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A "Hidden City" Story
Ryan P. Macklin
Start at the beginning of the Hidden City series
Michael opened the car door when Heather pulled up near his office building. He turned back to her, both smiling as they stared into one another's eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her gently, their kiss continuing for a minute before he leaned back and unbuckled his seat belt. He stepped out of the car, and immediately leaned back in to kiss her one more time. As he leaned back out of the car, they softly told each other "bye" at the same time and shared a slightly embarrassed laugh.
As Michael closed the car door, she asked him though the rolled-down window, "Are we still on for tonight?"
"Of course! See you at my place at eight."
Heather smiled at him and gently waved before directing her attention to the road. Michael stood by and watched her drive off before entering the building.
He walked in, waving to the security guard, who looked up from the computer screen at him. As he continued past the guard's desk, the guard called out to him, "I need to see your badge, sir."
Michael turned around and pulled his badge from the retractable cord on his belt. The guard scrutinized it for a moment and let him pass. Seeing the guard take more than a casual glance at him, surprised Michael a bit, but he realized he didn't recognize the guard's face, either. New guy. Means a month of waving it in his face until he recognizes me.
As he entered the elevator and pushed the button for his floor, he took a look at the time on his cell phone. 8:47 a.m. He normally tried to be at work by 8:30, but no one would complain as long as he was there by nine.
The elevator didn't play music during the short ride up. Michael spontaneously decided to provide his own, humming the chorus of Juke Box Hero, having heard it on the radio this morning when he and Heather were on the freeway.
The doors opened and Michael walked out, continuing his merry tune. His step became bouncier as he walked toward his desk, until he was almost dancing. Michael waved to co-workers as he strolled by. Most simply responded with blank, confused expressions. Carolyn returned his wave with a hollow smile -- borderline patronizing -- and the quickest of glances. Michael walked past, not seeing her do a double-take at him.
People watched him walk down the office aisles as though they were watching an accident happening. When he got to his cube, he stopped in his tracks and went silent. He simply stared, quite confused, as he saw an unfamiliar face sitting at his desk and using his computer.
The stranger -- a very skinny man who hardly looked twenty, with thin-framed glasses and spiky, blond hair -- turned around and asked, "Uh, can I help you?"
Michael blinked again. He had to take a moment before he could formulate the words for his response, as blindsided by this as he was. "What are you doing at my desk?"
"Your desk?" The young man sounded nervous and quite unsure of himself.
Michael looked around to point out his personal effects -- the magnetic poetry set that everyone else played with; the little Pez dispenser collection mostly added to by his co-workers as gifts; the copy of Foucault's Pendulum that he brought in months ago, thinking he would try reading it during lunch hours but never did; his Sudoku pad, which only had a couple dozen puzzles not yet done in it; his spare cell phone charger; his toy model Firebird -- none of them were to be found.
Daniel walked up along with a security guard. "Excuse me; can someone please explain what's going on here?" Michael felt Daniel's question to be more pointed at him than the young man.
Michael turned to Daniel. "Daniel, good, you can help sort this out."
"Who are you?" Daniel asked, quite authoritatively.
"You've got to be kidding me! I'm Michael Reyes! I've been working here for years! What do you mean, 'Who are you?'" Michael practically shoved his badge in Daniel's face before the security guard stepped in began to restrain Michael.
Daniel put his hand up, and the guard paused. Daniel then grabbed the badge, still attached to Michael's belt, and asked the guard to call it in and confirm. The guard let go of Michael and spoke into his radio. Within a few moments, the radio responded, confirming Michael as an employee in this division. Daniel nodded and the guard walked away.
Everyone watches as Michael just stared straight forward, processing everything. He heard one person behind him whisper, "Dude, this guy's going to lose it." Daniel must have heard it too, because he immediately said, "Okay, everyone, show's over. Back to work, people." Handing Michael back his badge, he then said to him, "Please come with me to my office, Mister..." He paused, glancing down at the badge again. "...Reyes."
* * *
Espinosa had been staking out Michael's apartment since just before nine this morning. He assumed he had missed Michael by close to an hour, but had no way to be sure. All he had to go on was Michael's next-door neighbor saying that Michael had left his place some time ago with a woman who matched Heather's description. She'd said they looked quite "lovey," and went on further to remark that she was surprised, and she'd figured Michael was one of those "gay shut-ins."
