The following takes place between 9pm and 10pm
The box was close and humid, and I felt as if I was disturbing a tomb as I lifted the ancient receiver and pressed it to my ear. “Hello?”
“Washington Commons, Three Twenty North Adams Street, Exploration Museum.” The line went dead.
I was punching the address into my phone before my feet even hit plank. Keith was waiting. “Think about my offer yet?”
“Dude, I’ve been gone like five seconds.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Got a small motorboat tied up at the back of the island.” He gestured vaguely off into the darkness behind him.
“I don’t want to swim again. Take me back to my dock, and I’ll mull it over on the trip.”
Keith thought we had all day, but I set a sprinting pace across the island, pushing through the waist high grass, ignoring the bugs that swarmed up in the wake of our disturbance. I was first into the boat, and Keith jumped lightly in beside me with the mooring rope, pushing us off from the rocks. The engine started with a growl like a lawnmower, and Keith maneuvered us away from the island with the tiller.
I just sat in the bow and stared at the dark lake. With the black but occasionally twinkling shore and the oil-slick dark water, I felt like I was on an alien planet. I was in the middle of an alien decision – should I trust this stranger? Allow him to tag along in exchange for being my spotter? Could it hurt? I kept my hand on the Sandshark the whole time. There was still something about Keith that made me nervous. I felt like I was meeting one of the “V” aliens in real life – an imposter wrapped in human skin. But hey, didn’t people call me the artificial girl?
We made excellent time back to the beach. Instead of taking the longer diagonal route I’d swum, Keith angled the boat straight back for the shore, and then skirted the coast all the way back to the dock I’d jumped off of. With the pace Keith kept, we managed to reach the dock in ten minutes.
I pulled myself up on the dock as Keith roped the boat to a post. My gun wasn’t there. I kicked a bollard. “Son of a bitch!”
“What?” Keith looked surprised by my outburst.
“Someone took my gun.” I was literally seething with rage. I could feel it burning in my heart. My money, my time, someone took it. Damn them.
He pointed at my shoulder, where the Vanquisher hung, and then walked calmly up the pier.
I checked in with the girl in the cramped phonebooth office. “Anybody turn in a Super Soaker?”
“No. Couple of guys from the beach took one they found unattended though. Said to tell you thanks for the show and that next time you should keep going.” Her tone was derisive, and I had to restrain myself from punching a hole through the cheap paneled wall.
It wasn’t worth the time to go and look for the Pulse Master, maybe beat the crap out of whoever’d taken it. I sure wanted to though. Instead I burned off some angry energy sprinting for the parking lot. Nobody shot at us, and Keith kept up with my punishing pace easily.
“Which car is yours?” I asked, out of breath as I slowed to a trot.
“Like hell. You don’t walk that far in an hour.”
“Ok, I ran some of it. Either way, I’m lacking a means of conveyance. May I ride with you?”
I turned to face him and realized I hadn’t made my decision until right then. The outcome surprised me. “Fine. You can follow me, ride with me. Try any funny stuff and the situation gets thorny. Got it?”
He didn’t seem fazed at all that I’d just threatened him. “Perfectly. I would expect nothing less. Every rose has its thorns.”
I whirled, his words burning into my heart like a branding iron. “WHAT did you say?”
“Merely making a pop culture reference to your metaphor. Do you attribute some other meaning to my words?”
I regulated my breathing, got into the car. “You have no idea. And you’re seriously weird, you know that?”
He got in beside me. “I have been informed of this by several notable authorities of unimpeachable character. I suspect they can diagnose it far better than I.”
I rolled my eyes and threw the car into gear.
My phone’s GPS said the trip should take seven minutes. I got lucky with the lights and the lack of police presence. I made the trip in four, pedal to the floor the whole time.
The trip to Washington Commons took us along the blighted stretch of North Webster Avenue. Lined with dilapidated houses all sagging to the ground amid overgrown yards, it looked like it belonged in one of the Chicago ghettos. Girls in sparkly shirts, tiny denim skirts, and Ugg boots, guys in barely-hanging-on pants and wifebeaters all prowled the corners, large dogs on thick chains, their profanity-filled barely-English wafting through the Mazda along with the scent of several illicit substances. Must’ve had a damn campfire of green going out there somewhere.
Keith sniffed audibly. I didn’t peg him for a user, but then I’d only known him for a couple of minutes.
I turned from Webster onto my old stomping grounds of University, crossed the river, and entered the downtown. It was a schizophrenic street. On the right stood respectable looking buildings – the Sierra, an apartment building, a not-sinister looking parking garage, banks, a few insurance companies. On the left were rundown auto repair shops, a few dingy brick buildings of indeterminate use that had been in every shooter videogame ever made, and what looked like a two-story house with a sign out front promising “Amateur Night! Girls’ Clothes 95% Off.”
