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 I was 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. 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.