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Road Less Traveled
A "Hidden City" Story
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
T-Bird let out another horrible retching sound, which was met with splashes from the toilet bowl. He coughed, spitting out the acidic foulness in his mouth, and washed the rest of the taste out over the sink.
He flushed the toilet with his shoe, grabbed his soda cup, and walked out of the bathroom. The mariachi music, which had been muted by the bathroom door and T-Bird's own noises, filled his ears. The restaurant wasn't large -- at best only seated 30 people -- but it seemed spacious with only two other customers inside.
T-Bird took hold of the tray that was sitting on the counter. A glance told him it was probably his order. He normally wouldn't have cared whether he picked up someone else's order, but he was allergic to avocado, and in a place like this, they'd put guacamole in everything unless you told them otherwise.
He took a bite from his burrito. The flavors were culinary heaven; the texture of the refried beans and rice together supported the grilled chicken, sour cream, and spicy salsa. This burrito was a pretty common order for him, ever since he found this restaurant a few years ago. He was usually reasonably happy with it, but for some reason, today this burrito was one of the most delicious things he had ever tasted in his entire life.
For the first time in the past several hours, he finally began to relax. After this, get home, smoke some weed, play X-Box, fuck all this noise. T-Bird's thoughts were simple, short bursts as he slowly ate his burrito, savoring every bite.
His cell phone rang. Before even looking at the display, he knew that it was someone he didn't want to talk to. With a sigh of regret, he answered the phone, still without looking at the caller I.D. "Hello, Claude," he coldly spoke into the phone.
"Good afternoon, Terrance. I have called to offer an apology," the voice, unmistakably Claude's, answered.
What the hell is he trying to pull now? "I'm listening." T-Bird took another bite from his burrito, this time without anywhere near the same sense of enjoyment as before.
"I have misjudged the situation in which you were placed, and likewise, have misjudged you. If you are still interested in our deal..."
T-Bird cut him off, in a momentary show of power. "I am."
"Excellent, Terr-- pardon me, T-Bird. I'm going to be indisposed for some time. However, I need someone to..." Claude paused to emphasize the next word, "...collect someone for me."
T-Bird knew Claude was just toying with him. Nonetheless, he knew what Claude was capable of if he was angered, which was enough to keep his tone of voice civil. "Go on."
"There is a woman named Heather Christensen. Bring her to me, and you can rest assured that your new powers will not wane."
Angry retorts ran through T-Bird's mind. Who the hell are you, to order me around after what you've done? Why don't you do your own dirty work? But instead of voicing his annoyance, he simply answered, "Okay."
"Good. Now take down this address."
T-Bird stood up, cell phone still to his ear. He walked over to the cashier and took one of the pens in the cup by the credit card machine. After scribbling down the address on a napkin, he hung up the phone and left, leaving his unfinished burrito and soda behind.
* * *
As they entered the building, Michael saw a figure in a chair -- bound, gagged, and quite visibly frightened. He could see fresh cuts and bruises on a face he barely recognized as Jason's. Seeing someone close to him tortured like this, he felt the pit of his stomach lurch. This was real life, not some movie, and the level of violence evident on Jason's body nauseated him.
For a moment, he wondered whether or not Sue cared, but she kept shouting "Fuck!" and walked right past. Jason whimpered and cowered, crying as she approached. After she passed him, he focused his fearful eyes on Michael.
"Hey, buddy, we're going to get you out of here," Michael said as soothingly as possible. Jason cried harder as Michael knelt next to him, but didn't flinch or cower the way he had when Sue was angrily walking towards him.
Michael looked up, but Sue wasn't anywhere to be found. Crazy bitch. He wasn't sure whether to be worried or relieved. He put those thoughts aside, concentrating instead on his friend's well-being.
Jason gulped at the fresher air as Michael removed the gag. He tried to say "Thank you," but all that came out were consonants surrounded by coughs.
"Don't talk, Jason. We'll get you help," Michael said as he undid the ropes binding Jason.
Once freed, Jason slumped out of the chair and vomited on the ground. Michael knew from years of seeing his friend be ill that Jason's gag reflex was easy to trigger. Poor guy must have been driven mad with that gag in his mouth.
