar and pulled it up. My hat was placed down on the bar beside me and I was ready for a drink.
“Sure they do. Every day. Mr. Big Shot here, I see every couple of weeks and it’s usually because you need my help.” He threw a glass down in front of me and filled it with a couple of chips of ice from under the bar.
“Can that violin you’re playing, this damn heat has stopped me from coming out to play.”
Fox without even having to look grabbed my favorite bottle of Chivas from the row of bottles behind him. He tipped it over gently and when I saw that amber delight hit those rocks, I swear I started drooling. “Tell me about it. This weather is a cooker. I can’t with it much longer.”
“It’ll break. The air is getting thicker, that means rain in a day or two. And then it’ll feel like October.”
He laughed as he slammed the bottle back into its place in the line-up. “Your mouth to God’s ears.”
I lit a cigarette and looked at the guys sitting around me. Two stools down to my right was a geezer, I had seen him coming in here for years, worked down on the docks, hurt his back and then worked at the sauce ever since. The guy three stools down from him was a young guy, a business type who always came into Foxie’s at 4 before he went to take the train him to his wife and baby up in Yonkers. Both I could account for and I knew had no interest in my business. Anyone else was too far out of earshot to care about. “I got a question for you Foxie.”
“How did I know?”
“Yeah you’re a regular mind reader. Listen some old spook walked into my office by the name of Jasper Vander Dunk. Said his son was stabbed to death a couple of nights ago.”
“Alright, so far, never heard of him.” He leaned in a little closer as I drew closer to him.
“Says he lives under ground.”
His face changed. I saw his mouth curl and I knew that set something off in his head. “Can’t be true!”
“They would never hire somebody from the street to help them down there. Never!”
“So you do know about them?”
He hesitated then grabbed a glass and filled it with a little of the Chivas I was drinking but he threw in a dab of water. “Yeah, not a lot. But what I do know ain’t pretty.”
“You meetin’ Velma here?” He gulped down his drink in one shot.
“She can tell you more, but what I’ve heard makes these guys sound crackers and VERY dangerous. The rumor is, if someone from the street goes down there, they ain’t allowed to come back out alive.”
I looked Fox square in the face: “This guy knew my old man. Said he stuck his neck out for him during the war. I don’t think he’s sending me down there to bite it.”
“I’m just telling you what I hear about these folks. They’re like spooks.”
The front door to Foxie’s swung open and in walked Velma Graydon in a white dress with blue polka dots all over it. She looked comfortable, not hot as hell like us guys sweating in shirts and ties. This didn’t surprise me. Velma was always well put-together having that splash of class a lot of dames these days were lacking. Real easy to get along with too. She would make someone a good wife someday. Not for me of course, I was too old for her and besides, her heart belonged to another fella in the Navy flying bombers over the Pacific. I did love to get her goat whenever I could though. I looked at my wrist watch: “Oh look Fox, she’s only ten minutes late this time.” And sometimes it was just too easy.
Fox cupped his hands in prayer: “Blessed mother of God, it’s a miracle.” He jumped up and immediately grabbed a glass and placed it next to mine.
“Stuff it, the both of you.” She walked over to me and gave me a peck on the cheek. “It’s been months since I’ve heard from you Finch and I’m hardly through the door when you’re already giving me grief.”
“I just figured I’d be waiting for a good half hour with my friend Fox here, is all.”
She took a seat on the stool next to mine and watched as Fox poured her a whiskey. “And you,” pointing directly to our barkeep, “you’re only nasty to me when he’s around.”
“How can I be nasty to you? You’re like the daughter I never had,” Fox left the bottle right next to her glass. He knew Velma took her first drink fast and then nursed her second.
“Yeah the daughter you like to get sauced.”
“It’s good for the soul,” Fox said with one of his wide smiles.
“It’s good for your bank account,” she said without a beat going by.
I leaned in close to her: “Listen, Vel, I heard about what happened to that little girl in July. That’s a tough break, kid.”
She lifted her glass and downed her whiskey in a gulp. The empty glass was thrown down on the bar and Fox nervously starting filling it again. He knew, like I did, this was a sensitive topic for her. It was a bizarre happening and one I would not go into here.
“It is, what it is Finch. And now I have to start from scratch.” She took a couple of sullen sideways glances at the bar. “But enough of my problems, let’s talk about your problems.” She had taken to sipping her second round.
“What do you know about the people who live underground?”
“What do you know about them?”
She was obviously well-trained. Don’t give up the ship even to a trusted friend and associate. “I know that I was hired by one of them.”
“Not unlikely. They would never hire anyone from the street.” It was said with complete confidence. Like there was no way she was wrong about it.
“Well some gent who looks like he hasn’t seen the light of day for 10 years came into my office calling himself Jasper Vander Dunk, saying he was interested in hiring me to solve his son’s murder. Said he knew my father. They fought in the Great War together. There was all this garbage about me and Roger being good kids and all. He had black eyes. No color to them. Looked like a spook.”
Velma politely sipped her drink again. “It’s because their eyes aren’t used to the daylight.”
She lost me, “What you mean?”
“They’re so used to the darkness that their eyes have almost permanently dilated. They’re practically blind when they’re up on the street during the day. ”
I lit a cigarette. “Look smarty pants, enough with the science lesson and tell me something about these creeps. He’s offering me a boat load of dough, so it’s hard to say no even though every gut feeling I have tells me to run in the other direction.”
Velma got lost in a thought. Like she still wasn’t entirely sure to trust me with any information about these loony tunes. “I know Jasper. I had a dealing with him five years ago for the Keepers. Very smart man. He was a professor after the war and then something went wrong for him. It forced him underground. I’m not entirely sure what it was.”
“So he’s on the level?”
“Oh a complete man of his word. He must have really loved your father to seek you out.”
“Well how did you get there if they don’t like people from the street messing around there.”
She sipped her scotch cautiously, “It’s hard to explain. It was five years ago and I was on the trail of something important for the Keepers. A key piece of that puzzle I was telling you about. And I found my way down there. At first they didn’t want to let me out. They meant to keep me against my will so I couldn’t go back up and tell people what I saw. You see, that’s their biggest fear. People from the street going down to the Underground and clearing them out. But somehow I gained their confidence. I had to. They weren’t going to let me leave alive. There was someone down there who was very important in their community and she came to respect me.”
I took a nice long drag on my smoke: “Everyone I talk to makes it sound like these people live on the moon-”
“That might as well Finch!” She punched right through my words. “You can’t understand until you get down there. Don’t be fooled, they may live right below us, but they are nothing like us. They live by a completely different code. They protect something. Something they are scared people from the street will discover. It’s beyond our understanding.”
“What could they possibly be watching over down there?” I asked Velma as she was sipping what was left of that whiskey. She definitely looked a little unraveled after her little fit.
“You’re going to need to find that out for yourself. I’m not exactly sure I really know. But it’s strange.”
I hated all this mysterious double talk. Especially coming from Velma. “Is it a person? A thing? What the hell can it be? ”
She let out a heavy sigh, “It’s more like a person connected to a place.” She was getting fidgety and uncomfortable. She didn’t want to go into details. “Look Finch, it’s hard to explain and I’ve already said more than I should. If you go down there and they trust you, they’ll show you. Actually you may even need it… or… her.”
“And if they don’t trust me?” I lit another cigarette out of habit. Probably out of nerves at this point.
Her eyes sunk down to the bar. We both knew the answer. “They’ll trust you. Jasper wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble if he didn’t. And they all listen to him down there.”
“And what about his son? Did you know him?”
“I had a few dealings with him. He seemed to be as equally respected as his father. He had a young son, just a boy. No wife. I believe she died a few years back.”
“Any enemies he may have made?”
“I didn’t get to know him all that well. He seemed to be well-liked.”
“Anything that set him apart from the others?”
Velma gave her whiskey a little more attention, “From what I could tell, he had a wealth of information about all the tunnels and how they were connected. Apparently that’s valuable information. The Underground people, although, very used to their own community don’t venture very far from The City.”
“New York? You mean?”
“No, that’s what they call the area they all live in, The City. It’s actually impressive what they’ve done down there.”
“I just don’t understand how these people could be down there all these years without any of us knowing. The whole thing seems off to me.”
“I know it sounds strange, but it’s true. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. And they’re not bad people. They’re just different.”
Again, everything was telling me this case was a bad idea: too many holes. And when my trusted friend who always had her head on straight seemed on edge just talking about these characters, I knew something deep was going on. But I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what I could do with 30 grand in the bank. At the very least I owed it to Eva for all the tough times she was hitting lately. “Well I guess I’ll have to ask when I get down there.”
Velma’s face turned all sour, “No, no! Don’t say a word… Promise?”
I gulped the end of my whiskey and threw down the glass hoping Foxie would take the hint. And if he listened to the fine print, he’d hear that I didn’t want to pay for the next one either. But while I thought about a free drink Velma thought I was holding out on her.
“Yes, for Godssakes, cool it out over there. I’d never betray you. I’ll just pretend like I know nothing when I meet these birds and believe me, it won’t be all that hard.”
Foxie shimmied on over with another round. “You’re really going to do it?”
“The money’s good and it looks like my family name is hung up all in it too. And honestly when have I shied a way from a little danger?”
Velma grunted through her drink, “Plenty of times.”
“Oh that’s low sister. Just because I left you in a lurch that one time.”
“Finch there were 6 guys with guns on me.”
“WHAT?” Called out Fox in a horror, “I never heard about this!”
“I was using her as decoy. I never intended for her to be hurt. I certainly wasn’t running away.”
Velma snapped out of her little mood with the under ground folks and came back to herself. I could see it in her smirk. It’s that one she gets when she knows she’s causing mischief. “It certainly looked like running to me.”
“I came back for you didn’t I?”
“Three days later.”
“Finch, how could you do that to a young lady?” Fox said leaning over the bar in between us.
“It was part of a plan–look, enough! I got bigger fish in my pan right now and as much as I enjoy strolling down memory lane, I have another appointment to keep.”
I didn’t tell you about my other appointment. It didn’t seem all that important at the time, but looking back on it now, I should’ve made it my most important. One I would give anything now to keep: My brother.
“Where you off to? I just got here.” Velma said.
“Got to meet Roger.” I grabbed my hat off the bar and left a Lincoln in its place. “See if he remembers pops ever writing letters about this guy during the war. He remembers more stuff about the old man.”
“Right now? Would it kill you to stay and have a friendly chat with me?”
I looked at my watch. I guess the time really didn’t matter. I could always catch Roger at home. I didn’t much like that wife of his. She was such a nag, that woman. Always telling me I looked like garbage and her cooking was one step away from army grade gruel. But I hadn’t seen Velma or Fox in an age. And what’s life without some friends, right?
I put my hat back down on the bar. “Ok sure. We can have ourselves a chat.” I took out a cigarette and made myself comfortable. I knew Velma could talk for awhile but I didn’t mind listening.
Chapter 3: 6:30 PM
I put my life into the hands of a cabby who smelled like he went a couple rounds in a distillery, but I was in no mood for an uptown train to Hell’s Kitchen. That’s where Roger called home. It’s where I used to call home too when I was a kid. 47th street was our old block for as far back as the memory reel played in the back of my aging head.
When pop didn’t come back from the war, Roger became man of the house and took the job seriously. He never left. Moved his wife in, an Irish nag from the other side of town, had two little squirts and kept my mother around till she joined pops about 15 years ago. Now it was Roger’s place and his two kids slept in the same room Roger and I did. Only difference was they were both girls.
I put my fist up to the old green door and right as I was about to knock I heard Millie’s muffled siren going off: “Roger the trash! You gotta take it out now! It smells something awful.” That detective nose I had smelt liver and onions from the top of the stairs. And it did stink. Knowing Millie, I’m sure she cooked it so well it could’ve been sold as a dress shoe at Gimbals.
I knocked. “Now who the hell is that?” Her slippers were beating against the floor with such fury you thought Lucifer himself was breaking out right through them to raise Hell on Earth.
The door swung open and there she was in her pale blue housedress and yellow slippers. She really was a vision: Her mess of red hair down and everywhere when it should’ve been up and her little green eyes she just shooting fire right at me. It was like her witch heart told her it was me at the door. “Oh for Chrissakes, Tobias, don’t you telephone?” She was hot, you could tell by the beads of sweat collecting under her eyes. That place always held in the heat. I could remember a couple of nights during some real nasty heat waves that Roger and I would sleep out on the fire escape to feel like we weren’t suffocating in her beds.
“Lovely to see you Millie, as always.”
“What do you want? Dinner’s over. Kitchen’s closed.”
“I’m not here to have my stomach turned inside out. I’m here to talk to Roger.”
She threw her head back, “Roger I got something else for you to take out with the trash.”
Roger came up behind Millie and smiled at the sight of me. “Toby!” The only man alive to call me Toby was my brother. I wouldn’t stomach it from anybody else.
“Roger, please make up for your wife’s lack of manners by inviting you poor kid brother in and giving him a scotch.”
She sucked her teeth and turned to walk back inside. “I can’t with you tonight Tobias, it’s too damn hot out.”
“Tell me about it sister. You ain’t wearing a shirt and tie.”
“And you didn’t slave in front of a stove for two hours you monkey.” She said now further down the hall. “But if you’re staying, I’m taking a bath so I don’t have to look at you.”
“It’s a pleasure to be received in the court of Queen Mildred the Great.” I said yelling down the hall.
Roger rolled his eyes, “Come in Toby. Take a load off.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me in. I took off my hat and put it on the hook I remember pop putting up when I was nothing but a knee-high little troublemaker. “It’s hot as hell again tonight. Let me get you that drink.”
“Thanks.” I walked down the long hallway into the kitchen where I half expected my mother to be standing at the stove, insisting I sit down and eat something because I was wasting away. She was a true mother to the bone, that woman. Cared not a bit for herself, but only for her boys.
I heard little scampering footsteps run into the kitchen and I knew both sets belonged to my little princesses, Dina and Celeste. Roger’s girls. “Uncle Tobias! It’s you.” Dina said throwing a bear hug around my left leg. “I had a dream about last night.” They were twins. 12 years old, the most beautiful little things you’d ever want to be an uncle to. Roger and Millie had them a little late, but lucky for them they got two out of the deal.
“A good one I hope?” I said picking her up and smothering her with my arms.
“She says you were on a submarine.” Celeste said. “She’s been listening to too much of the radio momma says.” Dina was the daydreamer type and Celeste was the pistol.
“You were and your were going over to fight in the war and I was scared I would never see you again.”
“Well lucky for you sweetheart, your Uncle Tobias ain’t going anywhere. I’m too busy here at home.” What I didn’t want to admit was that I was too damn old to fight in the war.
So Celeste did it for me: ”I told her you were too old to go into the service.”
“You’re too smart for your own good, Celeste.” I could tell Dina was trying to get me to move further down the hall to the sitting room where she could really sink her teeth into me. Roger had gone down in there to get my drink and the girls where hoping this was a social visit where I would tell them tall tales of my narrow escapes with nasty hooligans. Truth be told, I made the stories sound more heroic than they actually were. But I couldn’t let down my two biggest fans. Roger, being a cop himself, refused to talk about work with his girls. He had them convinced he was a traffic cop so they didn’t worry their pretty little heads about him. Roger was far from something as plain as a white glove waving on traffic.
Once we came into the sitting room, Roger handed me a scotch and grabbed both his daughters by their arms, “Come on my little kittens into your room. Uncle Tobias and daddy need to have a talk.”
“About what?” Celeste asked.
“Can we stay and talk too?” Dina pleaded.
Roger looked to me for the cue. He knew I was the type of guy who liked to talk to in private. “Why don’t you two go scram for a bit so I can talk to daddy. Then I’ll come and tuck you in.”
“Oh poo,” said Celeste with a frown the size of 10th Avenue.
“You heard him. Get!” Roger grabbed both their little shoulders and pushed them on down the hall.
“They get sweeter every time I look at them.” I said with a grin.
“You gettin’ soft?” Roger said walking over to pour himself a little something from the tiny bar in the corner of the room.