The stop-n-rob gas stations on every corner looked like they had bulletproof glass windows, and under the white-orange streetlights, the cracked and weed-filled parking lots were home to an amazing assortment of high-end vehicles, Cadillacs and Lexuses that would’ve seemed out of place in the day time. Their owners leaned and lounged against them, a slightly more upper-class set of the men and women currently strolling the cooling sidewalks of North Webster Ave.
Right on Pine, and Keith said “And another right, please.” I spun the wheel to the right and pulled into a dimly lit parking garage. Ramps led in all directions, and row numbers were painted on the I-beams above. I slowed to a crawl. “Where to now?”
He pointed vaguely left and up. “Third story.”
I had a feeling we were going to get lost on the way out. The dark corridors led all over the place, and none of it seemed to make any logical sense. Fortunately the “gangstas” from the street below hadn’t infected this area. I felt more or less sanguine about the idea of leaving the car.
There was a checkpoint set up on the third level, and I parked around a corner from it. Close enough to get to on a run, far enough away that nobody’d see the car and set up camp. I checked my weapons – full and full – and then Keith and I headed for the checkpoint.
It was a ten foot tall tent set up in the only gap between pieces of tall, moveable metal fencing. The overweight balding guy standing next to it looked bored. He cut right to the chase: “Primary soakers please.”
“Dude, how’m I supposed to fight?
“Pistols and shotguns only this hour.” You leave your primary in the first room of the tent, and I give you a ticket. This one will do.” He handed me a ticket from a roll, number four thousand eight hundred and fifteen. “I place a sign on it with your ticket number. From the second room, you take one of the shotguns. When you leave, we trade.”
I shrugged out of the Vanquisher strap and set it on the tarp floor of the tent, off away from the scatter of other soakers. There were a lot of them. “And this is just one entrance,” Keith whispered. “There are at least five more.”
“Thanks for the confidence,” I hissed back. Why were we being quiet?
The next room contained stacks and stacks of – if the labels could be trusted – Super Soaker brand Shot Blast. It looked vaguely shotgun-like, with the exception of the pistol grip, scope, and collapsible stock. The stock felt flimsy, the scope was a painted piece of glass in an ACOG-styled plastic tube, and the grip lacked a trigger. Wonderful. Slide-action piston gun. A glorified syringe.
“I feel like a retard,” I muttered. At least the gun was full. They’d given me that slight courtesy.
“You look the part wonderfully,” Keith said happily.
Everything about this guy made me either doubt his sanity or want to punch him.
Two choices presented themselves on the other side of the tent. To the right were double doors that opened into a dimly lit used-to-be-a-department-store. To the left were double doors opening into…a hallway it looked like.
I picked the hallway.
It was dimly lit just like the department store. The walls were a blank gray, several empty glass display cases set into recesses. Ahead, a rotted ceiling tile lay on the flecked tile floor in a puddle of yellow-ish water.
The hallway opened – roughly – onto a wide balcony surrounding a central courtyard area. At the exact end of the hall was a restaurant, now shuttered with a chainlink door, ancient dusty barstools sitting on the bar. “Diamond Dave’s” the dead neon letters above the wide door proclaimed. To the left was a storefront, and a little ways past that, a railing looking down onto the first floor atrium. The storefront said “Children’s Exploration Museum” in sagging wooden cutout letters, their bright colors faded and stained by dripping water.
The door was open and I stood at the entrance, staring into the pitch-black interior. It registered in my head that this would be Surefire and pistol work. It also registered that it seemed a little too early in the hour to be claiming a chip.
First and foremost though was a rising sense of panic. Why? Why this place? Why now, on this trip, why did I have to see what I couldn’t face? Why couldn’t it have been a jewelry store or a restaurant like Diamond Dave’s?
“Something wrong?” Keith asked quietly. The tomb-like atmosphere must have been affecting him as well.
“Yeah,” I whispered back.
We moved into the store slowly, the spotlight beam from the Surefire sweeping through the darkness ahead. The dark seemed to close in like a fog, a cloud of two decades’ ghosts and my regret stirred up with the dust we raised in passing. At the front of the store were a long row of kids’ sized checkout counters, mini plastic registers and conveyor belts a great place to teach basic math skills. I stumbled as my foot contacted something, and I reached down, picked up a plastic hamburger, velcro’d to plastic hamburger buns. I clenched my jaw and sidearmed the toy to crash into a corner like it was burning my hand.
To the left was a plexiglass sandbox, mounted digging tools rusting in place. I looked over my shoulder at my trailing photographer, and noticed he wasn’t there. I gave the store a cursory sweep with the flashlight beam. Nowhere. Probably hiding in a corner getting excellent footage of me tripping over crap on the floor.