Jason continued crying, not moving from the position in which he fell. Michael started to pick him up when Sue called out from further in the building, "Leave him."
Jason's weight was on Michael's shoulders. Without turning around, Michael replied, "I'm not doing that."
"I need you. We have a huge problem."
"I came here to save my friend. I'm not leaving him."
Michael heard a soft click echo in the expansive room: Sue pulling the hammer of her pistol back. His initial thought turned to how unnaturally loud the click had to be to echo, and then mentally shrugged as he realized Sue must have made that happen for effect.
Sue continued. "And you saved him. If you want to keep saving him, you'll come with me."
Michael knew she wasn't bluffing. He slowly turned around, moving Jason with him. "God damn it, Sue!" He looked into her emotionless eyes and realized that killing someone just to make a point didn't seem to violate whatever sense of humanity Sue had in her. Michael shivered, and knew what he had to do.
He gently laid Jason down, regretting every moment of it. He was sure that his eyes were blazing with anger, but he doubted Sue cared. I wonder if she can even tell.
As though she were reading his mind, she answered. "Look, I don't care if you hate me. I don't care if you want to kill me. I don't care that you obviously don't understand a fucking thing, Michael. My job is to protect the City, and it's in some serious fucking trouble right now."
Michael stood there, not responding. It would take a lot more than that before he'd move.
Sue continued. "That's your job now too, Lord of Traffic. Charlie's disappeared, and I need you to help me get him back. I'm sure Claude has something to do with this."
"Even if you think I'm willing to just leave my friend behind, what the fuck can I do to help you, Miss I-can-shoot-myself-in-the-leg-and-smile badass bitch with a gun?!" Michael yelled, his voice feral. He took a couple of deep breaths, and hoped to hell he didn't just commit Jason or himself to death right there and then.
She lowered the gun. "Truthfully, I don't know. But you wouldn't be here if you weren't needed."
"Yeah, I'm needed here."
"Michael, please. If Charlie is on the other side, he's going to die soon. If that happens, we'll probably die too, or at least not be able to walk on this side."
Side? What "side?"
"That means they win, and I'm sure they'll take any frustrations we caused them out on your friends." She almost casually motioned to Jason with her gun.
Michael didn't know if he believed her, and he sure didn't trust her, but he had an idea. "Help me get him outside, and I'll go with you."
She stowed her gun and picked up Jason by herself, slinging him with surprising care over her shoulder. Michael was a little irked that rather than help him as he'd asked, she simply did the work herself, but it was obvious that Sue was easily strong enough to do it on her own. "The sidewalk should be fine, where he can be seen from the street."
Sue carried Jason out of the building and put him down on the sidewalk. As they began to walk back inside, Michael closed his eyes and focused on a single word, Ambulance. When he heard sirens coming down the street, he followed Sue deeper into the building.
* * *
T-Bird drove to the address Claude gave him. He parked on the street, next to the driveway. He felt out of place in the pristine, well-to-do suburb of Land Park. Rolling hills, expensive homes and large, well-manicured lawns obscured the fact that he was only a few miles away from the worst part of town -- South Sacramento, the place T-Bird called home.
He got out of the car and took a deep breath, remembering how exhausted mentally commanding people to stay away from this morning's accident had made him. Not knowing if he had the strength to do that again, should someone call the police, he didn't want to risk causing a scene now.
A chuckle burst from his lips as an idea occurred to him. It can't be that easy, can it? T-Bird grinned and walked up to the front door.
* * *
Sue led Michael into a room further inside the building. In it, he was shocked to see a dozen children, each one filthy from head to toe, dressed in torn, soil-caked clothing. The scene reminded him of Lord of the Flies, not just from the sight, but from the way these children just felt to him on a deeper level.
Sue knelt down, looking up to the tallest one. "Hey, Jeremy, do you mind letting me and my friend through. We've got to get to the other side."
Jeremy looked over at Michael. "Who is he?" the child asked aggressively.
Sue smirked. "This is Michael. He's one of Charlie's servants. He's new, be nice."
