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A "Hidden City" Story
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
Michael and Sue arrived at the building they'd seen in the distance.
They stood outside and looked up at the expansive glass panels that comprised the entire first floor wall. Michael recognized this building as one of the relatively new ones from downtown.
Sue looked down the street, where two large, four-legged creatures were stalking about. The road looked like J Street in the dark, with is tall business fronts and constant construction hazards. There were no working streetlights, but there was enough ambient light to break up shadows and silhouettes from being mixed into complete darkness.
Overhead in the dark sky, a cloud Michael couldn't see broke, loosing a light rain. The two beasts resolutely moved down into an underground parking garage. As the rain began to hit Michael, he could feel grit in the droplets he wiped from his face.
"Dirty rain?" he asked.
"Yep," Sue said as she tried the door. It was unlocked.
"I don't know. Just is. Come on." Sue walked inside, and Michael followed. A moment later, the door closed on its own. Michael turned back, his heart in his throat. After a quick scrutinizing of the door, he say the tension spring that made it shut. It made sense to him, but he was on edge from everything else that happened and from the fear of what might happen next.
"Calm down," Sue turned to him and spoke softly. "Do you remember the thing that attacked you earlier today?"
Michael suppressed a sarcastic response. It wasn't that long ago. Not that I would forget something like that. "Yes. Why?"
"That's who has Charlie. It's very important that we get Charlie out of here." Sue paused for a moment before continuing, "It's pretty obvious that this is a trap. But, we don't have much of a choice."
"Wait, you're telling me that that monster is waiting for us? It's got a trap ready? And we're just going to walk in?"
"And why am I going along with this?" Michael scoffed.
"Do you know how to get out of here?" Sue asked pointedly.
Michael looked back. I could probably figure it out...
When she saw him considering that question, she pointed her gun at him. "Can you outrun a bullet?"
Michael felt more adrenaline and fear surge inside him, but calmed himself before he did anything rash. "Let's go."
They walked into the waiting elevator, Michael behind Sue. Sue pressed the button for the top floor. "Where else would a power-mad asshole be?" she muttered to herself.
As the door closed, Michael began to sense something horrible moving toward him. He couldn't pin the feeling down, nor could he shake it.
* * *
T-Bird hid behind a pillar. How the fuck could he do this to me? His leg was still bleeding. He'd left a trail of blood from the elevator he came out of, leading to where he was standing. At the other end of the parking garage, he saw the car he drove here ? the only car in sight. Only a short hobble away...
He heard growls from above. Shit! More of them!? T-Bird made a dash for the car, ignoring the pain as best he could. The beast in front saw the quick-movement of his shadow and gave chase.
T-Bird put his will into running, wanting nothing more than to be in the car. His raw desire mixed with the pain from his leg, but he was no longer able to hold it in. He screamed and started to fall.
The giant rat was on T-Bird, a single claw slashing down to pin him. The claw pierced his wound, and T-Bird let out a blood-curdling scream, barely noticing a figure emerging from the shadows ? a large, well-built man with a weathered, leathery face and a full-length, archaic cloak.
The rat who had T-Bird pinned bore down on T-Bird's leg with its jaws. The second rat joined the first. As the first rat's teeth hit bone, the pain overwhelmed T-Bird's already disintegrating defenses; the cloaked man almost grinned as he blacked out.
* * *
The elevator opened on a long hallway with a set of double doors on the other end. When they reached the doors, Sue swung them open dramatically. Inside, Claude was waiting.
The large room was laid out like a Hollywood-inspired boardroom. Claude sat at the head of the long table, facing the double doors. He gently swirled a brandy snifter in his loosely cupped hand. Immediately, his eyes locked onto Michael's, his smile hinting at a predatory nature.
"Welcome, Mr. Reyes ? my apologies, Lord Reyes." Claude greeted Michael in a business-like, faux-friendly manner. He turned to Sue, "Well, Miss..."
Sue cut him off abruptly with a single gunshot. The report of the gun was so breathtakingly loud that Michael crouched down and covered his ears reflexively.
