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A "Hidden City" Story
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
Jason drove T-Bird to an out-of-the way industrial area north of downtown. Distant sounds of machinery filtered through the air. Large trucks and semis lined the sides of the road, as though separating the rest of the world from the dull-grey, rust-brown, and old brick-red buildings. As he parked the car, T-Bird felt a pull toward one abandoned-looking building in particular.
Looking up and down the street, he didn't see anyone outside at the moment. "Get out," T-Bird said, waving his gun around. "Run or shout and I will kill you. You understand that?"
Jason nodded his head silently, unable to speak. Somehow, he was able to keep the tears back. He opened the door and slowly climbed out, with T-Bird following and keeping an eye on him.
T-Bird looked again at the run-down building that pulled at him. Even here, it stood out like a sore thumb; it looked as though it had not been occupied in a least a decade, whereas the surrounding neighborhood looked active. The walls of the building were a mixture of very-faded green paint and dark-red brick, with rust speckled throughout, framing several stories of shattered and boarded-up windows.
T-Bird flipped the safety on his gun and stowed it in the front of his pants, then marched Jason toward an opening in the fence separating them from the building. As they crossed the cracked and sun-bleached asphalt and concrete, T-Bird felt an even stronger pull toward the building they were approaching. What the hell is up with the place? He turned to Jason, "Do you feel something weird about this place?"
Jason just stared at him, his throat clamping down in fear. After a moment, he could not bear eye contact with his captor, and looked down.
"Seriously, do you feel something strange about this building?" T-Bird's tone gained a touch of annoyance.
"I ... I don't know," Jason choked almost noiselessly. He continued to look away from T-Bird.
"You're telling me you have no opinion here?" T-Bird spat with disgust. "What? You think because you're in a fucked-up situation that you don't need to have an opinion?" He pushed Jason towards the door with a kick. "You fucking make me sick. Open that door."
Jason obeyed woodenly, tears welling up in his eyes. Deep down inside, he knew he was not coming out of this building alive.
* * *
"So...I'm dead?" Michael asked Sue as they drove.
"Yep. You remember being killed, right?"
Michael flashed back to seeing his body in the street with the homeless guy named John. "No, but I remember..." Then he flashed back to the impact of the car, slamming into him that night, and swallowed hard. "Yes."
"You were assassinated."
Michael's eyes widened. Assassinated... He worked that word around in his mind, trying to grasp it.
"This'll be hard to buy, even with what you've seen so far. I've been where you are right now -- half-ready to call bullshit on it, but half-believing it from somewhere deep down. My advice: start listening to that part of you, twenty four-seven."
As they approached a traffic light that then turned red, Sue looked over at Michael without slowing down. "Michael, tell me we'll cross this light safely."
Michael stayed silent as he looked at her, then looked at the light, and looked at the traffic crossing the intersection.
Sue accelerated slightly. "Any day now."
That snapped Michael out of his reverie. "Yes, but," he started to say to appease her. The moment the first word left his mouth, an image of the intersection, clear of traffic, appeared to him. "Yes. Keep going. Drift slightly to the left."
Sue complied and sped through the light as it cleared of cross-traffic. She narrowly missed the driver-side door opening on a parked car. "Good. That's what you do."
"What do you mean?"
"Brother Charlie's going to spout a bunch of bullshit at you about the needs of the city. In short: you probably had visions, and kept seeing all sort of coincidences." She paused, the sound of the gears as she shifted into fifth quietly punctuating her sentence. "For you, they weren't just hallucinations or coincidences."
Michael thought about the past few days. "Most of them seem to involve cars."
Sue shook her head as she grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard. "Close. They involved Traffic." Michael could hear her emphasis on "traffic."
"What's the difference?"
"It's hard to explain, but I guarantee you'll get it later. I did."
"So you can do things with traffic, too?"
"No. At least, not like you can. Traffic isn't my domain." She shook the pack lightly and pulled a cigarette out with her teeth, then handed the pack to Michael.
"Domain?" Michael dismissed the pack with a wave.
She continued to hold the pack out to him. "You're dead Michael. Enjoy one of the perks."
He grabbed a cigarette from the pack. She lit hers as she continued to drive, and handed the lighter to him before continuing to speak. "Yes, 'domain.' When the City chooses you for something, it chooses you to rule over a domain. At least, that's how it was explained to me. There isn't much ruling involved from what I see."
Michael lit his cigarette. He inhaled the smoke, enjoying the long-missed flavor. "So, what is...?"