“Maybe. I’ve always had a soft spot for a little girl and then you go and have two of them.”
“And they love their Uncle Tobias. Dina talks about you constantly. Almost everyday. Drives Millie up the wall.”
“Good. Something has to. Glad it’s me.” I took a seat on mom’s old plaid sofa. As kids we couldn’t sit on it any of this stuff unless it was a holiday. It was easy to see that those days were over.
“So what’s up? You must need something from me to come over unannounced like this.”
“Am I that obvious? You’re the second person to tell me that today.”
“For you to come over here in this heat, yes. What’s shakin?”
“When pop left for the war. Do you remember him writing about a guy called Jasper Vander Dunk?”
Roger’s face went still like some many faces I had seen lately: ”Don’t you remember? He came to this very house. Toby, he was the guy who told us pops was killed.”
“Funny, he didn’t mention that when I saw him earlier. He made it sound like he never met us,” I said.
Roger hadn’t touched his drink since we started talking about the whole affair. I think he always regretted not knowing pops better. It ate away at him seeing as he was more sensitive than I was.
“But you don’t remember that, Toby? You don’t remember him coming to the door in his uniform and ma just losing it immediately?”
“I wasn’t here. I was working down in that slaughter house.”
“Oh right, that awful job on 13th Street. You didn’t come home till later.” He took a sip of his drink and went back to a place he didn’t want to be in. “He was such a proper guy. Stood tall and hand perfect hair combed straight back. Not a button or pin out of place.”
“Funny, that’s not the guy I met today.”
It hit him. I saw it hit him like a cab without headlights going 55 down a side-street: “Wait! You saw him? Toby they said he died years ago. I read it in the papers.”
“He sure looked like the dead, he seemed to be half alive in my office today. A guy named Jasper Vander Dunk who knew pops and said was his best buddy during the war.”
“What the hell does he want from you?” Roger wasn’t handling this well. Something was gnawing at his craw and I wasn’t sure what.
“His son was murdered a couple of day ago. Stabbed to death. He doesn’t know by who. Wants me to figure it all out.”
“But Toby he’s dead! I read it in the papers. He died right after he got home from the war.”
I looked at him carefully. I wasn’t so sure I could trust him with the information I had and if it would get in the way of him being a cop. It was obvious they didn’t know about the people underground. But it was my brother and that came first for me and I had to believe that came first for him too. “Listen Roger, what I’m about to tell you can’t leave this room, even if the cop in you wants to do something about it, alright?”
He hesitated being a cop was in his blood and something he wasn’t good at ignoring. ”What is it? Just tell me. This is between brothers now.”
That’s what I was waiting to hear: “Our friend Jasper lives underneath the city and so does his entire family and apparently a whole other mess of people.”
“So it’s true?”
“You knew about this?”
He downed the rest of his drink real fast and shot up to refill his glass, “There have been rumors. Whispering between some of the guys who have beats down by the train tracks on the West Side. They say people live in those tunnels, people whose eyes shine right through the dark and who can move without being heard. Some of the boys say they’re spooks. Not even men, but animals. One guy from the 14th went down in those tunnels and never came back. You’re telling me Jasper is one of those guys?”
“It would seem like it.”
“He was a professor if I remember correctly. Philosophy. I don’t remember where and how he died. But I remember reading the obit in the paper.” I lit a cigarette and offered one to my brother. ”I shouldn’t. I promised Millie I would quit.”
“What the hell for?”
“She said she gets this cough when I smoke in the house.” I shoved the cigarette in his hand and went to light it as soon as he put it in his mouth.
“Nonsense, some doctors prescribe a good smoke to clear up a cough.” Then I went and lit mine. “Your wife is full of crazy red-headed ideas.”
He took a puff like it was his last one before the gallows and smiled a little. “Toby, you can’t go down there. You won’t come back and I won’t be able to help you if you go.”
“I don’t need help. Not now at least. He says they’ll help me out while I’m down there. Besides Velma’s been down there.”
“Velma’s a dame. You’re a guy and a dick at that. They won’t want you leaving to rat on them.”
“Well apparently your boys are two scared to break up their little party, so what do they have to lose?”
He took a long drag and walked himself over to the window, “Why would he want you though?”
“Because of pops. Besides between you , me and your nosey wife listening through the bathroom door, he’s offering 30 grand for the job.”
“WHAT? 30 grand? Where would he get that kinda scratch living underground for 20 years?”
“Don’t ask me, but he threw down 5 g’s in cash this afternoon when he stopped in.”
Roger plopped down on the big old messy chair pops used to sit in by the window. The red one that was beat up when we were kids. Now Millie had a shabby blanket over it that Roger immediately crumpled into a mess when he dropped his big rump into it, “Toby something isn’t adding up here. None of this is right. Don’t do it.”
“Well I said I’d do it and I mean to. At this point, what do I have to lose?”
“How about your life, hot shot?” Roger said with a tone only a big brother can have while puffing through the smoke his wife didn’t want him smoking. “You may not think so but there are a couple of people in this world who would miss you if you went up to meet the Maker.”
I took a long drag off of mine knowing it was driving that sister-in-law of mine crazy. “Yeah like who?”
“Like your nieces. They would never forgive you… and neither would your brother.”
Before the sentimentality could set in I heard a high-pitched shrill coming from outside the sitting room. At first I thought they were sounding bomb sirens. But then it started forming words. “ROGER! ROOOOGER.” It was Millie. “Who is smoking in this house?” She knew damn well who was smoking in her house.
He looked at me with the fright only a kid with his finger stick in a pie should have. “Um it’s… Tobias dear. I told him you didn’t like it.”
“Wow, this from a man who chased three armed grease balls down a dark alley without a gun. You need to man up big brother.”
Then the siren sounded again, “TOBIAS, DO NOT SMOKE IN HERE. I CAN’T STAND IT!” I could hear her swishing around in the water trying to push the drain lever up to drain the tub. It always stuck. Even when we were kids it wouldn’t budge.
“Ah button it up will ya, Millie. It was my house first.”
“YOU JUST WAIT TILL I GET OUT OF THIS TUB, TOBIAS FINCH.”
I considered lighting another cigarette, but I thought better of it seeing as I wanted to visit my little girls before I headed out. “How do you put up with this all the damn time?”
“She’s only like this when you’re around,” Roger said with a sly grin.
“Somehow I doubt that.” I picked myself up. “Take me to those little sweethearts before I leave.”
Roger got himself up to and while I was turning around to head down the hall, he grabbed my shoulder: “I don’t like this Toby. Not one bit. Something doesn’t sound right to me.”
“Yeah, everyone’s been saying that. And I’ve been feeling it. But then there’s something else, a little something further down inside of me telling me I should do it.”
“You’re a smart guy. You know what trouble looks like. What could it possibly be, besides the money?”
I looked at him with a serious look. I didn’t want to say what I was about to say, but I know Roger would understand. “It’s pops. I don’t know why or how, but it is. Like I got to do this for him.”
Roger didn’t say anything. He, especially, could never fight against the ghost of pops. Now all of sudden I was feeling him after all these years.
We walked down the hallway in silence. The bathroom door cracked open and out came a mess wet red hair and steam from the hot holy hell Millie created to make herself at home. “Christ what are we running in here, a low-life gin joint? You both smell like cheap booze and cigarettes.”
I shot back: “And you smell like rotting lilacs but you don’t hear me saying anything about it.”
She whipped that bony head around to Roger, “You’re going to let him talk to your wife that way.”
“Just cool it, the both of you’s. It’s too hot for this tonight.” Roger was always the voice of reason in the family. I guess it’s why he became a cop with a decent salary and a family to watch over. If it were me, I would’ve shot that woman in the head and dumped her in the river… Of course, I kid.
“When I get out of here, you better be half way downtown heading back to that rat’s nest you came from.” Millie slammed the door.
I smirked dying to take out another smoke, “You better watch out brother, she might be sweet on me.”
I heard something like a glass bottle crashing to the floor in the bathroom, “KEEP DREAMING LOVER BOY!”
“You two are like children,” Roger said opening the door to his daughter’s room. “Uncle Tobias is here to say goodbye girls.”
Celeste jumped off her bed and ran up to grab my hand. “No you don’t. You have to read us a story first.” Not soon after, with the force of an 18 year old man, she pulled me into the room and sat me at the edge of her bed. Which strangely enough used to be my bed.
Many changes were made to make the room a place for two little girls. The walls were a pale pink where they used to be white. The beds had posts now, all painted white with something of a frilly bed cover draping over the mattresses. The walls were lined with books, dolls, a giant oval mirror and a little vanity table. In the center of the room on a big soft white rug was a table with a dollhouse. When Roger and I shared this place, there were two beds and a dresser. I’m pretty sure that was it.
“What’s on the menu for tonight?” I asked as I saw Roger back out of the room.
Dinah handed the book to Celeste who turned it over to me. This whole affair was obviously planned out ahead of time. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s our favorite right now.” I remember hearing about this broad. Dead mother, evil step mother who abuses her. She runs away and takes up with a couple of little guys. I’ve had a case or two that came close to this story.
Dinah smiled. “We like the dwarfs. I want one of my own.”
“Well Princess Dinah, there’s no such thing as dwarfs.”
“Oh yes, we saw them on the screen.” Dinah said. “And daddy said they work in mines to dig up jewels. So we would have to go there to find them.”
“You’re daddy’s a cop. Don’t believe everything he tells you.” I chuckled.
“Yeah well, Daddy took us to the Snow White picture at Radio City. The screen was enormous.”
I propped my self up at the edge of the bed with my feet hanging over the side. “Alright well let’s get to it then. Come over here, both of you, and get yourselves comfortable.” They did. I had Celeste on my left side and Dinah on my right. Both curled up like the little kittens their daddy called them. I realized that this was the only time in my life I felt warm. Not on the outside, hell lately I felt nothing but warm on the outside. This was on the inside. I’m thinking people called that love of the unconditional kind. A feeling that no matter how hard I tried to, I would never be able to shake.
I opened the book and took a deep breath. “Once upon a time in a great castle, a Prince’s daughter grew up happy and contented, in spite of a jealous stepmother. She was very pretty, with blue eyes and long black hair. Her skin was delicate and fair, and so she was called Snow White. Everyone was quite sure she would become very beautiful just like Dinah and Celeste.”
They both laughed. “It doesn’t say that in there,” Celeste said.
“Yeah but it should.” I kept reading until the end without some much as a thought to the time.
Chapter 4: October 20, 1942
After leaving Roger’s that night, I stopped by my good friend, Tony’s place for a drink and some supper. I know you’ve heard me talk me about Tony Spinelli and his luncheonette down on Cherry Street across from that dive we all lived in. For the past 12 years I wouldn’t have my breakfast any where else but off of Tony’s griddle. In the evenings Tony had dinner with his brother Mario and his beast of a sister-in-law, my landlady, Josephine. Mario and Josephine lived on the first floor, I lived on the second and Tony on the third. There were three other floors but they weren’t worth mentioning and neither were the people who lived on them.
Josephine, who finds her way into all my tales, was a sight to behold. She stood stout at 4’8″ with a sour face like a lemon-sucking fascist. At least a deuce and a half. And always in a pale blue house dress with pink roses splattered across it. It was hard to tell the difference between the roses and the stains of her daily gravy.
She came over from Naples at the age of 14 as the property of her first husband, Giuseppe. The only problem: Giuseppe was a real son of a bitch according to his widow then he took a walk into the East River three years after coming over here. It didn’t take Josephine long to find her real Prince Charming, Mario Spinelli. Equally short and about 100 pounds thinner, Mario only lived to make his wife happy.
Together they bought a flea-trap tenement on Cherry Street where Mario ran a grocery and Josephine rented rooms to the dregs of the city. There was no one in this town tougher than her.
Tony came over from the old country with Mario when he was 5. Mario was older and they had to fend for themselves seeing as momma and poppa Spinelli saved only enough money to send their sons off to America. Tony said the beginning was tough. They sold eggplants and cabbages out of a pushcart and had to live in boarding rooms with 5 or 6 other young kids trying to make their own way. He had a grit his brother didn’t. Mario was still old world. Tony was a street kid from the Lower East Side. He taught himself how to read by pushing newspapers while he was selling eggplants. You couldn’t help but admire his way.
When I was up at his place, I didn’t think it was smart to talk about the case. He had a little bit of a loose jaw. Not in the way that dames do when they’re talking to each other just for the thrill of gossip, but Tony liked to make sure everyone knew what everybody else in the neighborhood was doing. He would start asking questions, then asking people for information and before I knew it, the whole neighborhood would know I was running around the sewers chasing after a murderer. Not the kind of press I needed on a case like this.
So he fixed me a drink, we had a smoke and gave me some left-over lasagna from dinner. We talked about the heat and how slow things were.
I didn’t sleep much on account of the heat and my nerves. The more I thought about this Vander Dunk fella and his friendship with pops, the more I wanted to be able to reach out and talk to my old man. I never did any of that as a kid. He was always off working before the war and the time he was home, he never had much to say to me. He drank too much. More than he should have and I think that made him quiet. Like it was doing to me. We probably had more in common then either one of us would admit. And here I was following this spook under ground into who-knows-what. I never liked chasing ghosts seeing as I was the type of guy who liked my enemies with flesh and blood.
After a couple of hours of something that could barely be called sleep. The morning hit and the heat hadn’t let up. The air was still thick and damp like a sweat-soaked fever blanket. That meant rain wasn’t too far behind and that was the only relief we could hope for.
I dragged myself out of a tortured bed, shaved, took to cleaning myself up a bit and had breakfast over at the luncheonette. You could run a gold wrist watch by my morning: two eggs, two strips of bacon and buttered toast with my coffee, heavy on the cream. After I read the paper, I asked Tony for clean check ledger and a pencil so I could jot down some notes for Eva.
When I got to the office, I could tell Eva was in another mood. She was sitting at her desk cradling that mess of blond hair in her hands. “Rough night with a bottle?” I asked her.
“No rough night with my darlings. None of them could sleep. All belly aching about the heat.”
“Get them some ceiling fans.”
“Haha haha, cute. You should hang this detective business out to dry and take up a vaudeville act.”
Well as much I’d love to chat about your brats and my career choices, I have something important to say.” I waited for her to interrupt but she wasn’t up for it. “I’m going out on this case this afternoon and I’ll need you to take care of a few things in the event I don’t come back for awhile.”
“Oh come off it, Finch, you’re not flying to the moon.”
“Sister, I don’t know where I’m going. I might be digging down so far I could end up in China. And when it’s all said and done just remember one thing, I’m taking this case for your ceiling fans.”
“Oh no you don’t. Don’t put this one on me buddy. You’re taking this case for your own wallet. I’ve never known you to pass up a couple of bucks. Something has to pay for your booze.”
“Well it certainly isn’t your charming mouth.” I took that bill from Tony’s out of my pocket. “I wrote down a list of things I need you to look up for me.”
She snatched it out of my hand and changed her attitude, “I love a good project.”
“I know how thorough you can be and this time I need you to be very thorough.”
“Don’t worry your sweet little head Finch, I’ll even type these notes up for you.” She looked proud of herself. Like she had a purpose after so many weeks of just sitting around.
I leaned over her desk and grabbed her by both of her arms. “Now this is important. If you don’t hear any word from me in three days, not a phone call or a note or nothing, it means I’m toast down there. Call up Roger and tell him. Then call Lyle Linder and he’ll take care of the rest.”
“I hate that Swede.”
“He doesn’t like you all that much either. But he knows what to do for my brother should I fall off the face of the planet.”
Eva suddenly looked a little scared. “Finch you’re going to be fine right?”
“Who knows? Everyone I’ve talked to thinks this case is a bad idea. I think this case is a bad idea. I could be walking right into my own funeral.”
She had nothing to say about that and then her face went completely serious. Like the corners of her mouth became so heavy they drooped down taking all the blood out of her face with them. I couldn’t stand to see it so I smirked a little and nudged her shoulder with a bump of my knuckles. “Awe buck up, sweat thing. I’ll try my best to get back to make your life miserable. I promise.”