Her warmth towards these children was utterly disturbing to Michael. She threatened to kill my friend a moment ago, and now she's fucking playing nanny? It was then that, as Michael looked around, he noticed that some of the grime on the children's hands was a little too red to be dirt, and a little too wet-looking to be from very long ago.
Jeremy nodded. "Okay." The boy hugged Sue. To Michael's surprise, Sue gave him a big hug in return and kissed him on the forehead.
"Be good, kids," she said to the group. Then she turned back to Michael. "Come on."
Michael stared at the children, his head turning to track them as he followed Sue through the room. The children all looked back at him and waved. He suddenly smiled and waved back.
"Who are they?" he said when he turned back around.
"They're Orphans. The City's children." She sighed. "It's a long story, and I don't want to talk about it."
"Were you one?"
Sue let out a groan. "You're not very clear on what 'I don't want to talk about it' means, are you? But to answer your question and to end the conversation, no, I wasn't."
Michael opened his mouth to speak again, but then thought better of it, instead letting out a breath as they walked toward a dark passage.
* * *
"Michael!" Heather beamed as she opened the door. "I wasn't expecting you until later."
T-Bird smiled devilishly. It worked! "Hey, Heather! Slow day today, so I ducked out early."
Heather looked behind him, out to the street. "Got another car already?"
T-Bird's silent self-congratulation stopped as he focused on talking his way through this. "Borrowed it from a friend."
Heather's right eyebrow rose, questioning him. "Isn't that Jason's car?"
T-Bird fought off the reflex to widen his eyes at hearing Jason's name. Of course she knew Jason. They're probably all friends. Fuck. He took another deep breath through his nose. "Yep."
"He let you borrow his car? I can't believe you got him to do that." Heather laughed. "He's always so overprotective of 'his baby.'"
T-Bird bit down on his disgust at her mockery, being a car lover himself. "Let's just say I own him big time."
They shared a grin. Heather's was genuine, but behind T-Bird's laid malice. Chill out, bitch! Just go along with it! He continued, "I came by because I wanted to show you something."
"What?" Heather's grin turned into a half-smirk.
"It's a surprise." He gestured towards the car. "C'mon."
"I'm not ready to go out, Michael!"
T-Bird was getting angrier, but kept hold of himself, hoping the illusion he was spinning wouldn't unravel. "You look beautiful. You always look beautiful, Heather." He generated a convincing loving smile.
Heather blushed. "Sure, but let me wash my face first."
T-Bird knew not to push anymore. In a friendly, mocking tone, he surrendered, "Oh, alright. If you insist."
"You want to come in?" she asked, her face open and obviously telling him that she hoped he would.
"Nah. It's a beautiful day. I think I'll enjoy some sun out here, and not impose. But thanks." He didn't know if there was anyone else inside who might see through his disguise, effect, whatever it was, but he erred on the side of caution. The prospect of incurring Claude's wrath ever again, let alone twice in one day was highly motivating.
After declining, he realized that doing so would probably also encourage her to hurry up and get back out.
Heather smiled at him. "I'll be back in a few." She closed the door, and T-Bird could hear footsteps walking away.
T-Bird's face broke out into a wicked smile.
* * *
Michael had stopped being able to see anything three steps ago. Only Sue's hand holding his wrist gave him any sort of guidance through the pitch black passage.
As they stepped through a dark opening, his stomach suddenly twisted into a knot. Still unable to see anything, he felt a great sense of vertigo, much stronger than any he had ever felt looking down any height. After taking another step forward -- one he wasn't quite ready for, but was forced to by Sue's dragging -- he could feel a gust of wind hitting his forward leg. Walking forward, he felt wind hit his whole body, just strong enough to rustle his loose clothing and toss around his hair.
He briefly thought about needing a shower, as the wind cooled his sweat-drenched hair. Another moment later, he realized that he had showered just earlier this morning.
A lifetime ago, he chuckled to himself, though more out of an attempt to keep his composure than actual humor. His mind briefly entertained the idea that his quip was technically incorrect, since he had already been dea--err, not exactly completely alive this morning, but he shoved that thought away before it could cause any lasting harm.