Sue cut him off. "Violence," she said, matter-of-factly. "I am Sue, Lady of Violence. I'm a paragon of brutality, abuse, murder, rape...anything vile you can think of when you think about violence."
Michael was stunned. While the admitted the woman was abrasive, he could not imagine someone so small, so lovely, intertwined with such acts. That would explain the hand cannon...
"Before you go judging, I'm not saying I like it. But I'm dead. The City chose me and keeps me here for a purpose. I'm a slave to the City's will, Michael. And so are you."
Sue took a drag from her cigarette. Michael tried to use the pause to get a word in, but all he could form was, "Uh..."
"That's what it's like, to be one of us. I hate what the City's turned me into with a burning passion." She accelerated some more, focused on her anger. "I hate the City much, much more. Some days, I hate Charlie too, but he isn't all bad, as kings go."
"Kings?" Michael asked.
"I'll let him fill you in on that part," she replied as they pulled up to a park. Sitting on the top of a bench table was Brother Charlie. Espinosa stood beside him. Both looked up as Sue stopped the car.
Michael took one look at Espinosa and swore. How the fuck did I get into this mess?
* * *
T-Bird found a piece of dusty rope and tied Jason to a support beam in the center of the large open area inside the building. He took off Jason's right shoe and sock, and gagged him with his own sock. There, now I can find out what's up with this place without babysitting this asshole.
As T-Bird shoved the sock roughly into his mouth, tears began to stream down Jason's cheeks. Seeing this, T-Bird was overcome with rage. He punched Jason in the face, the dull smack from Jason's head hitting the beam behind him echoing in the expansive space.
Jason began to sob uncontrollably, the muffled noises echoing like thunder in T-Bird's mind. T-Bird quickly left the room. When he was out of sight of Jason, he bent over, put his hands on his thighs, and vomited. When the retching was over, he knelt, leaning back on his heels, feeling weak and ill.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow move. He stood up and spat the foul taste from his mouth. He looked down the hall, seeing another flicker of shadow.
Readying his gun, he walked towards it. What the hell is going on here?
He crept down the hall as silently as possible. There were no windows in this part of the building, and T-Bird could tell from the faint light coming in from the adjoining room that the overhead lights had been smashed out some time ago. He continued down the hall until he came to an open door.
He felt around for a light switch. Finding one, he flipped it on, but the lights in here didn't work either. He flipped it off and on a couple more times, with no success. "Hello?" he called out nervously.
A child answered. "Mister..." The voice was a girl's, maybe only five years old. She sounded as though she was little more than six feet away, to his right.
T-Bird's eyes looked down to where the child's voice came from, though he could only see the vaguest of outlines. "You're a kid?"
He heard another child's voice from further down the room, this time an older boy's voice. "Who's there?"
Stunned, T-Bird turned toward the new voice. The girl answered, "A bad man."
"What?" T-Bird replied.
A third voice called out, this time from next to him on the left. "Bad men aren't supposed to be here."
T-Bird felt a host of rips as something like knives shredded his clothes and flesh. The pain caused him to scream and drop his gun. He could see only faint outlines as a dozen small children leapt onto him, slamming him into the ground. He struggled, but for every child he was able to fight off another joined the attack.
The children continued to scratch and stab at him until what seemed like minutes later, T-Bird's hand brushed across his gun. Recognizing it, he grabbed it and let off a blind shot. The kids leapt back and T-Bird ran.
Jason opened his eyes to see T-Bird run past him and out of the building, terrified and bloodied. In his haste, T-Bird did not even see Jason, let alone remember he was still in the building.
Fuck this. They owe me some answers. T-Bird got to Jason's car and drove off. He fished for his cell phone, but he could not find it. Fuck! I must have dropped it back there! Screw it -- they don't need to be called first. T-Bird drove towards downtown, determinedly willing all the traffic to get out of his way.
* * *
"Welcome, Michael," Brother Charlie said as Michael and Sue walked up. "Hello again, Sue."
"Hello, Mr. Reyes," Espinosa said.
Sue casually pointed the gun in Espinosa's direction. "Who is this guy?"
In Espinosa's perception, the gun appeared out of nowhere and he tensed immediately. He started to reach for his own gun when Charlie put a hand on his shoulder. "You shouldn't do that, Luis. She'll kill you the moment your hand touches it."
Michael looked on, dumbfounded. Sue rolled her eyes.
Charlie continued, "He's a detective. He saw Michael's body; he even has a picture of it."
"But Michael's one of us; one like me, anyway, right?" Sue asked, puzzled.