She lifted her head with that heavy pout. “You better Finch.” Then she smiled a little, “I can’t pay my bills without you.”
At 3:55 I found myself leaning my left shoulder against a street lamp on the corner of 32nd and 11th. It was a dumpy side of town on the ass end of Pennsylvania Station. A good number of the buildings where abandoned around that area seeing as they were still chopping the place up for that new automotive tunnel to Jersey. Some of it was done and but there was a lot more left to go. And when you chase people out of an area to leave it chewed up for years, you do a lot more than turn up the rats and roaches. A whole bunch of dangerous sport goes on in those empty places. But dangerous sport in abandoned warehouses was my bread and butter. Waiting around for someone to bring me under the ground was a whole new game of ball.
I still couldn’t figure out why Vander Dunk would have me meet a runner in the light of day when secrecy was what these characters lived and died for. Then again nothing about this case made too much sense to me. I had to keep talking myself out of a spell of nerves and this time it was tough. My heart had no great love for tight spaces to begin with and to be in tunnels underground with no sense of direction made my chest pound like a hyped-up mambo drummer.
Of course being a private dick I couldn’t let any of that show. It certainly didn’t inspire confidence in my clients and you should never sweat in front of your enemy. I guess my biggest fear was being blind. Would I be able to see down there? If I couldn’t, how could I do my detective work? The whole thing just kept coming to a dead end. Then of course there was the gnawing thought that I would eventually become a dead end myself.
I had to remind myself that there was nothing worse than a psych out before a case. It was the stuff of lily white amateurs and I wouldn’t fall prey to it. So instead I lit a smoke and calmed my nerves. In my head I thought about somewhere nice and cool, like a beach with a breeze and a little lady with a grass skirt and some flowers in her hair walking toward me with a drink. It was something sweet splashed over a pile of ice. Now that was something I had no trouble settling into.
But in the three seconds I had to conjure up that Shangri La, I heard a young kid call to me. “Hey, sir? You Mr. Finch?”
When I came to there was no beach or little lady, only a little kid, kind of dirty looking and about the age of 12 or 13 staring up at me. “I’m Finch. You my tour guide?” He had a dirt-stained page-boy cap on and a little jacket. His pants were definitely too short for the growth spurts that plagued skinny 12-year old boys.
“Yessir. Joshua. My grandfather sent me up here to bring you down to the City.”
The first thing I noticed were his eyes. They weren’t as spooked out as his grandfather’s. The reason was obvious: “You spend a lot of time above ground kid?”
“Yessir. I’m a Go-Between.”
“Explain what that means to an old man with a slow mind?”
He wanted to start talking but stopped himself. There was a deep breath to cover up his urge. “If it’s ok with you sir-”
“-You can call me Finch or Tobias. ‘Sir’ makes me sound like a boarding school master or some screwball shop owner you buy penny candy from.”
“Yessir.” He paused. “I’ll call you Mr. Finch then.”
“Finch is fine.”
“But as I was saying, I think I should wait till we get outta here. Once we’re down into the tunnels and past the trains we can start talking.”
He said it so casually like there was absolutely nothing to walking into a pitch black tunnel with the threat of being plowed down by a speeding train car. “So you do this all the time?”
He smiled, “At least once a day, sometimes four or five, depending on what folks need.”
Then I thought I would try to hit him with the big guns while he was on my turf. “I’m going to assume I’m investigating the murder of your father.”
“That’s right sir-”
“Yessir, Mr. Finch. He was my father.” He said that casually too. Like he wasn’t all that broken up over his old man meeting his end with a knife to the heart.
“Were you close to him?”
“We’re all very close down there.” I wasn’t sure how he meant that. In the literal sense?
He started walking north toward 33rd street. You could tell he wasn’t comfortable just standing around idle on the streets. It made him fidgety. He always needed to be moving and to him it was our time to move. So I started following: “What about your mother?”
“She died giving birth to me.”
“No brothers or sisters then?”
“No si- Mr. Finch, just me. But where I come from everyone grows up together.” He was picking up his pace as we crossed over 11th Avenue toward the river.
“I’m assuming you wouldn’t like to explain that to me either?” He was very well spoken for a kid who lived his entire life under ground with no schooling.
“My grandfather said you would ask me questions. He said that he would explain everything to you personally.” We came to a small overpass on 33rd street. It connected two solid walls of rock and in the ravine below were a set of train tracks being swallowed up by a tunnel on the south side.
“Any chance I could try one more question out on you?”
“You can try.”
We turned onto 12th Avenue and stopped between two bombed-out tenements. There was only a sliver of an alley between them and already my heart started thumping again. It was barely enough for me to get my rounded old man stomach through without grating it against the side of the brick. The kid quickly looked both ways and seeing as the coast was clear darted between down the alley like a street rat. When I followed I found that I was right. My stomach and my shoulder blades were scraping along the sides of the two buildings.
“Is this the only way down there?”
“Was that your last question?” He had already cleared the alley and was waiting for me on the other side.
“No.” I finally passed through and saw the kid quickly scaling down the rock wall I had seen from 33rd Street. “Really kid? There’s no easier way to do this?”
“Not at this time of day there isn’t.” He was barely holding onto the rocks as he scaled down. This squirt was like an animal the way he moved around almost without thinking. Like he was built and bred for this very purpose.
“Which brings me to my last question. Why not meet me at night?”
He reached the bottom of the wall within seconds where I was feeling and groping every step down careful not slip up and end this case early on account of my skull breaking open.
“The ways down are too dangerous at night for a newcomer. There are folks down there even we don’t know who use those tunnels for all sorts of stuff. Right now, they’re either out on the streets scrounging up food or asleep.”
I hit the gravel at the bottom in relief. My body was no longer made for scaling anything and between the heat and my nerves, I was completely drenched in a coating of sweat. “You mean your people aren’t the only ones down there?”
Just like the white rabbit, the minute I asked him the question he dashed toward the tunnel. “Oh no. Not by a long shot,” His body and his voice were swallowed by the tunnel and with one out-of-shape 43-year old breath, I followed him into the darkness.
Everything went white as my eyes adjusted from the daylight. It hit me so hard I almost lost my balance and fell backward onto the tracks. Just as quick, I felt a hand reach out and grab my arm. “Thanks, kid.”
He started walking again and a little slower than before. I could tell he felt more relaxed in the tunnels. “Don’t sweat it Mr. Finch. You’re going to have to be real careful until you get used to the dark.”
“Will that ever happen?”
“Give it some time.”
As I was getting my bearings I was hit with a waft of hot air coming from up ahead. I thought it was hot outside but the temperature retched up at least 15 degrees underground. And the smell was like all the worst parts of the garbage baking inside a hot oven. The sting of people’s stale business and old trash was all around. I imagined it was the closest thing to hell without going to the real place yourself.
“Any trains come round this way?”
He was about 15 feet ahead of me trying to slow himself down so I wouldn’t lose him. “Not on these tracks. They’re old connectors. Not used as much anymore. But when we get to the other side, we’ll be coming around Pennsylvania Station and we might just meet up with a train or two there. The important thing is to get off the tracks and put your head down.”
“Why is that?”
“A conductor can see your eyes reflect back at them.”
I never thought of that. What else was I going to not think of down here? “Good tips. Keep ‘em coming.”
“Don’t worry Mr. Finch, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” This was an earnest kid who took his job seriously.
Suddenly we turned to the left and came to a door sunk into a solid concrete wall. Joshua jimmied it open with a little force. I felt a rush of cooler air from the other side smack the sweat on my drenched face and we walked into what felt like a large open room. The ceilings must have been higher with some kind of ventilation from the surface because the air wasn’t as still. The kid kept us moving forward and, so far as I could tell, in a straight line. When we reached a door, we opened it and repeated the whole process over again. I lost count on how many of those rooms we went through. I’d say at least five or six.
Occasionally my feet would trample over something soft like a blanket or a pile of clothes. He must’ve felt it too: “Street people sleep down here in the winter when it’s cold.” It was interesting that he made the distinction between someone on the street and his people.
“What happens if they find you?”
“Oh they don’t. We find them. We offer them a place to live. Some take us up on it. Some don’t. If they decide to stay, they have to swear they’ll be loyal.”
“And those who don’t?”
He laughed, “It doesn’t matter, they’d never find us again.” His skinny arms pushed open another door and this time I saw a faint light on the other end. “Be careful. There’s a stair case right here and it’s tall.” In the yellowish light I saw his silhouette slowly descend then disappear.
When I walked through the doorway I could see a naked light bulb about 100 feet below me. The stair case was built into the side of the wall and was dangerously old. I walked down like my feet were made of cement blocks careful not trip on account of the sweat stinging my eyes. Something about seeing some light comforted me though.
We came to more tracks at the bottom and there was faint rumbling sound in the distance: “Train?”
“Yessi-aah-Mr. Finch. Keep your eyes pealed.”
“Kid, I can’t see a damn thing.”
“Oh you’ll see a train.”
He was right about that. One immediately came barrelling down the tunnel like it’s job was to take me out as quick as it could. The only thing I could make out were these two streams of light screaming their way directly for me. I saw the kid jump the tracks and throw his shrimpie body flush up against the soot-covered wall. He buried his chin into his chest like he said he would. And I followed suit. I even closed my eyes as I felt the wind of the speeding cars nearly take my hat with it down the track. It was a warm wind, but it wiped the sweat clear off my face. Part of me wished it would last a little longer.
When the air stopped moving and the rumbling moved further down the tracks, I opened my eyes. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had kept them shut.
The kid just darted away: “Come on keep moving, we’re almost to the perimeter.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“A perimeter is the edge of something–”
“I know what a perimeter is kid, I mean what does that mean down here?”
“It means we’re almost within the borders of the City. We just have to go down two more levels.”
“That’s like French class was to me in school. Complete nonsense.”
“Just keep up!” The kid made a sharp turn to the left and we entered a trackless corridor with another faint light at the end of it. At this point he was almost running and I was breathless and thirsty as all get out.
“Aren’t you hot?”
“I’m used to it. It’s always warm down here.”
At the end of the corridor under another naked light bulb was another door. We went through it and found ourselves in a completely dark room.
“Keep that door open and look to the left,” the kid said to me. I saw him move aside a plank of wood. “See that hole?” Barely. It was a hole busted into the concrete half the size of me and a little smaller than he was. “We’re going through there in one minute.”
“Why not now?”
He disappeared to the right side of the room. I heard a swish of air and then a set of bangs against a pipe. I counted four. The pipes answered back with two. He returned with another three. I heard the kid drop what I assume was a smaller pipe. “That’s Jeb. He watches the perimeter. I alerted him that we were coming through.”
“What happens if you forget to alert him?”
“He hurts you.”
“That’s good to know.”
He made himself into a ball and went through the hole with no fuss at all. I, on the other hand, needed to do go through every range of motion I had just to kneel down and put myself into such a way that I could fit. It happened over the space of three or so minutes with a good deal of cursing which I will spare you.
“What about your board?” I said struggling to get my shoulders clear.
“I’ll get it later. Besides, no one would gets past Jeb.”
“Where is Jeb, he’s about 50 feet below us. You’ll never see him. We’ve passed about six of us on the way down. You didn’t see them though. They know how to move silently through the dark.”
That revelation scared the Holy Hell out of me. If everyone down here were so stealthy how in the name of St. Peter was I supposed to catch a murderer? All this and I could barely get myself through that damn hole. But when I finally did I felt like I literally fell off the face of the earth. All I could feel was open space.
“Where the hell are we kid?”
“You’ve officially entered the City. Actually we’re in the sky right now. Well, to us, it’s the sky. To you this is just the open space above where we live. We have to walk two levels down these steps. Be careful.”
As we walked down I could see a set of lights below my feet come closer and closer. In the distance I heard the murmuring of voices in conversation.
At the bottom of the stairs I could hardly make out the familiar face waiting for us. The kid landed first and turned back to look at me with pride in a job well done.
“Grandpa Jasper, he’s here.”
Jasper who looked a little more vital in his own surroundings smiled at his grandson and patted him on the shoulder. “Good work, Joshua.” He extended his hand out to me. “Welcome to our City Mr. Finch. You are now a member of this community.”
I couldn’t bring myself to shake his hand. I stood there hot, dumb with awe and panicked at the idea of never being able to see the light of day ever again.
“Joshua. I believe Miss Jenner is expecting you,” Jasper said sternly.
The kid nodded then tipped his hat to me, “I’ll see you later, Mister Finch.”
“See ya, kid. Thanks for those eyes of yours.”
“Anytime.” He scooted off toward a smattering of dimly lit rooms about 300 feet ahead of us. I couldn’t tell if it was the heat playing tricks on my eyes, but it looked like they were piled on top of on another, like a tenement.
“I’ve arranged for Joshua to be your personal runner, Mr. Finch.”
Whatever that was, it sounded good to me. I couldn’t help but like that kid right from the start. His steely grit made me admire the hell out of him. ”You can call me Tobias and what does him being ‘my personal runner’ mean?”
Jasper grabbed my arm and led me down the same path Joshua ran off on. “It means when you’re ready to leave, he will bring you back to the surface and when you need to come back down to us he’ll aid in that end as well.”
“You mean I can leave here at any time?”
Jasper let out, what I thought, was a chuckle, “Of course. You aren’t a prisoner.”
“But all the garbage I heard about the secrecy and how you never let anyone out alive.”
He stopped our little crawl and looked me straight in the eyes: “Do I have a reason to mistrust you?”
“No of course not.”
“Then there’s no need for any of that. Besides we may be a different breed, but we aren’t monsters. You have a job to do and when you’re done, you are free to go. I know this type of life isn’t to everyone’s liking.”
“That’s a big fat relief to me.”
“Those stories you hear about us are mostly myths we generate to keep people from seeking us out. Our only wish is to be left alone.”
“What about Jeb and your goons on the perimeter?”
He began our walk again: “Protection from those who wish to subvert us.”
“Subvert you? From what?”
He spread his arms out wide. “From this. Our way of life.”
“You mean cops?”
“Whomever. We have friends and now it seems we also have enemies.”
We came to a brick wall with an iron latter that scaled up that honeycomb of rooms Joshua made for. “This is the heart of our city.”
“You say city, but we’ve under the city the whole time.”
“No no, that’s your city Tobias. This is ours. Follow.” He started climbing the ladder. “Level one, is our school and infirmary.” As we climbed past I saw a level of rooms connected by a single catwalk. Each room gave off various degrees of dim light. In one to my right I could here the voice of a woman giving mathematical instruction. “That’s our teacher Miss Jenner. She was homeless, penniless and chained to the bottle when we found her. Five years down here with us and she has become our finest youth instructor.” We made our way to the second level which was laid out just like the first. “Level two is our library and gathering area for community meals and discussions.” I was starting to make out the pattern: each level had an identical design but it’s own special purpose. “Levels three through five are all living quarters. Level six is our supply stores and my quarters are on level seven. I am founder and leader of this community.”
We climbed past level three and I started getting a little woozy from the heat smacking my head around. “This is quite a set-up you have down here Jasper.”
“There is more to it further down the main path but this is the core of our settlement. It’s where most of our people live.”
Past level four: “How many are you?”
“237.” He paused. “Forgive me, 236.”
“Yes. I’m still not quite used to the fact he’s gone yet.”
Past level five: “Where’s the body?”
“We buried him two days ago.”
“You bury bodies down here?”
“What else would we do with our dead?”
I could only think about the stench of stiffs competing with the stench of whatever else was rotting away in these tunnels. “Where do you put them?” Past level six.
“Much further down the main path. Closer to the Great Deep.”
“You know what I’m going to ask next, right?”
Jasper made it to the seventh level without a huff or a puff. He was definitely a spry man on his own turf. When I reached the top, he had moved out of the way to give me enough room to get my footing on the catwalk. I stumbled a little on account of my head still swimming from the thick air. “You must be very thirsty. Let’s get you something to drink first and then you can ask all of your questions.”