Her aim was true; the bullet hit Claude in the chest. The bullet also struck him with more force than a normal .50 caliber round should have, for Sue had done more than just pull the trigger. She had poured pure will and untempered malice into that one shot, and her weapon bowed to her will.
The bullet tunneled through Claude's chest, the shock of its penetration rippling through the surrounding tissue, loosening flesh from bone. The force spread out, growing in size while being absorbed by his body. His flesh moved with it, as though rushing to fill in a vacuum the bullet created. The entrance wound was enormous ? the size of his head. The wave of destruction continued into the back of the expensive leather chair in which Claude sat.
Sue sent off two more shots in rapid succession. Both hit his chest, each with as much force as the first. The pieces that were Claude slumped to the ground, the back of his chair as brutally ripped apart by the blasts as his torso.
In the quiet that followed, Michael stood up. Sue kept her eyes and gun trained on Claude's body.
Michael heard Claude's voice speak, "If she does that again, kill Charles." Sue scanned the room, but couldn't see anyone else inside. Claude's sundered body lay motionless on the floor. The pool of blood under him slowly grew.
Sue walked over to him, stopping within a few feet. "Tell me where he is," she commanded, using the voice she had used on Michael earlier, to make him know who T-Bird was when they were on the road. Hearing that tone again sent a chill down Michael's spine.
Michael thought he heard Claude make a scoffing sound. Then Claude stood up, his body now suddenly in one piece. He straightened his suit, which was immaculate again ? there wasn't a sign of bullet holes, blood, or anything else to indicate that he had just been practically dismembered on the floor in front of them.
Claude reached for the nearest intact chair, pushed the broken one away with his foot, and sat calmly at the head of the conference table again. "As I said, I'm willing to release Charles unharmed. I assure you he has not yet woken up," he paused and pursed his lips for emphasis while eyeing Sue, "in spite of your best efforts."
"What the fuck do you want?" Sue kept her gun trained on Claude.
"Done. Take him," she spat without a moment's hesitation.
Michael's eyes widened. "What the fuck?"
Claude coughed, and took his eyes off of Sue. "Michael, would you care to sit down?" He picked up the snifter, which had apparently landed safely on the table when Sue had shot him. "May I offer you a drink?"
Sue shouted impatiently, "Get on with it!"
"Susan, the only thing that separates you and me from beasts is our attitude and civility. The fact that you've?"
Sue gritted her teeth. "Get. On. With. It." She cocked the hammer back to punctuate her statement.
Claude sighed. "Very well, Susan. We shall dispense with the pleasantries, if that is your wish. I should inform you that discharging your weapon again will result in Charles' demise."
"Bullshit," she spat.
"You don't truly believe that. If you did, you would have shot me again already. However, I respect your desire for proof of my threat." He raised his voice slightly, calling to someone behind him without turning his head. "Shoot her in the leg."
A shot rang out. Michael couldn't tell from where. Suddenly, Sue stumbled as the bullet struck her left leg. She grunted, and stood back up, scanning the room for her assailant.
"That is my insurance policy. You will not be able to see him, Sue. There's something about him that blinds us to his presence. Rest assured that he will kill Charles if you fire a shot at anyone."
"You know Julio?" Claude raised an eyebrow. "I did not expect that, but it makes no difference." He turned his attention back to Michael. "Michael, I am going to offer you a choice."
Michael grimaced. "You're the asshole who tried to kill me today."
"I did attack you earlier today, yes."
"You threatened Heather." Something inside Michael was starting to fray at the edges.
"I did. You are beginning to pick up Sue's habit of interruption, though you are at least allowing me to complete my sentences. You should understand the entire situation: I am in possession of Charles, the man to whom you very recently swore fealty. I am also in possession of Miss Christensen, your friend and lover. I am going to present you with two options, Michael. Regardless of which you choose, you will join my side."
"And why would I do that?"
"You will do so because it is the right thing to do." Claude spoke more softly than before. Michael was struck by the sincerity that came through the other man's voice.