Charlie nodded. "It appears that Detective Espinosa is outside of the City. I'm not sure why, but I can't see anything but a vague blur when I try to look at him, and I cannot wish him a good day. So I'm not surprised that the City would miss him when covering up Michael's death."
Michael sat down on the bench and rested his elbow on the rough tabletop. "You know, I'm right here. Please stop talking over my head like I'm a child. Sue filled me in on being dead, on being some sort of traffic person for the city."
Espinosa chimed in. "What's going on? You said there'd be answers, Charlie."
"And there will be. Michael, I'm truly sorry about everything. The City chose you, and I'm just its king. The City needs someone like you, Michael."
Michael replied, "King? Sue mentioned that, said to let you explain."
"I am the spiritual custodian of Sacramento. Within me is the spirit and life of the City -- the good, the bad, everything. I am here to keep the City safe from those who seek to harm it. Like the people who killed you."
"So, the people who killed me...are the bad guys? But the City, who you work for, wanted me to be some sort of dead traffic mojo-man?" Michael said with a hint of impatience.
"Because I was getting these weird traffic visions before I was killed. Was that the 'bad guys', or you people?" Michael said, adding sarcastic air quotes with his fingers.
Espinosa watched Charlie's reaction become a frown, and spoke up. "Hear him out, Michael."
Michael's head flicked towards Espinoza. "And what the hell are you doing here? Have you come to harass me some more?" His rage was building up. "Isn't there a fucking donut shop nearby?"
Sue chuckled. Espinosa refused to let the comment bait him. "That's low. Not creative, but still low. I'm here because apparently I'm the only one in the department who remembers this." He pulled out the photo and handed it to Michael.
Michael stared in horror at the vivid color image of his body lying on the street. His limbs were twisted in unnatural bends and directions. His blood all over the asphalt underneath him, as though it was a backdrop in the photo. He remembered seeing it when he was in the dream with John, but it felt less real then. Even though he now knew his death was real, he wasn't prepared to see it again.
Sue winced and snatched the photo out of Michael's hand. "You fucking asshole!" In the flash of a moment, she had pinned Espinosa down on the bench by his neck and was holding her gun to his head. "You have any fucking idea what that does to someone who just died?! Feel like finding out?!"
In the sudden panic, he fumbled getting to his gun. It dropped to the ground, out of his reach. He looked up at the woman holding him captive, and was shocked that anyone could be so fast, and further, that someone like her could be so strong. Every ounce of him said she was not bluffing. His pants grew warm and damp as he lost control of his bladder.
Charlie shouted. "Enough, Sue!" She released him, but he remained lying on the bench, regaining his breath. Charlie addressed Espinosa, "I should have warned you not to show Michael the photo. The newly dead are easily horrified by such things. That's part of the reason the City removes evidence."
Michael started to walk away. Sue caught up to him. "Where are you going?"
"Anywhere. I can't handle this bullshit."
Sue continued to match his pace. "I know a really good bar."
Michael stopped. "No offense, but no thanks. I do appreciate what you're trying to do, and for helping me with that...thing...back there. But someone I care about is in danger."
Sue interrupted. "Yeah, Heather, I know. I heard. While Claude isn't entirely bluffing, she's safe right now."
"Its name is Claude?"
"And how do you know she's safe?"
"It's a long story, but we've been fighting for a long time now. He sees himself as a gentleman, in his own twisted sort of way, and plays by a certain set of rules. In any case, you can't help her yet."
"You saw what Claude did to you. You can't stop him like this."
"So I shouldn't even fucking try to warn her? Nothing?" His voice grew louder. "Well fuck! Let's go get that beer then! Shit, if we're lucky, they'll all join us in the bar and we can have a dead people convention! The first round's on me!"
Sue tensed up and balled her fist, as though she was going to punch Michael. Her hateful gaze focused on Michael's eyes. Michael continued to stare back, and she could see the determination in his face. She exhaled slowly and begrudgingly relaxed before speaking. "You love her, right?"
"Yes, of course." Michael's voice remained unchanged.
"What would happen if she didn't love you anymore?"
"Huh?" He lowered his voice back to a normal volume.
"What would happen if you were a complete stranger to her?"
Michael was silent.
"What are you going to say? 'Hi, you're not safe here, oh, and you don't know me but only yesterday we were best friends and lovers. Here's a whole bunch of proof that I know you really well that will actually just creep you out and make you want to stay in your home and call the cops rather than leave town so that you'll actually be safe.'"
Michael looked at Sue, his face pained, half-questioning.