Jasper led me to a room down the left end of the catwalk. Before stepping in, I turned around to survey just how high up we were since it seemed unimaginable that something this deep even existed under the city. Then add people living their own little lives down here and this seemed more like a twisted kind of fairy tale I would tell my nieces and less like a case for a PI like me.
When we walked into his place, I was a little surprised at how homey it was. Not that he had the finest of things, not by a long shot, but he definitely had a couple more amenities then I had in my rat trap. The only light around the joint came from a small lamp sitting on top of a tired wooden crate. There was a ratty old carpet on the floor and a table off to the right side of the room with a lone chair tucked under it. On top of the carpet were a couple of pillows thrown around, my guess was for sleeping since I didn’t see a bed anywhere. In one dark corner toward the front I could make out an icebox and hot plate and which was a nice touch for a cement alcove under a sewer.
Every inch of wall space was covered with any kind of book you could think of: big ones, little ones, fancy ones, not-so-fancy ones. The shadows of a couple ceiling-high piles of them loomed all around me like an old dead forest. He mentioned a library on the second level but this place looked like it could do the job nicely. Not that anybody could find anything in the mess of it.
“Welcome to my home,” he motioned toward the table. “Please take the chair, I prefer the floor.” He kicked a large sofa cushion near the table and sat crossed-legged like a little kid. Then he sprang up as quickly as he sat down, “I forgot your drink.”
I scanned the room for a bar, but didn’t see one. He went to the corner with the ice box. I heard some glasses rattling and then the sound of a pour. Not a light pour like throwing scotch over rocks, but a gushing pour like water from a pitcher.
When he came back into the light my fears were confirmed, he was holding a glass of clear liquid. I just knew it wasn’t gin: “Sorry to disappoint you Tobias, we don’t keep liquor down here.”
“None of you do?” I took the glass and gulped it down. Truth be told, I had a deeper thirst then one that booze could satisfy anyway.
“The drink is what got most of us here. It’s not forbidden by our laws, but it is an unspoken rule of our community.”
I slammed the glass down on the table: “A pity for those of us who like a drink every now and again.”
He took the glass and went to fill it up again. I didn’t object. “When was the last time you had a glass of water?” He came back with a brimming glass that I downed as quickly as the first.
“Does the shower count?”
He sat on his cushion cross-legged again. “Your father drank too much.”
“I know it.”
“Of course I drank back then, but not as much as he could put away.”
“Roger said you came to tell us he was killed.”
He looked down at his feet: “Yes I did.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that the other day?”
“I was embarrassed. I promised Roger and your mother that I would take care of you both. Help raise you. But other things prevented me from fulfilling that promise. I never saw anyone in your family again. Until now, of course.”
“Let’s save that for another time. First the case at hand.”
Oh right that. For a couple minutes there I just figured I got caught in someone else’s kooky tale. But there was work to get done so I rubbed my sweaty forehead and tried to get a couple of my senses back in the game of detecting. “Yeah, sure let’s have it. It’s why I’m here.”
He dove right in: “Five days ago my son Joseph told me he had discovered a new network of tunnels that might be suitable for populating. Since we are one of over ten underground communities-”
“There are more communities like yours running around down here?”
“There are thousands of us all arranged into separate, municipalities, if you will. Each one is well-placed with access to the utilities.”
“You mean electricity?”
“Water and steam as well. So the discovery of a new inhabitable tunnel could be a blessing for a growing community.”
“Yes. Because we are the original and most organized settlement, people down on their luck usually find their way to us first. Now we’re running out of room.”
“Are these new tunnels close enough to your little city here?”
“No, we would start an annex of sorts and it would’ve been led by my son…. He was a natural choice.”
“He was the only person who knew the ins and outs of every tunnel, utility connection and by-pass area down here. And that information is currency in our world. He also provided very well for this community. Like Joshua, he was once our best surface runner.”
“So then we have to figure out who benefits from him being dead.”
“He would be much more valuable alive than dead.”
“Obviously not to everyone. Are these other communities the jealous types?”
“With the exception of a skirmish here or there, no. We’ve been able to amicably settle our differences in the past.”
“Maybe one of your own was looking to be mayor of the new tunnel and they knew the only way to do it was to bump off your son?”
“No one really knew of our intentions to expand. Besides, he had the trust and respect of everyone in our community.”
Jasper didn’t see it but somebody wanted him dead and it had to be an inside job. Or Joey found something over there that didn’t want to be found. “So five days ago he comes back and tells you about this new spot. What happened next?”
“He told me he was going back to map it out and see if it was a possible site for our new community. He went off with my blessing…. I never saw him again. Our scouts delivered his body to me wrapped in a blood-soaked bed sheet. He was stabbed multiple times in the chest and stomach.”
He somehow disconnected from his son’s gruesome murder and that seemed odd. Hell I’ve had clients lose it over dead parakeets. But I could tell Jasper wasn’t speaking to me as a father anymore: He was a leader and I had a hunch that was the role he took more seriously. “Where’d they find him?”
“Now that’s the strange thing. No where near those new tunnels. He was found off of a very well-travelled connecting tunnel not too far from here.”
“So someone wanted to remove him from the actual scene of the murder. How many days went by between you last seeing him and the delivery of his body?” I was already getting thirsty again.
“Did he tell anybody else the whereabouts of these tunnels?” And I needed a smoke, but I knew my host frowned upon it.
“Joshua of course and my daughter, Miriam. I told him not to tell anyone else till he could confirm their usefulness. If people started looking for new tunnels, they could get lost or even die trying to find their way. There are so many treachorous ways to die down here if you don’t have the right guide with you.”
“I see.” I didn’t really see but it sounded convincing. “Well, I know the kid, so what’s your daughter’s story?”
As soon as I said it I felt a third body in the room and I knew it had been close this whole time. “It’s not an interesting one I can tell you that much,” said a deep female voice lurking in the dark.
She stepped forward to let a little light spill onto her and what it found was nothing short of crackers. She was a good-looking plain Jane. There wasn’t a stitch of make-up on her perfectly angular face. It was the color of fresh cream and her hair although pinned up close to the top of her head was like a black silk turban. Her dress was simple and worn, something powder-bluish (who could really tell in that light) but complimentary to her perfect hour-glass figure. She was the picture of a natural beauty who didn’t need any of those frills the dames above ground often leaned on to make themselves presentable.
“Yeah, I’m Miriam. And you must be Tobias Finch, the prodigal detective from the surface?” She revealed more of herself with the little light she had.
I stood up, removed my hat and offered her my chair. “Please, have seat.”
“Oh a gentleman, huh. They’re hard to find down here in Wonderland.” She waved off the offer. “I don’t want your seat though.”
So then came the bait: “Cigarette?” I pulled the pack out of my jacket pocket. If she loved her daddy, she’d say no.
“I’d love one.” Miriam was fixing to be a bad girl.
Jasper’s response was quick and physical: “Miri you know I deplore smoking.”
She smirked: “Then I’ll step outside.”
“Can I join you?” I asked with all the charm I could muster.
“It’s your cigarette, you can do whatever you want.”
Jasper lifted himself up from his floor pillows. “I don’t like smoking anywhere in the City!”
“Then we’ll take a walk,” I said to Jasper.
“Poppa doesn’t like it when I wander off.”
This was getting better every time she opened her mouth. “Why? You have trouble finding your way home?”
“Sometimes.” She smiled coyly. The game was on with Ms. Miriam.
“Miri, enough! Tobias is here with a purpose and it’s not to entertain you.”
“No but something in my gut says she knows plenty,” I said staring straight into her olive-black eyes.
“What in the world would I know? I’m really all talk. I never leave this ivory tower of mine.” She was fidgeting over that unlit cigarette. I knew it had been awhile since she had one and it was killing her. It was definitely killing me.
“Enough with the dramatics!” Jasper snapped. “Tobias I want to know how you intend to proceed?”
“With the investigation!” He folded into the darkness for a moment and came back with a large manilla envelope rolled up into a misshapen ball. “Did you forget about this?” He walked over and handed it to me. It had the heft of money to it and that heft was substantial. Then I remembered.
“With all the excitement it had slipped my mind.” I opened it to spy on a mess of green. It would’ve taken me at least a half hour to count it out properly, but I could guess that all 15 grand was there.
“That’s the sum I agreed on for the services of a professional. If you would prefer to horse around I will gladly take it and have you escorted back to the surface! Now what is your plan?”
I guess I had been told, huh? But once I get talked at like a 12 year old who came home late from a picture show, the boiling anger scolds my insides. The only relief was to do some telling of my own: “Listen…” and I was going to try and be nice as possible, “… buddy I’ve been down here for all of ten minutes. You tell me some cement mixer of a story about your saintly son going off to some tunnels and coming back carved up like Christmas dinner with no likely suspects and no possible motives for his murder. Now I don’t know anything about anyone and anywhere from Sante Fe to Independence, Missouri down here and you want me to come up with a plan? I’m a detective! My plan is to find out who murdered your son! I’m going to use every tool I got to get that job done. In case your wondering those are my eyes, my ears and my head. My eyes can’t see a damn thing down here, but my ears and my head say your daughter Miriam here could be of some help to me. Right now, I don’t know too much else. But here’s one thing I do know right up at bat: if you think throwing 30g’s at me means you own me, you got another thing coming.” I really did need that smoke.
Miriam started swishing her mouth around to find a smile, “Well poppa he’s got your number.”
Jasper collected himself and took it down a couple of notches, “Miriam, please wait outside for a moment.”
She glared at him then quickly looked over at me for back-up. I nodded, “Wait for me outside, sugar. Let me and daddy finish up in here. Then we can have that smoke.”
“Ok, but promise not to be too long. It isn’t everyday I get to have a cigarette with a detective.” And with that she turned her assetts toward me and wiggled them out the entry-way onto the catwalk.
Jasper stepped in closer to me, “Tobias, my daughter is troubled.” He whispered.
Figured that. “How do you mean?”
“She’s not right and she’ll tell you awful things about me.”
“Give me an appetizer.”
“She has found it hard to forgive me for things that have happened in the past. I’m sure she’ll tell you all of it, but I’m not a monster.”
“Who said you were?”
“Miri will. She’ll tell you I kept her here against her will, but I didn’t. Over and over again, she has chosen to stay.”
“I see, well lucky for you, I have better things to do than hear your daughter belly-ache about her nasty daddy.”
He drew me in closer, “There’s more.”
I knew what was coming before he said it, “Tell me.”
“She was insanely jealous of Joseph.” And Bingo was his name-o.
“Are you saying I should consider her a suspect?”
His teeth clenched, “Tobias, I could never fully implicate my own daughter in the murder of my son.”
“But stranger things have happened?”
“Just exercise all caution around her. She can be very persuasive.”
“Without even opening her mouth,” I said thinking of her unpainted lips.
“And my apologies for the outburst. Do what you need to do. You no longer need to answer to me.”
“Yes, well I’m going to need you to keep answering to me for a bit. I have questions. But first, I’m going to try and stay out of trouble with your daughter for a bit, then I’m going to need to see where your son lived.”
He nodded his head slowly, “Yes, I’ll have Joshua bring you there whenever you’re ready.”
“And here,” I threw him the envelope with the money in it. He had a sharp eye in the dark because he caught it without even looking. “Hold on to it for me. No use in giving me money for nothing yet.”
“Just like your father. Rough around every edge, but noble in the center.”
I turned and walked to the entry-way, “I just knew the rough parts.” Then I walked out looking for trouble.
Miriam had already found her way down to the main passage at the base of the wall. She waited for me to climb down carefully as an old man like me should. You know even a short fall could be my last act.
When I was finally there, I saw her looking down the main passage: a road to nowhere. There wasn’t a light to be seen or a sound to be heard in that direction. ”Where to?” I asked her with the high hope she was hiding a bar somewhere down in that lifeless tunnel.
She gestured down into the dark. “Let’s go this way.”
“Is there anything down that way?”
She smiled, “Oh there’s plenty.”
“Like?” This dame was like the Hoover Dam with all the water she was holding back.
“You’ll find out soon, won’t you?”
“I’m guessing I will.” There was a faint smile across her lips. It was probably the only size they would allow underground.
“So Miriam would I be a chump to ask why a dollface like yours is still running around down here?” The pitch black consumed us. There was no light, no air and barely just the sound of our feet crunching along the soot and garbage on the path. If it wasn’t for the sound of our voices, I would have told you we had both vanished into the thick air.
“Why not leave, you mean? I tried a couple of times. But poppa’s grip was always stronger.” Her footsteps stopped. “Where’s that lighter?”
“We’re stopping here? I can’t see a thing.”
“Of course you can’t. You’re eyes aren’t used to it yet. Mine are. Give me the lighter.” I quickly fished the thing out of my pocket and fumbled around in the dark for her hand. She knew exactly where to find mine. I could feel just how soft her skin was when it brushed against my palm. Then a small glow came from the flame of my lighter. She lit my cigarette first like a true gentleman and then hers. The little bits of light that found her face had a field day with it. Even the deep shadows around her cheeks couldn’t diminish the softness of her skin.
“Thanks,” I said. The light disappeared and darkness fell on us again.
“So don’t you want to ask me about my brother?” I heard her exhale deeply.
“Not right now. I want to know more about you? Were you born down here.”
She laughed, “Heavens no! I was born on 68th Street before Poppa took us down here.”
“And what drove him to do all this?”
“Do you want my version of the story or his?”
There was always two: “Give me yours.”
“Well he’ll tell you it’s because he was through with people treating each other like animals. War and poverty and injustice. He kept saying he wanted to create a society of equality and order away from the life of greed on the surface.”
“And you’ll tell me…?”
“Poppa started losing things. He lost his mind in the war. Saw too much. Lost too many friends. And when that happened he lost his position at the college and couldn’t support us. So then he took us down here to rot. Then he went and lost his wife.”
“Did she leave him?”
“She died. Not long after we came here. We were still trying to find a place to settle and make our home, going from one corner of this pit to another scavenging for food. We would meet these wayward hobos and poppa would them under his wing and tell them his grand plans to build an underground city of justice and hope. And there was mother just going right along with it. Like there wasn’t anything at all wrong with his mind. She was so devoted to him that she never once questioned him for subjecting our family to this way of life. I hated her a little for that. I wanted her to take a stand. But she didn’t. She never did. One day she was out scouting the tunnels with me. We were looking for a spot where we could get electricity and we crossed a train track. I kept walking on, but I realized my mother was not following behind. I ran back but I couldn’t see her very well, my eyes hadn’t adjusted yet. Her leg was caught on the tracks but I had no idea. Either that or it was suicide. An end to the shameful hell her life had become. She never called out to me. Then I heard the train barreling through and finally her screams. That was truly the end for poppa. After mother died he put everything he had into building this society. Now he’s got an army of lost souls falling for his bunk philosophies.”
I focussed my eyes on the slow dying ember of her cigarette as she took a giant inhale. “And you’re not one of them?”
Then the exhale. “No. I could never find my place down here. I was always looking to get out and a couple times I did.”
“What brought you back?”
“Trouble. Somehow it always found me up there. The only place I’m ever truly safe is down here. That’s until I’m stupid enough to give it a try on the surface again.”
I let a little silence seep in to the conversation so I could quietly finish off my cigarette. I knew a dame like her had a long sad story. You could just tell by the way she carried herself with those two big chips on her perfectly beautiful shoulders.
The darkness began to swirl all around me. It was still boiling down there and the closeness of the passageway was starting to wear on me. My hand felt for a wall to lean back on for support.
Her eyes were so well-trained that she could see me do it, “You tired?”
“I’m still hot and a little thirsty.”
”That’s what happens when you’re down in hell.” She finished off her cigarette and put it out on the ground with a swish of her foot.
Since I had found the wall I could try and get my head back into the conversation. “Now tell me about your brother and who do you think might want to murder him.”
“Poppa’s prize? I can’t think of person down here who didn’t love him.”
”How about you?”