Hearing that, Espinosa breathed a bit easier. Hopefully that means he's lived here long enough. He had worried that it might be too late, after he called Michael's work early this morning and was told that they had no records of a Michael Reyes employed there.
Nor was there a record of the homicide he'd had to deal with last night. No one who had been at the scene with him remembered anything about a man who was hit by a vehicle and left to bleed out on 11th Street. There wasn't a single sign of the incident when he drove by where it happened this morning. Hearing the neighbor talk about Michael leaving not too long ago, it was as if nothing had happened.
Only, he held in his hand a Polaroid that he had taken of Michael lying on the street, broken, bloodied, and lifeless. This was not just the only evidence that Michael Reyes had died, but also evidence that he himself wasn't crazy. Forgive me, Manuel. I should have believed you when I had the chance.
He continued his surveillance, hoping that there was still time.
* * *
Bored and frustrated, Michael resorted to randomly surfing news sites on the laptop he was issued. Since, according to Daniel, he wasn't expected at all, they didn't have a cube set up for him, so they sat him at a spare table in the back of the office near the restrooms. Beside him was an Amazon.com box filled with his personal effects, minus two missing Pez dispensers he assumed had been considered spoils by some other co-workers. He recalled watching them take things from vacated workstations and desks after people moved on, as though they were cannibalizing their dead. Michael had participated a couple times himself when he had been quick enough, including taking the comfortable chair that was now in Evan's cube -- his replacement's cube.
Thinking about the word "replacement" made Michael seethe.
It took an hour for IT to restore his network account. When he was finally able to log in, he breathed a sigh of relief as all of his files were still intact on his network drives. He copied them over to the laptop, just in case there were any further complications, and began to work on his report. Soon after he started, he realized that there was some information that he was missing. With all these delays, Wednesday will be harsh. Better go tell Daniel now so our asses are covered.
Not having a phone at this table, Michael got up and walked toward Daniel's office. He changed direction when he saw Daniel standing by Evan's -- his old -- cube. "Hey, Daniel, do you have a moment?" he said as he approached, intentionally interrupting Daniel and Evan's conversation.
Daniel turned toward him. "Sure, what's up, Michael?"
Michael felt a bit more at-ease with Daniel's informal response. "About the Waterson report..."
"What about it?" Daniel cocked an eyebrow. Evan rolled his chair back to see Michael.
"I got IT to bring my shared drives back up, though some of the data I need are attachments in my email, and that isn't back up yet. With all these delays, I might not have it done in time."
Daniel and Evan exchanged a confused glance, and then turned back to Michael. "Michael, this is a bit awkward," Daniel said, "but Evan's working on that report. I didn't realize you were working on it before."
Michael sighed impatiently. "You..." He stopped, attempting to collect his thoughts. "I..." He stopped again and shook his head, feeling defeated. "Okay. Never mind."
As he walked back to the table, out of the corner of his eye he saw one of his missing Pez dispensers on someone else's desk. Without bothering to say anything to the woman sitting there, he reached across the desk and snatched it.
The woman, who had been on the phone, turned toward him with her eyes wide and jaw dropped with outrage. After a moment, she started to shout, "How dare..."
Michael shot her a glance that forced her to stop talking and cause her to shiver. An idea popped into his head: a Mitsubishi Lancer -- a car he could tell belonged to this woman -- sitting in a driveway at night. He thought about someone smashing in her rear passenger-side window and grabbing a small, black leather bag, then running off. He focused on that idea for a moment, until it somehow felt real.
In a low, hushed tone, he growled, "Let's see how you like it." The woman just sat there, utterly stunned, as Michael walked away.
He sat at the table for another hour or so before people started to leave for lunch. In typical office tradition, most of his co-workers planned to go out as a group to welcome the new guy, Evan. Michael was excluded from their plan, though he didn't mind -- aside from hearing one person whisper "Don't invite the psycho."
Ten minutes after they left, Michael grabbed his box of effects and the laptop and walked out. No one bothered to acknowledge him as he left the office.