"So, what's my choice, killing Heather or killing Charlie?"
Claude shook his head. "Think about your situation, Michael. Three days ago, your life was normal. You had a home, a car, a job, and friends. You didn't have a wife or girlfriend, even though you wanted one, but I said your life was 'normal,' not 'fulfilled.'
"Then a homeless man you barely recognized chose you to be the champion of his secret, underworld community. That morning, when he chose you, that man condemned you to death and to an afterlife of suffering under his command."
Claude continued, "He did that because I arrived in town the day before, looking for a new recruit. That night, after you got off the train, I attacked your friend, Heather."
Michael's neck popped involuntarily and his eyes widened with rage. You! You, all along! He was suddenly so engulfed in fury that he couldn't vocalize his anger.
"I attacked her to get your attention. I let you walk away with only a scratch." Claude pointed to Michael's cheek.
Michael was able to push a single word from his compressed lungs. "Why?" His voice was low and very breathy.
"Then you experienced a few more strange incidents, such as being able to predict the future and influence little events. Truthfully, I am surprised that you were able to do anything like that before I had you assassinated."
Michael began to fantasize about the complete and utter destruction of everything within sight. He imagined a helicopter crashing into the window of this boardroom. He envisioned the rotors cutting into the glass and breaking off, becoming very large pieces of shrapnel. In his mind, he saw the helicopter explode, leaving nothing more than a scorched hole behind. Fuck Claude. Fuck Sue. Fuck them all.
"Stop!" Claude shouted. Michael's attention snapped back from his homicide fantasy, and he realized that both Claude and Sue were looking at him with fear in their eyes. Sue's gun was now trained on him ? a sight he was becoming very familiar with.
"Michael," Claude asked, "what did you just do?"
"You are mistaken. You were thinking, no, wishing for something in a very intense manner. Am I correct?"
Michael blinked and then eyed Sue, who went back to covering Claude with her gun. "Yes."
"Allow me to elaborate. You are now the Lord of Traffic. After what I have just witnessed, I can safely assume that that involves traffic accidents. You were willing such an accident to happen here, were you not?"
"I was willing it?" Michael said, with a predatory smile of his own. His mind went back to the image of the helicopter.
"Yes! By doing so, you are condemning Heather to a fiery grave!"
Michael snapped back out again.
Claude was visibly shaken. The look on Sue's face was one of surprise, maybe even disbelief. They're scared of me.
"Your lover is with Charlie. You realize what I am capable of doing to her, correct?"
Michael thought back to Claude's attack this afternoon. Then he thought about Sue's rescue. Just to get me here as a fucking bargaining chip. Cold bitch. Pretending to understand me, and then fucking me over every chance she gets! "Yes," he said bitterly.
"So, may I assume that you would be willing to cooperate in an exchange for her guaranteed safety?"
"What the fuck does this have to do with Charlie?" Sue spat.
Claude snapped his fingers. A moment later, Charlie was wheeled in on a cart, a gas mask on his face fed by a tank inside the cart. Pushing the cart was Heather, who marched as though at gunpoint. No one else came into the room.
Heather stopped when she saw Michael. "Mike? Is that you?"
"Michael, lying on the table is the mortal embodiment of every horrible thing that has happened to you in the past few days."
"Including me," Claude quickly corrected. "I said 'mortal' embodiment. I am like you, Michael. I am already dead."
"Would you just get to the fucking point?"
"You are going to join our side, Michael. Whether you do so today, tomorrow, or in many years time is inconsequential. You will join us, because you are to be enlightened." Claude's tone was more than merely demanding.
Michael was moved by Claude's words. He couldn't explain why, but something about what Claude said felt right. "So, why the fuck did you try to kill me today if you wanted me to join your little club?"
"That is complicated. Here is my offer: side with me now, denounce Charlie in front of Sue, and I will release Heather to you. I will even release Charlie to Sue, and let them go on their merry way. After that, I will answer your every question and tell you all you need to know."