”He was my brother and even though poppa gave all of his love to him, Joseph was good to me. Listen, you can get it outta your head that I killed him. If I had, you can be damn sure I’d take the credit.” She wrapped her hand around my arm and lifted me up off the wall. ”I may be a couple of unsavory things but a liar isn’t one of them.” I noticed she didn’t say murderer. My gut believed her though. Maybe it was her dark beauty blinding me but her words sounded awfully real.
”Who might want him dead then?”
”I can’t answer that.” I heard her footsteps first and then I felt her entire body dragging me in tow. ”But I’m going to take you to someone who might be able to help.”
I followed behind her and we continued to walk for what felt like hours in that hot black tunnel. In that dark every second felt like a lifetime. In reality it must’ve been a couple of minutes but I started losing track of time since I couldn’t see my wrist watch anymore. I had no distractions from my own mind and the only thought that kept jumping around in my head was, who would live down this way and how could they possibly help me? And as we continued to move deeper and deeper into the darkness I realized the silence had done something to my thinking. I finally got it across to myself to let go of my idea of what was normal. It was obvious that I found myself in a situation not too many chumps end up in and my constant bellyaching over what should or shouldn’t be just didn’t apply down in this place. So what if there were miles and miles of tunnels under the city I knew so well? So what if a whole society of people can exist without the world knowing about them? And more importantly, so what if there was a beautiful woman who was just as dark and twisted as these tunnels leading me around on an invisible leash? I just needed to accept that this was how life was going to be down here in “The City” while I was on this case.
“You can’t imagine what it was for a little girl to grow up down here.”
“I can’t imagine what is was like to grow up as a little girl. Period.”
“No I guess you wouldn’t. You are very much a man.”
That my friends, is what we in the business call a loaded statement. “Last time I checked I was. Although it’s been awhile since there’s been a woman to tell me so.”
“I find that a little hard to believe.”
“Well find it cause it’s true.”
“A fast talking detective like you?”
“Doll face, poor slob detectives like me are a dime-a-dozen up in the real world.”
“Well down here you’re one-of-a-kind.”
So I guess I was going to start being coy cause it felt good: “To you or to all your cavemen down here?”
”Mr. Finch, any man who spends his life in the daylight is one-of-a-kind to me. The good-looking face is just gravy.”
“Good looking? Sister, you must not see alot of men.”
She laughed. “And humility to boot.” Out of nowhere, we stopped and she grabbed me tightly with both of her strong hands. “I want you to trust me. Can you do that?” I knew her lips were getting closer to mine because her breath was starting to bounce off of my face. It felt cooler than the air in that tunnel. So cool it started pushing away the sweat on my cheeks.
“Why? What are you hiding that I should’t see?”
“Nothing! It’s just- well- I’ve never really cared if anyone trusted me down here. Not poppa, not Joseph, no one. But I want your trust. I need it! Everyone down here will tell you how disturbed I am because I’m not one of poppa’s minions. Going around doing what’s best for the City. But I have my own thoughts.”
This was an unexpected turn of events. “Miriam, you’ve known me for 20 minutes. Stop acting like a crazy school-girl.”
With her entire body, she threw me up against the wall. This broad was not as frail as she acted. “What does that matter? I’ve heard about you for far longer than that. Poppa’s spoken about you. Tommy’s son, the accomplished detective. I wondered if you’d ever come.”
“Stop it! I’m not a fairy tale prince looking to be your meal-ticket up to the real world. I have a job to do and when it’s done, I’m outta here.”
She didn’t say anything. My guess was she hadn’t thought this whole exercise through. She knew she was beautiful, she knew her dark charms could make her even more seductive to someone from the outside. But she didn’t come up with a plan B when her sucker didn’t take the bait. She was a lost soul amongst lost souls and to me, those where the most dangerous kind, even if she never laid a hand on her brother. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have blood pumping in my veins if I didn’t fancy the look of her. And with the way she was going on, the thought of kissing her right then and there was hard to resist. “Come on. We’re almost there.” And for now, my opportunity had passed. I heard her footsteps start up again, but this time she wasn’t guiding me.
There was a little less urgency in her voice now: “To Daisy’s.”
“Now who in the hell is Daisy?” Almost on cue, I started to see some blue light ahead of me. It looked like it was sitting over a door. The closer we came the more sounds I could hear on through the other side. It sounded like a couple of people talking, but there was something distant about their voices. Like they weren’t really in there.
“Daisy, will need a little explaining. But I think she should meet you. She might be able to help.”
The closer we came, the clearer the sounds became. I heard a man’s voice, saying something about… Sherlock Holmes.
“There sits Sherlock Holmes with his violin under chin.” And then the music of a violin was heard floating through the dark of the tunnel.
Then there was a knock on the door and the sound of a stuffy English guy saying, “Come in. Oh Watson, my dear.”
And then another guy, “How are you Holmes?”
“I say, I’m delighted to see you, just delighted, although I know it’s because your wife isn’t with you.”
“How did you know…?”
I looked over at Miriam who didn’t seem to care that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were having a conversation in a little underground room at the end of a long dark tunnel. “Is Daisy in cahoots with an English gumshoe?” Now I could see some of her in the blue light.
“That’s a radio show.” She said swishing her hand over at me like I was an idiot. “She’s always listening to the radio.”
“How in the name of Moses does she get reception down here?”
Miriam walked up to the door and stopped. “We don’t know. But be warned, Daisy is… different.”
“Compared to the other ducks who swim around in this pond?”
“We found her here years ago. Well, Poppa did. She says she’s always been down here.”
“Finch, she can help. She knows things. We don’t know how, but she knows them.”
I could hear Holmes in the background saying “I’m only doing it for your amusement until we pass on to more serious matters.”
“Then why didn’t your daddy hire her to solve the damn murder?”
“She only speaks prophecy to those she chooses to and no one else. She wouldn’t say anything to poppa about Joseph’s murder. I think she means only to speak to you.”
Prophecy? What in blazes did that mean? “What gave you that cock-and-bull idea?”
Without warning Miriam pounded her fist on the metal door. Holmes and Watson continued to blare over the shrill sounds of a woman yelling out “Is it the detective?”
Miriam smiled like she had this whole affair planned out from the start. “Yes Daisy, the detective is here.”
And the oddities continued: The door flew open and standing on the other side was a black woman with hair the size of a California tumble-weed. I didn’t even know a woman’s hair could do that. Like it was growing out to be a hedge on the front lawn. But her face was beautiful. Like Miriam it was soft and smooth. How could she have been down here before Jasper? By the looks of her, she couldn’t have been no more than 25 years old. She was dressed in tattered slacks and a large gray sweater that was just aching with holes. Why a sweater in the heat of this place was beyond me. She must have been hot as hell.
The look in her eyes was as wild as they come. Like everyone else’s down there they were all pupils, but hers were a touch stranger. I couldn’t tell if it was the light or natural, but hers were almost a dark blue all the way through. “I turned on the box and the detective was on. So I knew.” She grabbed my arm and yanked me inside her room. Miriam followed.
“Daisy this is Tobias Finch.”
She looked me over once or twice. Then three times. “Yes, Tom’s boy.”
I chalked that one up to Jasper telling her about me. “My father was Tom. But that was a long time ago.”
That strange bird shot me a glare that had me more dead in my tracks than if a .42 was pointed at my heart with the barrel cocked. “Tom is still your father Mr. Finch! No matter where he is. Now sit!” She pointed at a group of pillows on the floor.
I leaned over to Miriam, “You people don’t believe in furniture down here?”
“It’s hard enough moving around through these tunnels. Imagine lugging furniture.”
That was a good point. Before following orders, I stepped back to take in the amazing site of Daisy’s lair. It was covered with burning candles from floor to ceiling. They were nestled in cracks through the wall and on top of crates that were serving as shelves and tables and anything else a crazy broad would need vegetable crates for. To add to the off-putting nature of the place the walls were plastered with hundreds upon hundreds of faces all drawn by the same hand and all staring right at us.
Both Miriam and Daisy sat on the pillows in the center of the room. I noticed they were arranged in a circle and in the center of that circle was a thick candle on a carved wooden pedestal. To say that I was already set with the hocus pocus would have been an understatement. Mind you, through all of this, Holmes and Watson were still going on about a drawing room over a wash room and some lady named Alice.
“Come sit!” Daisy barked at me.
I wanted to resist her bossy barbs, but something else compelled me to just sit without even thinking about it. And soon as I did, the radio switched off with no help from any of us.
“What happened to the radio?” I shouted.
Miriam crinkled her nose in disgust, “It’s not important! Concentrate!”
“On what?” I didn’t know what was going on. My brain was still trying to wrap itself around this loon getting reception so deep underground. Meanwhile the loon in question was distracting me by swinging herself over that candle. Her unruly hair nearly caught fire every time she dipped her head towards it. I was never one for the showmanship of ghosts and ghouls or the people who claimed to talk to them but she was certainly earning an A for her effort. Of course I had no idea what was going on with this little ritual but from the way she started groaning, it was a pretty safe bet she was trying to make contact with something.
“He has come here to the navel. To the navel of this earth to seek guidance!” Her voice had changed into something deep and guttural and even though she was sitting, the top half of her body was whirling on the hinge of her waist like a fly strip flapping in the breeze. “Who is the one who murdered the son Joe?” Miriam had closed her eyes and it was looking like she had fallen into a trance. I’m not going to lie, it was a let-down that she bought into this hooey. For me? Out of a detective’s curiosity, I forced myself to watch Daisy’s every move. The flailing arms, the tossed hair, the eyes rolling in the back of her head were all obviously part of the show and this lady considered herself a star. ”Who is the one who murdered the son Joe?” Her voice was getting louder with every swirl of her head and I was still worried about was her damn hair catching fire. “WHO IS THE ONE WHO MURDERED THE SON JOE?”
“Is all this necessary?” I shouted out to Daisy. She paid no mind to me.
Then she stopped. Her body was frozen stiff and her deep blue pupils were wider than two full moons. “I see the image. I see the image!” The radio switched back on with the dial turning in all directions. The frequencies were reeling out of range as fast as they were coming in. And it only got faster. It turned into a mish-mosh of voices overlapping with each other and that started sounding like a bunch of crazies speaking in tongues.
Now this is where the hair stood up on the back of sweaty neck: Daisy’s voice began to perfectly mimic the garbled radio voices. It was as spooked out as I’ve been in a good long time. Without a warning she screamed: ”LISTEN!”
Instinctively I flinched like I was about to be shot or knifed. I admit, I closed my eyes out of fear. The sense of immediate danger felt very real to me, but I couldn’t see it. Just as quickly, an image of my father flashed in my head. It was him just sitting in the dark with a bottle in his hand. He was wearing a sad face like the one I always remembered as a kid. I wanted to call out to him but my voice was stolen by Daisy’s. I couldn’t explain it, but he was somewhere in that room. I just knew it. Then he was gone with the next frequency.
“CANCER!” She shouted out into the mess of noises coming from the radio.
I pried my eyes open and saw Miriam’s lifeless body passed out on the floor over the pillows. Daisy had turned herself to me and was looking into my eyes with the icy stare of death, “Tobias Finch, there is a cancer in the earth and it has spread. It has spread to these tunnels and it has taken the son Joe from us. And it will take again. And again. It lurks in a hidden place. You must go there and you will find it. To the hidden place, go and find the killer.” She stayed frozen in that trance for a moment and then her head plopped down into her chest like someone switched her off. The radio had stopped its temper tantrum and landed on the evening news:
“The U.S. government, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, ordered the seizure of Nazi German banking operations in New York City that were being conducted by Prescott Bush. The U.S. Alien Property Custodian seized Union Banking Corp.’s stock shares, all of which were owned by Prescott Bush, Avrell Harriman, three Nazi executives, and two other associates of Bush…”
I looked at Miriam and shuffled over to get her up. She wasn’t budging.
Daisy came to and lifted her bushy head, “She’ll be fine. She’s easily excitable.”
“I have a feeling she’s a lot more than that.” I said.
Then the woman, who had been giving me the stink eye since I walked into her rabbit hole, smiled at me. “I like you, Tobias Finch.”
“Yes. You trust your guts.”
“Lady in my line of work you have to trust your guts.”
“I know it. That’s why I said it. So many people, especially the Joe’s down here, they hide from their guts.” She smiled wider. “That one down there has her guts are hanging all about.”
Daisy was fixing up to be a different lady now that her show was over. And my guts were starting to like her, “Where did you come from?”
“Me? I’ve been here forever. As long as I can remember.”
“You have no memory of being anywhere else?”
She started laughing, “I have more memories than you could ever imagine. Different places. Different times.”
Maybe she was hooked on opium or something. ” Sister, I don’t doubt it.” The radio was continuing to spew out the news and I realized I had a million and one questions to ask this crazy dame. “How does that radio work down here?”
“…Allied aircraft start a four-day battle to smash Axis air power and gain air superiority over the El Alamein area in preparation for Montgomery’s long awaited offensive…”
“The box? It always tells a story to me.”
“But how do you get such clear signal down here?”
She laughed again like the absolute loon she was, “I listen, that’s all. I listen and the box tells me stories.”
“Or the news?”
“The news is just a story that’s real. Yes?”
“That’s a way to look at it, I guess.”
Miriam started squirming around on the floor. “What happened?” She was rubbing her temples like a gal who had one too many the night before, then slowly sat herself up. She grabbed my arm for a little support: “Did she say anything?”
“When did you check out?” I asked her with the thought of a cigarette sitting on my brain.
“Right after she asked who killed my brother?”
Daisy stood up and moved toward the door. “She was not meant to hear. Only Finch could hear.”
“I guess I’ll tell you later then.” I said under my breath as the sound of men yelling came into my ear shot. This time it wasn’t the radio. These were actual men in the tunnels. “What’s that fuss all about?”
I made out the voice of my personal runner: “Mister Finch? You down here?”
“This is more bad news.” Daisy said to me solemnly. She opened the door right as Joshua was about to knock. “Little Joe!” She smiled.
“Hiya Daisy, sorry to barge in like this but we need Mr. Finch.”
I shot up and climbed over the pillow, “What’s up kiddo?”
He looked over at his aunt who was trying to put herself back together again after fainting. I have a feeling that was a sight he had seen a couple of times in his life. A whole group of guys, all different ages but with the same ragged look that Jasper had, gathered behind the kid. I noticed one had blood all over him. “Jeb’s been murdered.”
“Your perimeter guy?”
“Yeah. Stabbed just like my father. We brought the body to my grandfather. Come.”
Now I had something to work with. A real honest-to-goodness stiff was in the picture and no more tall tales to lead my chase. There was a body I could lay my own eyes on and that made me feel more at home down in this crazy place.
As soon as I stepped out of Daisy’s little cave the entire group started sprinting back toward the center of the City. I followed suit and thought I was keeping pace nicely, but who could be sure in that black hole. I thought to myself, this is what rats must feel like as I prayed to God for anything resembling air to hit my face. Since that wasn’t going to happen any time soon I decided to stop noticing the sweat rolling down my cheeks and ignore my overwhelming desire for a cigarette. I also left Miriam behind figuring she knew her way back better than I did so she’d be fine.
The men remained silent as we ran. Something about the way they moved made it seem like they disappeared into thin air once they collected me. I felt like I was the only one huffing it down that tunnel and they were all long gone. Occasionally I’d hear a whisper come from some side of me, but it went by so quickly I couldn’t make out the words. I was hoping the kid would call my name out or anything to let me know I wasn’t hallucinating the whole thing. It was was possible I was suffering from a fit of heat stroke and was passed out back at Daisy’s dreaming this whole thing up. Hell, I could be in my own bed on Cherry Street doing the same. Whether it was reality, fantasy or me running through hell in the Hereafter, nothing would have surprised me anymore.
When I saw the dim lights of the City wall come into view, I felt a charge of excitement inside my gut. My overheated flatfooted mind thought the game was going to be played by my rules from here on in. A body was just what I needed to track down whoever was going around murdering these birds so for the first time in a good long while I felt unstoppable. Until…
“Mr. Finch, you still down there?” It was the kid and he was way in front of me. He and all the other underground goons were standing at the base of the wall waiting for my sweaty tuckus to get where they were.