* * *
T-Bird drove down Howe Avenue, heading toward Chevy's. Traffic had been clear the entire way -- few cars, all green lights, no one hassling him or getting his the way of him speeding.
Then he noticed a red light at an upcoming intersection that wasn't automatically changing for him. He watched as traffic from the other direction continued to turn left, directly into his path.
Green, he thought. The traffic light did not change.
Green! Now! he shouted in his mind. The traffic continued to cross his path and the light continued to taunt him. He quickly hit the brakes and screeched to a halt inches into the intersection.
"Fucking hell!" he yelled, gaining the attention of a couple walking along the sidewalk.
He sat there, waiting for the light to change. He glanced toward his right side and saw a man sitting on the bus stop bench across the street. He was awkwardly carrying a brown box and a laptop under his arms.
At least I'm not having to deal with bus shit like that pathetic bastard. He glanced back to the light, which hadn't changed. Then he blinked, suddenly recognizing that man's face. He snapped back around.
It's him! His eyes fixed on those of the man across the street. It's the guy I killed!
Before T-Bird could say or do anything else, a bus pulled up and stopped, breaking their eye contact. A moment later, the bus pulled away and the man was gone.
T-Bird noticed that the light had turned green. He immediately punched the gas while grabbing for his cell phone.
* * *
Michael ducked into the bus quickly. He didn't know who the man in the sports car was, but there was something about him that made Michael feel hostile, afraid, and sick to his stomach all at the same time.
He set his stuff down on the empty seat behind the driver, then started to pull out his wallet. "Just a sec," he told the driver, not looking up to acknowledge him.
"This one's on the house, chief," the driver replied. Michael looked up and saw the bus driver Mike from his strange dream last night.
Just a dream, Michael reinforced mentally.
"That was quite the stunt you pulled back there," the driver said, paying attention to the road. "Mind sitting down? Don't matter where, I just get nervous with people standing over me is all."
Michael looked at the rest of the bus, which in daylight looked broken-down and thoroughly-abused. Seat cushions were cracked and torn, with duct tape holding a few together. Graffiti covered every surface. No one, aside from himself and the driver, were on board. He sat down on the seat next to his box and laptop.
Michael watches as the driver turned off the bus route. "Where are we going?"
"You have guessed by now that this isn't a normal city bus, right?"
"Yeah," Michael responded tiredly.
"Where do you want to go?"
Michael stared out of the front window. He found watching the traffic relaxing. "I'd like to go home."
"That's what I figured. Home it is."
* * *
T-Bird's phone rang. Expecting the call, he answered and prayed he wouldn't regret doing so.
Claude spoke. "I have been informed that you have seen your target alive." His voice made T-Bird's blood chill.
"Yeah. Yes. On Howe. Like nothing happened." T-Bird failed to contain his nervousness.
"You have lied to me, Terrance." Claude's voice continued to remain flat and unemotional.
"Terrance, you would do well to be silent and listen. You were instructed to witness Michael's death. The fact that he walks as though nothing happened is evidence that you failed in your task."
Claude paused. T-Bird continued to drive and listen, not daring to speak.
He continued. "This complicates The Patriarch's plans greatly."
The Patriarch? The Man? T-Bird questioned silently.
"I will take care of this matter myself at this juncture, Terrance. Do realize that if it were up to me, I would slice your throat and watch as you ceased living."
T-Bird broke out in a cold sweat. Claude continued, "Fortunately for you, it is not my place to perform such an act."
T-Bird let out a deep sigh. Claude spoke again, this time with the faintest hint of enjoyment in his voice. "Unfortunately for you, disciplining His wayward servants is wholly within my bounds."
T-Bird's eyes widened with panic as Claude continued. "I want you to listen very carefully, Terrance. Are you listening?"
T-Bird swallowed hard, and with a shaky voice replied, "Yes."
With the same authoritative voice Claude used on him in the garage, he spoke one word. "Crash."
T-Bird cried out as he stepped on the gas. Speeding through a red light, he slammed head-on into an SUV that was turning through his lane. The last thing he saw was the look of horror on the face of a little girl sitting in the passenger seat of the oncoming SUV.
Story by Ryan P. Macklin, Copyright 2006
Image by Jeremy Tidwell, Copyright 2006