"Everyone keeps waving knowledge in front of my face, like a fucking carrot on a stick. Do better."
"Do better than offer you your girlfriend's safety? Than releasing all of my hostages?"
Michael grimaced. "Yes."
Sue's eyes kept darting back and forth. "Michael, if you fuck me here, I'm going to murder your little friend in front of you."
Claude chuckled. "Look at her, Michael. She saved you earlier today, because she was ordered to. Make no mistake, though; she is a horrible being. She has shot you just to prove a point and threatened to murder your friends if you didn't follow her unquestionably. What has she given you? Vague answers? Pain? Why choose to remain with a sociopath who is willing to discard you as through you are nothing?"
Michael had no answer. Silence settled into the space. After a few moments, he said, "So I should side with the sociopath who tried to butcher me earlier today, instead?"
"You misunderstand that, as well but I cannot fault you for only seeing it at face value. Very well; shall you side with the sociopath who is willing to trade you at a moment's notice or side with the sociopath who is willing to truly provide you with something in return?"
Michael looked up at Heather, who stood behind the cart, head cocked to one side, looking blankly at him. "Shouldn't she be more distressed that we're throwing around her life like it's a commodity?"
"That would be cruel. I thought it best to have her not pay attention to this meeting."
"You can do that?"
Claude ignored the question. "You do know that Heather is going to forget all about you, correct?"
Sue turned her gun and pointed it at Michael's head. The moment Claude recognized what she was about to do, he spoke. "Susan, I believe I already told you that if you discharge your weapon, Charles will be murdered." He looked back at Michael, "She will leave here alive. I promise you that she will remember you. She remembers you right now because I want her to. If you walk away, she will forget you."
Sue's eyes widened. "You bastard! You didn't?"
"Didn't what?" Michael asked. "Oh fuck! What did you do to her?!"
Claude shrugged. "I may have...influenced her recently. The question of 'how' is unimportant. What is important is that she came back into your arms. You loved her. For that one night, you had pure bliss. You can keep that, Michael. Just say 'yes.'"
That wasn't real? Her loving me...wasn't real? Michael felt his intestines twist in anguish, but held himself together.
"Abandon Susan and leave her to her homeless master. You will have your woman. Everyone will part ways unharmed."
"Not if I have anything to do about it," Sue spat.
"You won't, because you can't see my agent. Attack anyone and Charles dies. You know what happens when he dies, my dear."
"What happens?" Michael asked, hoping the redirection would give him a moment's reprieve.
"It is a very complicated subject, Michael ? one I would be happy to elaborate on later. To summarize it, though: Sue would lose the man she loves. By their very nature, Lords grow to love their King. You will too, in time. When that feeling is gone, it is traumatic. Can you imagine how painful it would be for the Lady of Violence to suddenly lose the only person she loves?"
Michael looked at Sue. Her eyes were wide open; her mouth open and her expression wild. She was focused on Claude, like a tiger ready to pounce. Something was keeping her back, and he could see that in her eyes as well.
"I have outlined all the reasons you should have to accept my offer. I shall only ask one more time: do we have a deal?"
Michael felt something brush against his arm. He turned to look, but no one was there. He felt an object slip into his hand. It was a plain white business card with a spot of blood on the back. He flipped it over and read it surreptitiously. Detective Luis Espinosa.
He blinked. Luis.
He slipped the card into his pocket, under the table and out of sight of the others. "You're hiding something, Claude." Confidence bolstered his voice.
"Am I?" Claude's eyebrow rose.
Michael suddenly felt more aware of the growing sense of malice and destruction he'd felt earlier, heading towards him in the distance. For a split second, he saw something through eyes other than his own: a semi-truck and trailer. Something about the scene felt eerie and wrong ? no, unholy. It felt just like Claude did. At that moment, nearly everything seemed to click in Michael's mind. You son of a whore. You're going to kill them anyway.
He stood up. "No deal, Claude. Our lives are not your playthings."
"Are you sure? In time, you will join us, Michael. Why not save yourself some heartache and do it now?"