“Yeah kid, almost there. Just give this overheated geezer a second to catch his breath.” There was no breath to be had though. When I arrived, the first thing I saw was a man, at least twice my age standing there shaking his head. He was clearly part of the pack who had outrun me back.
“Don’t feel bad Mr. Finch, it’s cause you can’t see like we do,” The kid said politely.
“And a whole mess of other things. But let’s not worry about all that. Where’s Jeb?”
Another man, looking to be in his 30’s, bearded with long hair said, “He’s in our hospital.”
There was no one around the City when I first showed up an hour ago but with the excitement of Jeb’s murder it seemed like the whole clan came out. I caught a glimpse of some women with their hair in braids, dressed in simple frocks. There were even a couple of kids running around, and the scraggly looking men seemed to be convening at the base of the wall. I saw the dark shadows of people moving in and out of different rooms on all seven of the City’s levels. They were all eagerly looking down at the group of us below. I’m sure most of them were staring at me since I was clearly the out-of-towner. I’ll bet it had been a long time, if ever at all, that they had a seen a clean shaven Joe from the street. Some of the younger folks may never have seen the light of day more or less the likes of me. A few started pointing and others were whispering frantically.
“That’s the first level, right?”
“Yeah, let’s go.” Joshua said grabbing my arm and dragging me over to that damn ladder. “Grandpa Jasper is there.”
I didn’t doubt it. I’d bet he was already blowing his wig about another murder happening while I’m off having a smoke with his daughter and playing around with his village witch doctor. “What’s he thinking?”
“Who knows?” he said landing on the first level. “He stays quiet with things like this until he has something important to say.”
“Important?” It might be a shock to know that I was not having so much luck getting to this first level at Joshua’s speed.
“Just come on. You can ask him yourself.” The kid went down the right end of the catwalk and disappeared into an open doorway.
I followed him into a network of connected rooms. The front had cleanly made beds lined up on either side. All were empty. Along the walls were shelves of assorted medical supplies, bottles of medicines, equipment. You name it, this little hospital had it. Then we moved through a couple of rooms, one had a smattering of books and a couple of desks, another looked like an examining room and finally the back room was clearly their rendition of a morgue. It even had some of that blue morgue tile on the walls, but not much else. There were no drawers for stiffs. Only some examining tools and a couple of lights hanging off the ceiling. My guess was they weren’t really into embalming down in Lala Land, just looking real quick and burying even quicker. The smell of a stiff here must really make the joint jump.
Standing around a large metal table in the center of the room was Jasper and a heavy-set woman in a white coat. She had a look on her face I didn’t love. Like she was a know-it-all. Her hair, like every other woman down there, was in braids. She had to be pushing the higher side of 60 so you can bet they looked out of place on her. On the table was the gigantic body of a man dressed completely in black from head to toe. Black shirt, pants, shoes and even his black cap was still sitting on his bloodied head.
“Jeb I presume?” I said to Jasper.
He looked up at me with that sullen look that must make him a lot of friends, “Did you and my daughter enjoy yourselves?”
Before I could open my mouth to take his righteous attitude down a few notches, Joshua spoke up. “He was over at Daisy’s with Aunt Miriam.”
His face changed expressions from sullen and to barely excited, “Did she speak to you?”
“Jasper, who is this?” The heavy dame cut in.
We both ignored her. “Yes, but can we take a look at poor ole Jeb here before he starts stinking up the place?”
That got him to downright smile. “I knew she would speak to you. Blast Miriam for taking you without me. What did she say?”
“Is he from the surface?” I needed to refrain from calling this woman Dr. Pork Chops. You’ll see why in a second.
“She bumped her gums about some cancer in the tunnels and how I had to go to some hidden place to find Joseph’s killer. But none of that concerns me when there’s a freshly murdered body laying in front of me.”
“No Tobias, it all means something from her! She only speaks prophecy to those who need to hear it. She told me it would be you.”
Now that got me thinking about some things for a moment but my thinking head was interrupted by the good doctor. “Is this the detective?”
“Yes, Tobias Finch, this is our City Doctor, Dr. Hamm.” Now you know why I have to refrain from calling her Dr. Pork Chops? “Finch is the private detective I hired to find Joseph’s killer.”
She nodded a grumpy greeting in my direction.
“A pleasure,” I said not shaking her hand. “So tell me, where did Jeb turn up?”
“In the same exact spot as Joseph,” Jasper said. “How did you put it, ‘carved up like Christmas dinner?’”
“Hmmm.” I took off his hat and uncovered several gashes on his cheeks and forehead. “Well he got into a fight first. Someone went a couple rounds on his face.” I lifted up his head which was caked in blood. It was busted open. For the most part, the blood has stopped running out of the wound. There probably wasn’t all that much left in him. “Then someone clubbed him, by the looks of this deep gash, I’d say a pipe. From the angle, I’ll bet he didn’t know it was coming.” This guy must’ve been at least 6’6” standing up and a deuce fifty of solid muscle. It would have taken a couple of goons to bust him up this badly and there had to be at least one tall guy in the group to get that kind of angle on his skull. “Help me take his shirt off.” No one jumped to help but Joshua of course. He rolled his shirt bloodied shirt up to under his chin. I lifted his torso up as Joshua brought his arms out of his shirt and pulled the whole mess over his head. His chest and stomach were soaked in blood “And to finish the job, someone stabbed him, I’d say 15 or 16 times. There was no need because he would’ve bled to death if left on his own for a couple of minutes. This wasn’t the work of one crazy wacko that’s for sure. There was more than one guy. I’d say at least 3.”
“Maybe it was the Republic?” Joshua said.
“No, they would never resort to this type of violence. At least nothing this gruesome,” Jasper replied.
“The Republic?” I asked.
“A rival underground community. A couple of months back we had a squabble with them over rights to a neighboring tunnel. There were some threats but their leader and I seemed to work out an amicable deal.”
“I think it’s time we prepare him for his burial,” Dr. Hamm said.
Jeb looked over at me, almost for approval. “Yes, let’s wrap him up. Joshua, find a vessel for his body.”
Just as he was turning on his skinny heels to head out, something hit me: “Hey kid?”
“When we came down here you said you were banging the pipes to tell Jeb it was us passing through.”
“Well that was a little over an hour ago. Maybe two?”
I pinched my fingers on a spot of blood near one of the knife wounds on his chest. It was crusty and more on the side of dry than wet. A couple of hours old, easy. “Then it wasn’t Jeb you were banging to. Jeb was already dead.”
“NONSENSE! It was Jeb’s patrol.” Jasper said. “I set those patrols myself.”
“Well someone was covering for him because he was dead.” I lifted up his arm to feel how stiff his muscles were. They were getting there. “I’d say he’d been dead for about 4 hours, but I can’t be exact. He’s on his way to stiff. If you want to get to the bottom of this, you better round up your patrol for questioning.”
Jasper was not very happy about being told what to do. Joshua, on the other hand, stood perfectly still waiting to see if his orders had changed. “Joshua go round up the afternoon’s perimeter guard and bring them to my quarters. Jeb’s burial will have to wait a little bit.”
Pork Chops didn’t like the sound of that: “We really should move as quickly as possible if we–”
“Dr. Hamm It will be done when it is done! Right now this investigation is of paramount importance. Obviously someone is threatening the security of this community and whoever it is must be stopped!”
Jasper was starting to lose his marbles a bit. I wasn’t sure if this was him unraveling under the stress of a dead son and an outside threat to his little Utopia or if this was par for the course with him. If you trusted the testimony of his daughter, you’d think this was just a different shade of normal. “How long will it take to round your guys up?” I asked Jasper.
“About 15 minutes. We’ll have to make sure the next group is in place before they all leave their posts.”
“Any chance, I could take the time to look around your son’s place?”
“If you wish, I’ll take you down myself. Dr. Hamm, continue Jeb’s preparations. As soon as I am through we will find something to bury him in.”
Dr. Hamm just nodded that stern mug of hers as we moved out of the morgue. That dame must have been a laugh-riot at parties with her sparkling personality.
We went back out to that damn ladder and climbed up to the fourth level. I think my eyes were slowly getting used to the dark because it didn’t seem as hard making out the levels this time. Jasper landed on the 4th and disappeared into a completely dark room. I followed him in. Although it was dark, I could tell there wasn’t much going on in that room. It didn’t feel as cluttered as Jasper’s place. I heard the old guy fishing about in the dark then suddenly a little lamp was turned on. “I’m afraid my son lived simply Tobias. There may not be much here for you to see.”
He was right. There was nothing on the walls and barely anything in the room save a small cot that looked like it was slept in recently. Must’ve been the kid’s. Directly across was a larger cot that was neatly made. In the center of the room was a table with a lone bowl on it. The bowl was empty. I walked over to Joshua’s cot and saw a couple of books near the head of his bed. Looked like school books, something about arithmetic and chemistry. There was pencil on the floor with a broken tip and a worn down eraser. “Doesn’t seem like your son had too much.”
“He liked it that way. He kept his quarters sparse, as opposed to me. He and Joshua were never around much. Joseph was alway off exploring the tunnels and Joshua was wondering about being a runner. They only came back here to sleep.”
I walked around the perimeter of the room with my hands held out trying to feel for something the light might not be hitting.
“He also took some things with him before he left?”
In the far left corner, I felt a chest of drawers that was lurking in the darkness. Bingo. I started opening drawers. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“Oh no, go ahead. I’m sure Joseph and Joshua have nothing to hide.” I didn’t think they did but funny Jasper had to put it that way.
“Do you know what he left with?” In the drawers were some articles of clothing and a set of white sheets which these poor Joes must’ve had a hard time keeping white down in this filthy place.
“Just his notes and some supplies I think.” Jasper sat on Joseph’s neatly made bed and patted it with his left hand like it was the closest he’d ever come to his son again.
“Any luck?” came Miriam’s voice from the door.
I reached the bottom drawer undeterred by the beauty in the doorway. “If you consider a dead lug and an empty room luck then I’m swimming in it.”
“Miri, why did you bring him to Daisy without me?” Jasper barked from the bed.
“Oh poppa, what does it matter? You know we weren’t made to hear it. Only Tobias. Besides, I thought I could help.” Did she? Or did she want to know before anyone else what Crazy Daisy had to say? That would be information she could use to her advantage with poppa. I was thinking it all along, but didn’t mention it until I realized how much it meant to Jasper that he be there for that little show before.
“Daisy would have told me!” Jasper pouted.
“Well she hasn’t before, what makes you think now would be so different?”
“Because I brought her the detective this time.”
I was very intent on searching through the drawers and not listening to their fight, but then that last bit made my ears perk up. He brought me to HER? At the same moment I felt something cool and metallic in the back of the bottom drawer. It felt like a key. I grabbed it and brought it over to the lamp. No doubt an old skeleton key, at least 50 years old or so. “Any locks around here that might fit this key?”
Jasper looked over at Miriam and both seemed pretty unaffected. “We don’t have doors that lock down here.”
“What?” I said examining the key in the lamp light. It was longer than most keys and a little worse for wear. A goldish color with pits and scratches all over it. Whatever it was used for, it was used often. “NOTHING locks down here?”
“Not that I can think of,” Jasper said matter-of-factly.
“You looney tunes have nothing you think is valuable enough to lock up?” My rope was at its shortest end and I was about ready to lose it. The dark, the heat, the cracker jacks who ran around down here. All I wanted to do was be back with Jeb. He felt like the only normal company I could keep in these parts.
Miriam came closer to me and put her hand on my shoulder, “Relax. Just ask Joshua, I’m sure he’ll know what it’s for.”
“I need a drink,” I said letting out a breath of hot air.
“There are other ways to calm your nerves, Tobias.” Jasper said calmly from the bed.
“Yeah well that’s my preferred method. And say, what’s all this talking about you bringing me to Daisy?”
“Naturally, I went to Daisy after Joseph’s murder and asked her if she knew who the murderer was.”
“Why? What’s up with her that you all go asking her stuff?”
Jasper and Miriam looked at me like I was a visitor from another planet which I sure felt like. I mean, who doesn’t have locks on their doors? “Tobias, she’s the Oracle.”
“Oracle? What the hell does that mean?”
“Delphi? Pythia? Dodona? Trophonius? Do any of those sound familiar?”
I looked at him like he was talking Greek to me. “I don’t know from any of that.”
“They are persons who are portals to the other worldly advisors.”
I guess this might have been the type of thing I would have learned if I had finished school, but since I didn’t none of this was making sense.
Miriam now tried to help out: “She’s the one who’s connected to this place. She hears the spirits that dwell down here. They tell her things.”
“And they told her I needed to find you. From her very own mouth she said that only Tobias the Son of Thomas would be able to find the one who took my son from us. So you see, Tobias, when I said you came highly recommended, I meant it.”
Now I was one step away from passing out cold on that floor. “Let me get this straight in my head. That wild broad down that tunnel listens to ghosts and they told her to tell you to hire me? They gave her my name specifically?” That would have to go down in the books as one of the oddest referrals I’ve ever had… if I’d thought it was real.
“Yes, Tobias, why does this shock you so?” Jasper lifted himself off the bed.
“BECAUSE THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS GODDAMN GHOSTS!”
“Not ghosts. Spirits. We don’t know if they’ve been damned or not.” I wasn’t sure if he was trying to funny or if he was completely off his chain.
Miriam stayed close to me, rubbing my back lightly with her right hand. “Poppa it’s hard for outsiders to understand. Maybe we shouldn’t assume, he knows things as we do.”
I looked at Miriam in confusion, “And you buy all this junk?”
She smiled trying desperately to relax me, “Tobias, if you lived down here you would know. It’s very real.”
“Yes listen to Miri, Tobias. Heed whatever prophecy Daisy has told you.”
“What she told me, didn’t make any damn sense!” I was annoyed that I had to even waste time with that hooey.
Thankfully Joshua leaped through the door. “Grandpa Jasper, the patrol is in your quarters waiting for you.”
“Joshua, you have done well today. Come and rest for a bit while we go speak to the patrol.”
I could tell in the dim lamplight that Joshua’s face dropped into disappointment. He wanted to be just as much a part of this case as anyone especially seeing that the murderer nabbed his father. But this kid was too good to say anything about it. He certainly wasn’t going to question orders from his big bad grandpa. “Hey kid? You wanna come up with me and help me out?”
The long face perked up. “Do I ever!”
“Tobias, he’s been through enough. I think it’s time he work on his studies,” Jasper said heavily.
“He’s my runner and I need him to listen to all the testimony we’re going to get.” I winked at him. “Every gumshoe needs an assistant and the gal I normally use ain’t here. So it’s gotta be the kid.”
Miriam was playing her hand to get on my good side. “Poppa let him go up. After Joseph, he knows more about these tunnels than anyone down here. Tobias needs him.”
Jasper headed for the door waving his hand in the air. “Fine, fine, come along Joshua. It seems like no one cares about my opinions anymore. Let’s get up there and stop wasting all this time.”
Joshua spang around to follow his grandfather and I let Miriam go in front of me. I kept the key safely in my pant’s pocket figuring I would ask the kid about it when we had a moment alone. I had a hunch that it belonged to something he didn’t want his grandfather to know about.
Once back up in Jasper’s room I saw a line of five men all dressed the same as Jeb in black slacks and black shirts with black page-boy caps standing in a line, almost at military attention. When we walked in, they all removed their caps, I would assume, out of respect. It appeared that Jasper expected nothing less since he stopped at the door and smiled: “These are my finest Mr. Finch.” I smiled back not really knowing what they were the finest at. By the build of all them, I would say they would sure be fine and dandy in a fight. “Gentlemen this is Private Detective, Tobias Finch, he has come from the surface to investigate the murder of Joseph and now the murder of your fallen brother, Jeb. You have been called from your duty to answer any questions he may have.” They didn’t respond, but only nodded their heads almost in perfect unison. “Tobias, you may proceed.”