There was a thick rubber mat on the floor, a quick flick of the light showed me cartooned houses and trees and roads – meant for playing with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. Across the room – on the right side – was a massive dollhouse, its open back facing the room. A six foot by six foot display case of little rooms and cubbyholes, filled with little knickknacks? Great place for hiding a clue. I ran my flashlight’s beam over the walls, the white light bouncing off plastic trees, beds, furniture, toys…it caught something odd in passing, and I jerked the beam back in surprise. The dollhouse room was a nursery, done in pink. A miniature crib sat along one wall, the center of the tiny room dominated by a fresh rose blossom.
My breath caught in my throat.
I glared at the little room, and moved the beam over to the next. An index card, neatly folded sat in the middle of that room. I grabbed the card, glared at the dollhouse one last time, and ducked back to the other side of the room. Near the back was a castle-shaped play area, tall walls, small door, and a slide. I crouched in a corner, Shot Blast on my knees as I typed the telephone number on the card into my phone. The voice on the other end said “Pee Jay’s Collectibles.” Wonderful. I’d found this place by accident, how was I gonna find another store without a sign?
I hurled the folded card across the room and stood, once more taking up the Harries grip on the Triple Shot and flashlight. I crossed the room quickly and deliberately, sweeping the bright beam of light over everything, making sure no one was waiting to ambush me. Keith could catch up – or not – on his own schedule.
He was waiting outside the store for me. “Dude, where were you? I thought you were supposed to be taking pictures.”
Keith tapped the camera hanging from the strap around his neck. “I got everything that I need.” That solemn voice of his was getting annoying.
“Well c’mon, I’ve gotta find ‘Pee Jay’s Collectibles.’ Time’s a-wasting.”
I walked cautiously deeper into the second level. Past Diamond Dave’s was a shuttered counter-top that looked like it had been a snack stand of some type. Across the hallway to the right was a stucco storefront with arched windows and doorways. Beneath some of the windows were glass display cases. Probably had been a jewelry store at one point. The hallway opened up to the second level balcony, and I glanced around the darkened level before stepping carefully up to the edge of the dead escalator before me. The abandoned mall felt like it was crumbling, decaying, reading to implode and slump to the earth at any moment.
The chaos below was hard to describe. The center of the atrium had once been a waist deep pool. Apparently they’d covered it occasionally, for events. Half was full of trash and half of it was covered, the artificial flooring over the now-empty pool supporting a pink plastic gingerbread house the size of a shed. At the four corners of the balcony, palm trees had been planted. One had – in the interregnum – crashed to the floor, crushing tile and smashing the edge of the pool. Another was leaned crazily against the balcony railing. All were dead, the withered fronds in rings around the trunks.
A tower containing a dead elevator stood in the balcony corner kitty-corner from us, the panes of glass fitted into the supporting metal framework spider-webbed with cracks or just shattered altogether. A similar story was played out overhead – the broad skylights cracked or replaced with sheet-metal where they had given way. The moonlight filtering in gave the desolate scene a haunted look.
Once, this place had been alive, active, bustling with people. They’d brought their kids here, shopped here, eaten here, worked here. Countless little dramas and excitements and tragedies played out here, boredom and fun, the fear of a lost child, the joy and jitters of opening days. Here they’d escaped the same acidic sunshine that had shone on me this afternoon, kicked the snow from their boots onto sopping wet industrial rugs, tracked in the autumn leaves, walked out into gloriously cool, dim summer evenings after a long day’s work…and now the old, untended building creaked, shifting on its foundations another millimeter towards the earth. The creak seemed to say “Everything ends.”
Flashlights from the atrium floor jolted me from my reverie, and I stepped back from the edge. I glanced around the upper level, and something out-of-the-ordinary caught my eye. In the sea of chain-link doors, one storefront was open.
Had to be a clue. Or a sign.
It was across the upper level, and I motioned for Keith to follow me. We moved across the brown tile floor, low, keeping away from the railing. The locked storefronts we passed were eerie – I’m not superstitious or afraid of the dark, but now that I had a reason to move and to look at everything carefully, all the doors looked like waiting mouths, eldritch horrors waiting in the cavernous blackness of the emptiness beyond.
The black doorway of the open storefront I’d seen was solid.
For a single irrational second I thought I’d run into some sort of membrane from those Lovecraftian terrors I’d been imagining moments before, and bile rose in my throat.
It was a garbage bag curtain. Overlapped curtains, actually. I tapped on them and they swayed inwards. I ducked under, and kenned the entire scene in one astonished second.
The curtain had been to keep out the light.