Eventually I found myself at 3:55 and leaning my left shoulder against a street lamp at 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 were 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 pitch black tunnels with a constant 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. Did he mean 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 that were 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 was swallowed by the tunnel and with one deep out-of-shape 43-year old breath, I followed him into the darkness.