I noticed they were all looking straight ahead and with their eyes strictly fixed on the wall. There was another thing about them I didn’t realize until I saw them standing in a row, these guys were completely clean-shaven and most of the men down in this place had whiskers. These men were young and built strong just like poor dead Jeb and I was almost a little intimidated by them. Of course, I wouldn’t show it. “Do you have names gentlemen?” I said like a blue-haired school teacher running a detention hall.
The gentlemen closest to me spoke first, “Jonathan.”
The next, “James.”
The next, “Jared.”
The next, “Jack.”
And the last, “Jacob.”
All J’s. Every stinking guy down there had a name that begin with the letter J. That couldn’t be a coincidence, but I would file that under a question for later. “Yes, thank you. Now approximately two hours ago, I came down here with my friend Joshua here, who banged on a pipe to a fella named Jeb who was supposed to be on your perimeter patrol. But not soon after, Jeb’s body was found and by my calculations had been dead at least two hours before that.” They didn’t even so much as blink their black eyes. ”So who was he banging too?”
Jack spoke up, “It was me, sir.”
“And can you, Jack I think it is, can you tell me where Jeb was at that time?”
He turned to his head toward Jonathan, who didn’t acknowledge his look. There was a hush that quickly settled over the room as Jack stood silent. “Jonny he’s looking to you? Would you like to answer my question?”
“Which was again, sir?” Jonathan asked.
“Where was Jeb when Joshua and I crossed over your perimeter?”
Another brief silence. Jasper’s lip was quivering and I could tell that meant something fierce was coming. “Mr. Finch is asking you a question! Answer it or be dismissed from your posts completely! Where was Jeb? And furthermore, why this behavior from my finest patrol?
“Jeb went to track down Joseph’s murderer,” Jack said. Jonathan looked over at him like he could rip his face off for talking.
“What?” Jasper said in shock.
“He had been planning it out for a couple days. Jeb was proud. He thought that he was the best man for the job. He meant to apply some justice to this murderer. He also knew that you would never allow it. So he went out on his his own.” Jack kept singing like a meadowlark while the other gents were looking to Jonathan for his reaction.
“Ok, so when did Jeb run off?” I asked.
Now Jacob spoke up, “Yesterday. Said he was headed down to the pass and from there would try and re-trace Joseph’s steps.”
“And none of you thought to tell me about this dissention?” Jasper growled.
“We were sworn to secrecy. Jeb-” Jacob was cut off by Jonathan.
“With all due respect, Mayor Jasper… Jeb was insulted that you were seeking outside help for something we should be taking care of.” Ah so that’s it, hate the rat crossing the line from the outside to do their job.
“Your place isn’t to track down murderers, it’s to keep our borders safe! Which clearly you are not doing very well. And now you have kept secrets from me and this community and one of your own is dead because of it!” Jasper was working up self up again.
“So we established that Jeb went looking for revenge and shows up the next day hacked up.” I stated, “Where was he found?”
“The Pass,” Jack said. “Same spot as Joseph.”
“And what’s this Pass?” I asked. No one on the guard offered up an answer. So the kid jumped in to let these goons know he was on my side.
“The Pass, is a large connecting tunnel between the Pennsylvania Station approach and the Grand Central approach. It’s very well-traveled, like an avenue all the underground communities use to get to the surface or to other parts of the Underground. ”
“And why would Jeb think to track your father there?” I asked the kid.
“Because the easternmost end of the pass was the last direction anyone saw him in. He was headed to the new territory that way.”
Now this was starting to make more sense and even more sense with what Crazy Daisy was screaming about before. Both Jeb and Joseph went and found something they shouldn’t have, perhaps this cancer stuff. “So Jeb and your father stumble on a party that didn’t want to be found. The bodies dropped off in the same place, hacked up in the same way isn’t the calling card of some psycho tunnel killer, but a clear warning not to go messing around in that end of town. I saw those wounds on Jeb. That kill was a group effort and if you don’t have any other friends down here who would act like that, looks like you found some nasty new neighbors.”
“Well then it’s time we take care of these new neighbors,” Jacob said pounding his fist into his palm.
“We can’t!” Jonathan cut-in quickly. “We don’t know where to expect them. It’s obvious they move like we move. Maybe even quicker. We should concentrate on defense and wait until they make themselves known to us on our perimeter.”
I noticed Jared wasn’t saying anything. He only continued to look straight ahead at attention careful not to react to anything.
“Jonathan is right,” Jasper said. “We should not waste anymore lives on searching this menace out blindly. It is obviously suicide. We must prepare for defensive postures should they try and overtake our community.”
“But don’t you want to find your son’s killer?” I asked Jasper.
“Not at the expense of any more lives. You said it yourself, Mr. Finch, this is a whole new group of people.”
“That’s just a theory! There are a thousand other possibilities. Someone in this room could be the guy just trying to throw our noses off the trail. Anyone could say that Jeb ran off to find Joseph’s killer. But it could’ve just as easily been three or four guys in your own community. Maybe Jeb knew something he wasn’t supposed to.” The four guys seemed to stand up a little straighter when I said that last bit, but not a peep or a twitch from Jared.
“Then what do you suggest?” Jasper asked.
“The only thing that makes sense. I go sniffing around the easternmost end of this Pass.”
Jonathan started laughing, “You’re joking right? You’d never make to THE Pass alive, let alone out the other side.”
“He would with me,” The kid said with some brass in his voice.
“Absolutely not, Joshua! I just lost your father, I won’t lose you.”
They were both right, the kid could get me there and probably in one piece. But Jasper had a point too. It could be a death sentence for both of us. Me? Well I took on the job, but a little kid no matter how gutsy he is or what kind of score he has to settle should never lose his life needlessly. “I can’t ask you to do that, kid. It’s too risky.”
“No it isn’t. I can get you over to the East side easily. Anyone worth his salt down here can.”
Miriam who had been hanging back in the shadows, where she was clearly most comfortable, finally stepped out into the group to make herself known. “Yes, but you don’t know where your father was going and what’s more, you don’t where the real danger lies.”
Joshua opened his mouth to speak, but decided better of it. He was holding back. I said it before and I meant it, this kid was good.
“So clearly the detective is no longer of use to us.” Jonathan said plainly.
What was clear as my grandmother’s crystal was this cat didn’t like me and Lord knows he wasn’t making his way to the top of my list of sweethearts. “Listen bub, the more you try and push me off this case, the more I think something smells rotten with you.”
His face found its way to nasty right quick. “Smell away, gumshoe.” Something told me if Jasper wasn’t standing right there, this guy would’ve decked me clear out the door and down seven levels.
“I think poppa is right,” Miriam said timidly. “No more needless deaths. We should prepare our defenses in case this new community decides to come over our way.”
Jasper’s mouth damn near dropped to the floor with his daughter agreeing with him for once. To be honest, so did mine.
“That’s not going to work sweet stuff. Someone has to figure out with the angle is with these thugs. Most importantly I was hired to find a killer and I damn well mean to.”
“Tobias, I’m just not sure if that’s wise anymore.” Jasper muttered through his nerves. “I’ll pay you the fee and we can call it even.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that either.” Now I was on the hunt, what I was born to do and something like a little fear wasn’t going to stop me from finding those killers even if it was a whole damn colony of them.
Then an idea flashed in my head: I had to beat these birds at their own game. “And besides… Daisy said I had to.”
Miriam looked a little more alarmed. “What do you mean?”
“She said I had to go to the hidden place and there I would find the one who killed Joe. There’s something like a cancer down here in these tunnels. And it’s going to spread unless we figure out what’s going on over there.”
Miriam looked over at Jasper who was now biting his lip. “If she said that…”
Jasper closed his eyes like a surge of pain flashed over him: “Then it is done. Tobias must go if that’s what Daisy said.”
Joshua calmly walked over to my side. He knew now was his time to strike: “At least let me get him over the Pass, Grandpa Jasper. I do that a couple times of week. It’s little kid’s stuff.”
Jasper nodded his head. “Yes, that you may do. Only there and then no further. It will have to be Tobias’s journey on his own from that point.”
“Then he’s as good as dead.” Jonathan said with a smirk. I could tell, he loved that image.
Those patrol goons weren’t going to say much more so we dismissed them and all went our separate ways. Jasper went back to the morgue to help get Jeb ready for his burial and Miriam said she needed to rest her eyes. I went down to the main passage at the bottom of the city wall for a quick smoke since it had been almost over a full hour since my last one and that was tough work for me.
Leaning up against the far end of the wall, I parked myself out in the dark just trying to collect some rambling thoughts when I felt something breeze by me. No noise or physical contact, just a wisp of air. Whatever it was just hung in the darkness for a few moments. I could feel a body about 10 feet away from me. It was looming and tall. Male. I had a hunch who it might be but not entirely sure. “Can I help you?” I said in between puffs.“No, I’m helping you.”
“Good I can use all the help I can get down here.”
“Something else is being overlooked.”
“And that is?” I just realized how exhausted I was from all the running and climbing my body was put through in this asylum. I needed a nap and a scotch, or the other way around. Preferably a scotch, then a nap, then another scotch.
“Someone else is missing.”
Now he had my full attention: “Who?”
“The newest member of this community. Here only a few weeks and now gone. Nowhere to be found.”
“Any guesses where this cat might be?”
“Dead, most likely.”
“Maybe he just left?”
“No. His belongings are still in his quarters. Fifth level. Untouched. He just vanished.”
“What makes you think he’s dead?”
“Ask Jonathan that question.” Now it was certain: quiet Jared.
“I don’t think Jonathan has much use for me. And I noticed you didn’t say much before. Was that for my benefit or are you scared of him?”
There was a long silence as my shadowy friend carefully chose all his words. “No. But he knows more than he lets on.”
“Actually he lets on that he knows plenty. He’s just not saying anything.”
“Or maybe the better person to speak to is Miriam.”
“Why? How’s she messed up in all this?” I stamped out the butt of my cigarette. Hoping to finally move this thing forward.
“Ask her about, Jude.” Another damn J.
I opened my mouth to say something but before a sound was even uttered, he disappeared.
I took out another smoke. Only the Lord knew the next opportunity I’d have to enjoy one. As I was lighting it, I could see the thin body of a twelve year old jump off the city ladder.
“Mr. Finch!” It was my favorite Underground citizen.
“Yeah kid.” He came up next to me. I almost offered him a smoke, but figured it wasn’t a good idea seeing as his grandpappy frowned upon it.
“When are you looking to head to the Pass?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Okay. Well first, I need to see to Jeb’s burial, then as soon as that’s over. We can go.” He said everything with endless enthusiasm. Like he was changing the world with every step of tiny feet. Hands down, the brightest bulb in this dark closet.
“Listen, kid, while you’re over here and we’re away from the others, I got a couple questions for you.” He didn’t immediately say anything. I could feel the heavy weight of Jasper’s grip clamping his mouth shut. “Don’t worry about your grandfather. I won’t say anything to him, but you know more than you let on.”
“I know plenty of stuff.” He said quietly.
“Good and I need to know that plenty of stuff if we’re going to find who murdered your father.”
“Okay, but before you came down here, Grandpa Jasper said he needed to answer all of your questions personally.”
“Right, well, there’s a couple of questions, he doesn’t know the answer to and I think you might.”
I fished the key out of my pocket. “Like what’s this key for?”
He snatched it out of my hand with a lightning fast reflex. “Does my grandfather know about this?”
“I asked him what it was for. He said he didn’t know and then forgot about it.”
“He doesn’t know. He was insistent that none of our doors lock down here. But this is to a special door at the other end of the underground.”
“What’s it to?”
“My own room. My collection.”
“Stuff I get from the surface when I’m on my runs. It’s huge! I got more junk than R.H. Macy in there.”
I smiled although who could see it: “Great, so nothing in there that could help me with this case.”
“Well sure there is. I got a ton of maps of the tunnels. Even a copy of my father’s map for the east side of the Pass. I made it myself.”
I practically belly-laughed at the new-found fortune: “Great! That will sure as hell come in handy…. Now what’s with the J’s?”
“What do mean, J’s?” He said confused.
“Why do all the men have names that start with J’s?”
“Oh, well Grandpa Jasper initiates every new male member of our society with a name that begins with the letter J. If someone is born down here, like me, it’s just understood that your boys with have names with J’s and girls will have names with the letter M.”
“He says J is the letter of justice. And this whole community is built on the idea of justice for all who live here. I’m not sure about the M’s. My grandma’s name was Mary. Maybe that’s why.”
Jasper really was a genuine article nut job and that was a screwball thing if I ever heard it. “Now one last thing and then we’ll go get those maps. How is it that the people down here move so quickly on the sneak?”
“Oh you mean the shinobi.”
“The what now?”
“Shinobi. It’s an ancient art my grandfather studied before he came down here. An Eastern military exercise that takes incredible discipline. It allows the men to move without being seen or heard. That makes you very dangerous to an enemy. Not everyone down here can do it and the girls aren’t taught, although I’m not sure anyone’s asked them if they wanted to learn.”
I know I told myself that nothing would surprise me about these folks but honestly, every new bit of madness still did. “Do you know it?”
“Not yet, my father was going to teach me when I was a little older. He was the master and Jeb was one of his best students. Dad taught our entire legion of patrolmen. ”
“All of them?”
“Everyone of them.”
“So then what you’re telling me is the master of this stuff and one of his best students are dead. What does that say about their killer?” This was no good. Not like I didn’t think it before I came down here but like fine china in the White House it was official: With my aching bones and blind eyes I was toast.
“I don’t know, Mr. Finch. But I’m not scared of them.”
There was no question of it in his voice either, not even a tremble just the deep growl of a son who wanted a piece of his father’s killer. “No I guess you’re not but I can’t take you with me. Jasper’s right, it’s too dangerous.” He didn’t say anything to that. This kid was made of metal, but he also wasn’t going to disobey his grandfather. That is unless I gave him the go-ahead. But I wasn’t going to risk this kid’s life.
A quiet shuffle of feet came up behind me. It wasn’t someone who could move like those border goons but the light footfalls of a woman who know exactly where she was going. Miriam was coming to plead her case for me to stay put and not go sticking my nose into the deep stink of trouble. “I’m glad you’re here. I have question for you.”
The footsteps stopped just close enough for me to feel her hot breath on the back of my neck. “You’re senses are adjusting well,” Miriam said.
“Yeah I’m getting there.”
“Joshua, Jasper needs you to begin rounding up the citizens for the burial.”
I could hear his heels kick up the soot of the path as he jumped into action. “On my way. Mr. Finch meet me after the burial and we’ll make plans to head out.”
“Sure thing kid.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t even hear that. He was already up the ladder doing his duty. “A great kid, your nephew. He has a tried and true heart.”
“He gets that from his father.”
“I’ll bet he does.” I took a cigarette out of my pocket and handed it over to the general direction of Miriam. Her hand deliberately caressed mine when she grabbed it. I knew she would pull out every gun she had in her arsenal to get to me. The flame from my lighter gave me a brief glimpse of what was going to hit me head on. Honestly, I couldn’t resist the look of those lips.
“Thanks.” She said simply as she inhaled.
I took one out of myself while the flame was lit. “Don’t mention it but I’m running low and I doubt there’s a joint down here to pick up a pack.”
She laughed coyly, “No not here. You’ll have to go up to the surface and get them yourself.”
Now that I had a cigarette in my mouth I wasn’t up for the chit-chat anymore, “So I got a question for you?”
“I only hope I have the answer.”
“Who’s Jude and where has he gone off to?”
She took a long drag deep inside her lungs and slowly heaved the exhale out all over me. “I see Jared spoke to you.”
“Who cares who came talking to me. Who is he?”
“Someone I was involved with from the surface. He was a real bit of trouble. Helped me out a couple of times when I ran off to the surface. Hard drinker and a hard gambler who lost everything and came down looking for me. He wanted to start new down here with us so poppa initiated him. He thought we would live a happy little life together, he and I in the dark-”
“But you wanted no part of it?”