Sue's tone of voice became gentler, more sympathetic. "I've done that. My husband didn't remember me, not a bit. No one remembers us. When I saw him with his new wife, I..." She paused. "No one will remember you, Michael." Grabbing his arm, she added, "Come back."
They walked back, Sue half-dragging Michael as she outpaced him. When they reached the picnic table, Charlie said, "Michael, I need your help. The City chose you, yes, and that means your life will never be the same."
Michael winced slightly at the word "life." Not noticing, Charlie continued, "But the men who killed you were trying to keep you permanently dead, so that you couldn't be one of us. Something is going to happen soon and we need you."
Michael started to open his mouth when Charlie continued. "Your friend Jason needs you."
"He's been captured by the man who assassinated you, a thug named T-Bird. You can save him, but you need to make a choice."
"What?" Michael said impatiently.
"I need you to be my Lord of Traffic."
"Aren't I already?"
"No, you're a spirit who can do things with Traffic. This is that choice I was telling you about, Michael. Accept this, and you'll be bound to the City, and have the power of the City behind you." Charlie held out his hand.
Michael looked at Sue. Sue replied, the sarcastically hostile tone returning to her voice, "This is how they got me. Saving people you love who don't even know you ever existed. So, Michael, do you love them enough to do something you'll regret?"
Charlie looked angrily at Sue, who shot a hostile glare back at him. Michael looked down and thought for a few moments. Heather came to his mind first. Various scenes from college flashed through his mind: her hanging out with him in his dorm room, helping each other in English, many nights of karaoke with various friends. He remembered the way she looked the other night as they made love.
His heart broke when he recalled the way she looked back at him. She's really going to forget me?
His thoughts turned to Jason. You were always so obsessed with cars. You might actually like this. Well, parts of it.
The coworkers who denied him earlier came into his mind. They aren't bad guys. Shit just happened and they were caught up in it, I guess. Not their fault.
As he continued to think about the people he cared about, the other three watched and waited silently. After a few more moments. Michael grabbed Charlie's hand and replied to Sue, "Yes. I do."
Michael rolled his eyes and knelt.
"And arise, Lord of Traffic."
Michael stood up. I don't feel any different. He looked at Charlie, and saw a faint, fiery crown hovering above his head. He looked at Sue and saw her bathed in a shimmery blood outline. "So, I guess I'm working for the City now?" He found himself emphasizing 'City' the way Charlie and Sue did.
"Your friend is up off of Richards. You should be able to find him now. Just think about where he drove. Sue, he'll need help. You may want to go too, Espinosa."
Sue replied, "I'm not taking him."
"Someone the City can't see might be useful, Sue."
Espinosa was hesitant, but curiosity won out over fear. The three walked toward Sue's jeep, leaving Charlie sitting in the park.
Michael began to feel more confident, and somehow, larger. "I'll drive." Sue tossed him the keys.
* * *
Claude slid the keycard through the lock on his hotel room door. He took the "Do Not Disturb" sign from the inside door knob and placed it on the outside one as he walked in.
He began to disrobe, neatly folding and hanging each garment. Walking into the bathroom, he appraised himself in the mirror, admiring his extensively scarred flesh -- numerous stab wounds, slashes, burns, bullet scars -- his body was a testament to every form of pain and injury one person can inflict on another.
He smiled as he stroked his scars lovingly, paying particular attention to two very old and pronounced ones along the undersides of his forearms, each tracing with knotted and raised tissue the path of the radial artery.
He got into the bath tub and lay down, using his foot to switch the drain closed. Then he closed his eyes and consciously stopped breathing.
The scars under his arms opened up, making a slightly wet sound. Deep crimson blood flowed out at an unnaturally fast rate and began lapping thickly against the sides of the tub until Claude was completely submerged.
Milord, Claude called out with his thoughts, I, your humble servant, have slaughtered the unclean and bathed in the blood of your enemies, all in your name.
The tub of blood rippled slowly as Claude heard a reply in his mind.
The adversary has returned, as you predicted she would. Everything has gone as you have foreseen, Grandest Above All. In his mind, Claude was kneeling and kept his head low.
Suddenly, Claude saw an image of a semi truck. Inside was a bleak nothingness, suffused with the scent of rioting and chaos. I understand, Claude replied.
At that moment, Claude felt the presence leave him. He opened his eyes, and saw that nearly all the blood was gone, save for a thin film coating his body and the tub. The scars along his arms had resealed themselves. He flipped the drain back open and turned on the shower, making the water as hot as it could get. He stared down at his feet, relaxing as he watched the watered-down blood swirl down the drain.
Story by Ryan Macklin, Copyright 2006
Image by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006