"Sue, you really should shoot Claude again."
"I'm not going to risk Charlie's life."
"You won't." Michael's eyes watched Claude's expression turn into a frown.
"You know nothing, kid."
"Fine. Have it your way." Michael started concentrating on the image of the helicopter crashing into the building.
"Fuck you, asshole," she said to Michael, and fired at Claude. Again, the sound was tremendous, echoing about the room even more loudly than before, the sound pressing against Michael's eardrums until he thought they might burst. He was prepared this time, and stood firm.
"No! Michael! We both suffer if you do this!" Claude screamed. Every ounce of the calm and superiority normally situated in his voice had abandoned him.
Sue kept firing into Claude; the noise from these additional shots was not as intense. Michael saw a faint shadow lead Heather out of the room. Espinosa. You magnificent bastard. When Heather was gone, he poured still more will into the helicopter wish, and grabbed Charlie's cart while Claude continued to be distracted by Sue's shots.
Sue shouted at him, "Try to keep him asleep! He shouldn't see the City!"
Michael shouted back as he left the room, "How long can you hold him off?"
"Long enough for your little gift to arrive." Michael saw something in Sue's smile other than malice. "Go."
Michael ran for the elevator, pushing Charlie along. From behind him, he heard Claude shout, "For this, you will hear your wench scream!" The voice sounded more bestial than human.
He pushed that thought out of his mind as the elevator door opened. She's safe right now, he told himself. That's all that matters.
* * *
After an uneventful elevator ride, Michael found himself back on the street. Hearing blades on the air above him, he looked up and watched as a helicopter crashed into the top of the building. Flames burst out and suddenly the gritty rain was mixed with a cloud of glass and metal debris.
As he darted away to avoid the spot where the building-shrapnel was about to fall, he recalled something Sue had said to him before, "Do you know how to get out of here?"
Damn! He ducked around the side of the building as he heard the crash of steel and glass on unforgiving concrete. He checked on Charlie, who was still unconscious. Damned good drugs.
The momentary silence after the impact was broken by growls in the distance. Michael recalled the creatures that Sue had scared off before. He had only seen a shadow flicker in the distance after Sue shot at it, but he wasn't planning on sticking around to see one up close. Michael took off running, continuing to push Charlie ahead of him.
The low growling turned into barking and was added to by the sound of footsteps hurriedly splashing puddles of rain. Michael's legs pushed off the ground over and over again, burning and aching as he ducked and weaved throughout the shadow world of not-quite-downtown Sacramento.
He turned into an alley that sloped rapidly down. This was one of the alleys in downtown that went a floor below the surface, level with the Underground. As he neared the halfway point, he saw a symbol on the wall near the freight door. Before his mind could process the sign completely, he was suddenly blinded.
Michael skidded to a stop and threw his hands over his eyes. His legs refused to bear the change in momentum, and he crashed down onto the rough, damp pavement. The growling and barking was replaced by the sounds of people running and screaming. Sirens from every direction added to the cacophony.
Michael carefully got to his knees and slowly opened his eyes. He looked around to regain his situational awareness. He was in the living world again. He blinked a few times, his eyes still adjusting to the daylight, and saw a figure standing next to a car in the alley, looking at him.
The man was young, black, and dressed like Michael had seen gang members dressed in movies ? a do-rag, white t-shirt with gold chains hanging off of his neck, and blue jeans. The car was a green '74 El Dorado, with a white leather top, gold trim, and gold spinning hubcaps. It was in beautiful condition.
The man said, "Get in the car, Michael."
Michael stood. "Who the hell are you?"
"My name's Ludd." He pointed to Charlie, "He sent me here for you. Now get in."
"What about Charlie?"
"My boys are coming over to help him. But you gotta hurry. Apparently there's something you have to stop."
That weird evil semi thing. He looked back at Charlie, still sleeping amidst the chaos. Eh, I got him back here, like I told Sue I would.
He got in the car. "Fuck it, let's go."
Story by Ryan Macklin, Copyright 2006
Image by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006