“Not really. He certainly wasn’t husband material.”
“Are you wife material?”
There was a deep breath after that one. “For the right man I am.” She came a little closer to me.
I was doing my best to ignore her advances: “So where is he?”
“Who knows? I don’t think the underground life suited him. He needed the booze and the smokes and the gambling. When he found out he couldn’t get that here and saw that I wasn’t coming out to play, he ran off. Probably tried to make his way back to the surface.”
“Then why wouldn’t he take his stuff with him.”
“Stuff?” She throw up a deeper laugh, “He didn’t have much of anything. We gave him most of what he needed. Why do you care? He vanished weeks ago this can’t have anything to do with Joseph’s murder.”
“It doesn’t sound that way to me.”
She threw her unfinished cigarette to the ground, which damn-near killed me, then put both her hands on my shoulder and began to caress them, “Can you stop being a detective for a few minutes and just be a man.”
“Why? Do you think the man is interested?”
“I think he may be.” She turned me around and planted her lips on mine. She was right, he was interested and her kiss made me even more interested.
There was no doubt that I would take a minute or two to savor the moment. Of course I knew deep down in that rapidly beating ticker that this was mostly for show. I pushed her way. “What do you want from me?”
“Who said I wanted anything?”
“I did. What’s all this about?”
“Attraction Mr. Finch. You know how it works don’t you. I kiss you. You kiss me. Need I go on?” I didn’t say anything. I wouldn’t goad her on with more talk. I just stood there finishing that cigarette I had in my hand. There wasn’t much left to it. “You know you’ll be killed if you go over the Pass?”
“It’s a pretty safe bet something like that might happen.”
She grabbed my shoulders again, “And I don’t want that! I don’t want you to go!”
“I didn’t think you did, but I have to. I took a job and I’ll see it through. Besides, it isn’t set in stone I’ll bite it over there.”
“Without someone who knows the way, you won’t have a chance.”
“Listen sister, I’ve found myself in some sticky situations before. Besides, how would you know? You ever been ever there?”
“I know there are a thousand different ways to die down here if you venture out of the City without a guide.”
“Yeah, like poor Jude, huh?”
She let out one of those put-upon sighs, “Jude was a drunk fool.”
“Then we may have more in common than you think so you might want to stay clear. I’m about to find the same trouble he did.”
“Jude has nothing to do with this. So you can get that our of your head. We’ve had citizens come and go from here hundreds of times.”
“Why would Jared go out of his way to mention it and your name with him?”
“Jared is a trouble maker.”
“Oh really, I would’ve pinned that ribbon on Jonathan. His sunny attitude screams out suspect to me.”
Miriam tried laughing but it had a hint of bad-acting Broadway ingenue under her forced cackle. She practiced the lines but they were coming out all wrong in front of her audience. “Jonathan loved my brother more than I did. They were inseparable.”
“Apparently that’s everyone’s story down here. Except yours.”
“And that makes me number one on your list doesn’t it?”
It didn’t. But I still wanted her to think it did. I knew those soft hands couldn’t kill in cold blood but she could very well be in bed with the guys who used the knife. If I could convince her that giving them up could save her skin, I’d be home free. “Sister, the only one not on it is your sainted nephew.”
She didn’t have much to say to that. “I wish you would believe me,” she muttered sadly.
She started using her hands again. This time across my damp chest. “I really am attracted to you. That this isn’t a game I’m playing for sport.”
I grabbed her tightly by the forearms and threw her up against, what I hoped, was a wall. “I don’t believe you. I think you’re trying to sell me on this romance bit so I’ll look away from something.”
She started to squirm under my grip but she wasn’t trying to break free. The dame was enjoying it. “Like what Mr. Hot Shot? A jealous sister who always wanted daddy’s love? A jilted lover who killed my brother to win my heart then skipped town without a trace?” That wasn’t rage. It was lust. She was on fire and clearly no good was going to come from that.
“Any of those entrees look good on my menu. You pick.” I was starting to get angry that she wouldn’t crack so I held her down even harder. That excited her more. Unfortunately my rage was now turning into something else and that was the something else I was trying to avoid all along.
“I already told you, I didn’t kill him!” She broke her hands free and drew me in closer against her body. I could feel every curve the good Lord gave her and that was the end of me.
“Then how about telling me who did?”
She kissed me again. This time a little too long. Then all my common sense went black like that tunnel. Her looks, the heat and that darkness mixed itself into a cocktail I couldn’t help but slug back. I needed to have her. No matter what kind of trouble she was. “Let’s just forget about all that. Even for a little while,” She whispered.
I would be less of a gentlemen if I went into further detail as to our next moves, but I’m pretty sure you can fill in the blanks.
It wasn’t long before we were laying on our backs covered in a thin film of soot and sweat; just two lone cigarettes burning in the dark. Those were my last two. I would’ve sawed off my left arm for a shower and a scotch but none of those things were hanging around. All I’ll say is, my eyesight got a lot better after all that business.
“You know I had a room with a bed in it?” She said.
“I couldn’t climb up that damn ladder again.”
Miriam laughed, “You’re not that old.”
“Down here I feel it. My body is used to booze and smokes, not climbing up and down walls and moving like spooks.”
“When it becomes your only way of life you make it work.”
“But you all chose this life. It’s not the only one out there.”
“I didn’t. I wasn’t given a choice. The children born down here didn’t. Some of them don’t even know there’s a world above their heads. They become animals of the Underground. They aren’t capable of living any other way. I guess I’ve always been somewhere in between.”
I heard distant chimes coming from the down the path. They rang at different pitches, like a small set of chimes flapping around in the breeze. “Am I going bananas or do you hear that too?” I thought maybe God was calling me home.
“It’s Jeb’s burial possession.” She jumped up off the ground. “Quick, make yourself presentable.”
I stood up and shuffled my clothes around to look something like put together. Not that it mattered. I had serious doubts that the folks down here were dressing up for the occasion. “What do those chimes mean?”
Miriam took my hand and led me down the tunnel. I wasn’t joshing when I said my eyes were better. I could definitely make out more then I could before. The walls had a ridged texture that I couldn’t make out before and now I could see a luscious silhouette in front of me, not just the faint breeze of a dame in the dark. I didn’t need her hand for guidance, but she didn’t need to know that just yet.
“Those are the chimes of the Shinobi. A special type of glass pipe that my father rings when a patrolman has passed. It’s an ancient practice to ease Jeb’s soul to the other side.”
“The other side of what?”
“Death.” She spat in a way a mother would to her dim-witted child.
That word sat heavy with me. Just then. Like never before in all my reckless life. I had been held at gunpoint on 24 different occasions, trapped in three burning buildings and drank myself to near death more times than I’d like to admit. But that word from her mouth felt more like death to me than all those other times put together. Maybe it was the angelic sounds those chimes made. Even through that thick stale air, they drizzled off the curved tunnel walls and made me feel like I was on my way to the pearly gates.
Or maybe because I just made love to a beautiful woman who, by rights, should never have to touch the likes of me, but when Miriam said “death” I felt like it was close.
Then I remembered something my broken-down brain had long forgotten: Mrs. Brannigan, the old Irish broad who lived upstairs from us on 47th Street. A tall thick woman with strawberry-colored hair that I watched turn gray the longer I knew her. She tied a pair of wind chimes to her fire escape. The one right above our bedroom window. Mrs. Brannigan was a little slow though because it faced the back the of the buildings and where hardly a breeze came through. But every once and awhile with a big summer storm or a sideways gust of wind, they would tap into each other and the sound was something you don’t here in the tenements of Hells Kitchen. I would pretend I was somewhere else, out in the country or a fantasy land like in the books my mother read Roger and me when we were squirts. For the first time, in a very long time, I was getting sentimental.
And like a little lapdog I followed Miriam deeper into a bunch of tunnels I could actually see. We turned a corner and hung a sharp left keeping the chimes within ear shot. As they grow louder so did the the collected hum of what sounded like at least a hundred people.
“Poppa ordered ‘Traumerei’ to be sung.” I heard the normal snark in Miriam’s voice melt like an ice cube would in this heat.
“What does that mean?”
“Jeb played the violin. This was one of his favorites. Everyone in the City would stop what they were doing to listen when he played it.” Now Miriam was getting sentimental. “Jeb was Russian. He used to tell stories of this Russian pianist who could play this song so well it could make you weep. They defected together in the 20’s. Apparently this was an important song to the Russians.”
It had a simple melody and to hear all those people hum it in unison was a sound my ears had never heard. Not even when my mother would drag us to church. Which wasn’t often. “Sounds like a lullabye.”
“It is. Schumann. The title means dreaming in German.”
“Why would the Russkies like a German song?” It just came out in lieu of the moment it was crashing through.
“Jeb said beautiful music was the most important thing to a true Russian. It’s why he left his country. He said there was no place for an artist in the Communist regime.” There was a bit of sadness in her voice. “He taught all the children down here how to sing.” She finally realized that Jeb was dead.
“Christ, Jeb sounded like quite a guy.”
Miriam had nothing to say to that. We took a sharp right and walked down a tunnel with a warm glow on the other side. It was the most light I had seen in one place since I got down there. When we cleared the archway we nearly broke through a procession of City folks stretched out down the entirety go the tunnel. They each had a lit candle in hand and were intently humming this tune Miriam was talking about.
I could faintly make out the front of the line. There was a wrapped body being carried on the shoulders of four men dressed entirely in black, clearly patrolmen. There was one person in the front leading the procession and my bet was on Jasper. Everyone else was in two neat lines flanking either side of the tunnel walls. Miriam held me back till we could tack ourselves on to the end.
It seemed like a good five minutes that we waited listening to the hums and seeing the blank dirty faces dirge on ahead. We eventually joined the march and moved slowly behind in the dark. My runner came up behind us from the deeper darkness with candles in hand. He handed one to each of us and I lit them with my lighter. Miriam had joined the left line, I joined the right. Joshua stood behind us, alone, a perfect symmetry to his grandfather in the front: Heir apparent to this oddball netherworld.
I wanted to ask questions but the song overpowered everything. For the first time even Joshua, humming his sturdy heart out, looked sad. I thought I saw a small tear on his cheek shining in the candlelight. I wondered if he’d just realized the full weight of his loses. Then I thought of my father, again. He just kept barging back into my head. I wasn’t that much older than Joshua when pops was killed. Even though when he was around it didn’t feel like he was around, there was a deep loneliness to facing manhood without a father. I used to thank my lucky stars for Roger, but he wasn’t that much older and we both felt a little lost when pops never came home. Obviously I had just realized the full weight of my losses too. My eyes were too old and dry to tear up.
The procession started dipping down an invisible slope. We eventually filed down the same steep path that descended into the black. The tunnel walls just disappeared and there was open, dark air all around us. Under my feet the concrete of the tunnels gave way to something more like rock and dirt.
The halos of light from the candles reached as far as they could and then faded. Then was nothing for them to reflect off of. I wanted to ask where we were, but I didn’t dare. Everyone was fixed on the walk, fixed on the light of their own candles and completely intent on the tune they were humming.
We continued to descend into the nothing with Jasper leading the way. After the fifth or sixth round of the same melody, I was pretty sure I knew it myself. I didn’t hum though. It seemed out of place for me since I didn’t know Jeb, or these other people. And besides I wasn’t the type to hum.
When the line stopped suddenly it was clear we had reached our destination, wherever that was. The procession of candles began to branch off like a stream that hit a break of rocks. The lights began to trickle upwards and terrace themselves on the side of what must’ve been a hill. Then more candles appeared. The marchers were bending over and lighting candles that were already stuck in the ground.
It looked as if someone had turned on a deep country night sky where the stars went of forever.
Miriam leaned over to me as the humming died out and said softly, “Those are the markers of our buried citizens. They also mark the graves of those we’ve found in the tunnels.”
“How do you know who’s who?” I said through the right side of my mouth.
“We don’t. Every soul is equally mourned and laid to rest here. Poppa says we live collectively and die collectively.”
Interesting. “Where are we? This isn’t a tunnel anymore.”
“This is the edge of the Great Deep. The root of the island of Manhattan above. This is ancient dirt. At least that’s what Daisy says.”
Miriam sounded different when she talked about these things. She wasn’t the same jaded dame smoking butts with me in the tunnels by her daddy’s wall. She talked like she hated this life, but she believed in it at the same time. It was probably why she could never make it back on the street in the real world. There was no ritual or mystery to a day job or raising a bunch of brats in a tenement. Here there was danger and weirdo beliefs that every once and awhile turned themselves into something downright beautiful like this.
When every candle was lit, I could see the forms of people standing on the jagged folds of the hillside. I could even make out some of the faces. I saw Daisy standing next to Jasper and the four patrolman, one was Jonathan, lowering the wrapped body of Jeb in front of Jasper. Two men with shovels were standing off to the side waiting to do what they had to do. Miriam, Joshua and myself were standing at the bottom of all this looking up.
“My heart is heavy to come here again so soon after placing my son and your brother Joseph here.” Japser’s voice rang out and echoed off the hill around him. That space must have been enormous. “Now we come to send our brother Jeb to the other side of this Great Deep that surrounds us. The passage between this world and the next. The great sea between the islands of here and there. We need not spend the time talking about the man Jasper was, for we all know he was a brother of honor and duty. A skilled shinobi and superlative patrolmen. A man of music and soul. A man who protected his fellow citizens and died in the pursuit of revenge against the wrongful death of his kin. We now commend Jeb’s soul through to the other side with all of our best wishes. May he find his family, his friends, his hopes and his dreams all waiting for him there. And may we all, the dark citizen of this life, someday be together in the light of the next.” Jasper bowed his head down. The other citizens did the same.
Daisy looked over at me and gave me a wide toothy smile which I thought was out of place at this solemn event. Joshua came up behind me and whispered, “Jeb is next to my father. He would have wanted it that way.”
“I thought you didn’t mark the graves?”
“We don’t, but I’ll always remember that one.”
Of course he would: “Bring me up to it, will ya?”
He darted ahead and I followed as the others climbed down the side of the hill forming their processional lines for the trip back. Joshua stopped in front of Jasper and Daisy.
“Little Joe,” She smiled. “I always love to see you.” I came up behind him. Miriam stayed at the base of the hill lost in her own little thoughts I guess. “And Tobias Son of Tom. I now love to see you too.”
“Thanks Daisy, I kinda like looking at you.” I said smirking at her screwball way of talking.
“I came to show Mr. Finch, Poppa’s grave.” Joshua said looking for Jasper’s approval.
“I guess it is only fitting you meet my son in some capacity. And now here he rests.” Jasper’s hand motioned to his left where a thick white candle was burning at the head of freshly turned over earth. Jeb’s wrapped body was flush up next to it and the new grave was almost half the length of Jeb.
I bowed my head toward it. “So sorry to be meeting your acquaintance this way Joe, but I’ll get the guys who did this to you. I promise.” I’m not sure what moved me to say something like that, but after I did it, I felt foolish talking to the dirt.
Daisy outright laughed, “He doesn’t hear you, Tobias. His ears are not here. They’re over there.” She pointed into the blackness. I guess they all thought their souls went through that darkness and out the other side. Was there any room for God in all that? Not that I’m a religious man, but it seems strange that at a funeral there was no mention of the Big Man.
“I guess we better be getting on our way Joshua. The sooner I get over this Pass, the better.” I said.
“Wait!” Daisy cried out. “Before you go, I need you to come with me.”
I looked over at Jasper and Joshua confused. They didn’t seem phased. “Can it wait?” The two guys with the shovels came over and pushed us over to the side as they started digging.
“NO! Come now, it won’t take long.”
“Go Tobias,” Jasper whispered, “I’m sure it’s worth your while.”
“I’ll wait here for you.” Joshua was gaining back some of his pep.
“Come Tobias Son of Tom. I have a surprise for you.” Daisy put a vice grip on my arm. “Leave the candle, you don’t need it.” I gave it over to Joshua who stuck it next to Jeb’s burial plot. I followed Daisy as she climbed further up the side of the hill into the black nothing of that Great Deep.