He blinked as his eyes focused on the dim light. It was as though the world were illuminated by street lamps. The first shape he recognized was a dumpster. Behind that, he could make out the texture of a brick wall. The ground beneath his feet looked like asphalt, with the grit and gravel indicative of a paved road not often traveled.
Sue stood next to him, tapping her foot. When he looked at her, as though acknowledging he was ready, she spoke. "From here on out, things are going to get dangerous."
You mean they weren't already? Michael was about to voice this thought, but Sue cut him off when she saw his look of astonishment.
"Come on, now. There's something you need to see before we go any farther," she said, with a hint of annoyance.
Sue took his hand and marched out of the ally. As she crossed out, Michael heard a banging noise from the dumpster behind him. He had started to turn his head back to look, when Sue barked, "Ignore that." Then she yanked him out of the alley.
As he emerged, he found his eyes drifting up. He could easily make out Sacramento's skyline, notably the Tower Bridge and U.S. Bank building -- even in the faint light, the buildings stood out. But the skyline went on further. The first thing he saw was Seattle's Space Needle, though on occasion it was washed out by brief flashes of light that looked like a far-off lightning storm.
"Something interesting is going on up North," Sue said. Michael was too awed by the scene to make any note of what she said.
The skyline was so vast; it almost seemed omnipresent -- before him was an endless sea of buildings. He saw the Golden Gate Bridge off to the left, and further out he saw brightly lit buildings flashing neon signs he couldn't make out. To the right, he could see the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, and many other buildings he didn't recognize, but were impressive nonetheless -- all as one continuous cityscape that he could see from street level.
He thought he saw Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower farther in the distance. As he continued to scan the horizon, two buildings were less well lit than many of the others, and it took Michael a moment to realize that they were the twin towers of the World Trade Center. His jaw dropped, almost unable to believe the scene before him, in spite of everything else he was taking in.
A loud crack from Sue's gun snapped Michael's attention away from the skyline. As his head whipped toward the sound, he saw a shadow duck away from the other side of the alley. Sue cursed under her breath, and then took Michael's hand. "Ready," she said, sounding more like a command than a question.
"There, now you saw it. Everyone is in awe the first time. Back to work." She added.
"Where are we?" Michael whispered, not certain she'd reply.
Sue raised an eyebrow at him. "We're in the City, Michael. This is home."
* * *
Two of Espinosa's friends drove him back to his car. When he turned back from waving to them as they drove away, he noticed the voicemail symbol on his cell phone was showing. Pushing a few buttons, he put the phone up to his ear and listened to the single message.
A minute later, he hung up the phone and took a deep breath, convincing himself that he wasn't crazy for doing what he was about to do.
Julio wasn't crazy after all. Though, we probably made him crazy by telling him he was. This is what I have to do. He started his car and drove to R Street, where Michael was killed.
He lined the wheels of his car up along the disused railroad tracks on the street. The pavement was cracked, showing the signs of great age. If Espinosa was right -- if the man on the voicemail was right -- that meant everything he had ever heard about as a child, all the stories his grandmother told him of growing up in Mexico City, were real.
That scared him more than anything else he could possibly imagine himself.
"If the City doesn't know I'm here, then it can't stop me," he whispered to himself in Spanish, hoping that his belief would give him some power. He took his crucifix pendant out from under his shirt, kissed it, and then put it back.
Espinosa revved the engine, as if to signify that he was ready, and began to drive along the tracks. He focused on the idea that he was going to "cross over" somehow, though he didn't completely know what that meant. Or perhaps he did know, but wasn't fully ready to accept.
As his car crept along, the daylight suddenly cut off, as though someone had just flipped the off switch on the sun. Everything around him shifted, looking like some gothic parody of what he just saw a moment ago.
He shivered as he realized he was in the place the man on the voicemail called "the City."
* * *
The semi barreled down Highway 50, west toward the city of Sacramento. The driver either didn't notice or didn't care that traffic had been avoiding him ever since he rolled onto the freeway. He stepped on the gas -- he had an urgent delivery to make, and he wasn't going to be late.
Story by Ryan Macklin, Copyright 2006
Image by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006