Knox said, “That’s an Italian fortune cookie. You don’t get off so easy. Hope you liked your veal, ’cause there’s machine gunners waiting at the tollbooth. Someone’s slapping your sis, like that.”
It drew smirks from the other three at the table. Shayla at his right elbow said, “Highly comical.” Her lank hair was tinted eggplant purple. Her labret was a bead of blood.
“Yeah. And it never came in a cookie. They deliver it like a subpoena.”
Big boy Cruiser laughed across the table. His neck and head rose from a black sweatshirt like an ICBM with ear-shaped fins. “Oh fuck you, man.” They all tittered. Knox nodded at no one, showing his horse teeth, goofing. He wore a skullcap, dark blue to match his eyes. Cruiser gave Shayla a scoffing look that she didn’t notice. Cruiser’s lady Carol was studying her plate, twining spaghetti around a spoon. She wore a midnight denim jumper over a black pullover. With Carol there was a scary mix of innocence and experience.
Knox said, “You like some more balls, Carol?” A waiter moved past them. “More hot balls for her, please?” he called.
“Hey,” Cruiser said.
The waiter stopped. He’d served them spaghetti platters, garlic bread and Cokes. He didn’t seem amused. “We’re closed,” he said. “Here.” He ripped a check from his pad and pushed it near the red-and-yellow mound on Knox’s plate. “We only take cash.”
“We didn’t get to eat yet,” Shayla told him.
The room had ten checker-clothed tables and three stools at the bar. They were the only ones still there. A while ago the waiter had locked the entrance door, going over to turn the key and let the last parties out. Murmuring “’Night, now” after each one. Curtains were pulled on the lower half of the dark front window.
The four at the table shoved their chairs back and stood.
“There’s problems with the service,” Knox said.
“Worse service than fuh-ken county,” said Cruiser.
Shayla grabbed her bag by the strap hanging over the back of her chair. She reached in and came up with a palm-sized Seecamp. She waved it next to her cheek. “Uh-oh,” she said, smiling gap-toothed at the waiter. “It’s a little gun!”
Knox and Cruiser pivoted like sentries and stomped through the entryway to the kitchen. Carol selected a piece of bread from the basket on the table. She and Shayla stood watching the waiter. He was sloppy in an apron and white shirt, both flecked with fresh sauce. His sleeves were rolled on fat arms. His Buddy Hollys framed the eyes of an alarmed burro.
“Plenty people on Yelp love this place,” Shayla said. “But Yelp, you know, who says you and your friends don’t write those. I thought the food was decent. What I had of it.” She looked at Carol. “You?”
“Rita’s makes better,” Carol said, chewing. “The marinara’s whangier.”
The waiter rose to it, but his voice cracked. “No way.”
“Way,” Carol said.
A thin old cook came in from the kitchen, his brow ridged in waves above furious eyes. A pillowy woman trailed with her hands clasped at her apron front. Then came Knox and Cruiser. Knox carried a beaten, bile-colored zipper pouch. “Mamma anna Pappa Clammasauce-a,” he sang.
“Mamma Pappa Scumbaggi,” Cruiser said grandly.
Knox frowned. “Be nice.”
Shayla moved aside and pointed the Seecamp toward the empty table. “Everyone seat yourselves.”
The old couple and the waiter sat down in front of the spaghetti and red plastic tumblers of Coke. Carol moved to the door, unlocked it and went out. After a few seconds there was a hard rap on its etched glass. Knox and Cruiser crossed the room. Knox opened the door for Cruiser, waved him out, then followed. Shayla waited a full minute, trading stares with the cook. Then she retrieved her bag and slipped the gun in, saying “Don’t tell, okay?” She shouldered the bag on her way to the door. As she reached for the knob she caught a twinkle in the night-blackened glass. She swiveled around to see the waiter with a hand under his apron. “Did you?” she cried, and crossed back to the table. She pulled the Seecamp out and leveled it at the waiter’s forehead. “My pic?” Staring up dumbly, the waiter lifted an aqua iPhone from under the apron. “Bad and bad,” she said, taking the phone, then shouted, “Pow!”The waiter sniffled. The air turned sharp as rotten gorgonzola. There was a tense moment. “You’re very rude as well,” Shayla said. No one replied as she stepped back to the door. This time she slipped out.
Night and Jersey City, the devil’s dirty backyard. She moved in the shadows past duplex row houses wrapped in vinyl siding. The streetlights were filtered out by low trees. Hefty sacks were piled like soft skulls at the curb. No one came the other way. She made two blocks before she heard a siren. Another two and she was on a cobbled road of abandoned warehouses, their insides exposed through ripped-out walls. Bumble bee traffic drums guarded a boom lift and a Cat resting on light treads. She walked toward the new Trump towers on the next block. One had bands of warm windows and a penthouse lit with a lavender glow. But the unfinished building was a stack of dead-eyed floors, with a fiery signal spitting at the very top. At street level its scaffold lights blazed. Shayla darted around the corner and back into the night.
On the next block she stopped beside a high chain-link fence screening a cluster of generators. Through the fence yellow lamplight showed their segmented coils like insect parts plugged at Y-angles into gray vats. Everything buzzed like a cage of dragonflies. Beyond this was the old powerhouse, a city block of redbrick ruin covered with scummy patches of black and brown. The massive cathedral windows had been torn out and boarded. Shayla tilted her head perpendicular. The Gothic cornice jutted against racing silver clouds. Cold wind tore at her face and hair. The buzzing filled the street.
Beside the fence was a bare section of the outer wall. The brick was tagged with maggoty script: eek and mezzy and kers. An iron delivery shutter bore cartoon mushroom clouds and three-eyed horned beasts. Shayla went over to a weed-cracked ledge. Just above it a wide steel vent was set into the wall. She pulled on one of its downturned slats with both hands and the whole vent came free. She set it on the ledge. She stepped up, legged through the opening and dropped to the powerhouse floor. Then she reached for the vent and worked it back in place. For a minute she stood still in the full dark. It was ten degrees colder. Across the invisible space came a low electric whirring. Somewhere metal clinked and echoed. Emptiness rose above her. The blackness was starting to change when a nickel-sized spot appeared and flashed in her eyes. “Die, slut,” came in a loud whisper. She turned her face and the light dropped to one side. “Don’t talk like that,” she called.
The flash flipped backwards and there was Knox’s head, floating in a pocket of light a couple dozen feet away. “Who was talking?” he said.
“No games, alright? Let’s see the way.”
“This is Frankenstein’s Castle.” Knox vanished. His voice came through the black. “Exit light.”
The flash hit her again, then slid to the cement floor. She followed as it crept back toward Knox, saying as she walked, “What’s the count?” The light showed her boots kicking up lunar-grade dust. “Something believable, alright?” She stopped when the flash’s spot hit his black Reeboks. The light stayed between them on the floor.
“We golden?” he said softly.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Around four each.” He could have been a cardboard cut out standing there, with that Irish Riviera accent coming from the beyond: “Foa each.” She shook her head. They’d burn through it.
“Floor’s all broken up,” he said. “We’re over this side.” The oval of light beamed over smashed brick and tile, lengths of pipe and dunes of dusty rubble. Shoulder to shoulder they began to cross the powerhouse floor. From high in the fathoms of darkness overhead came a squeal of metal. Shayla stopped and looked up, seeing nothing. She heard Knox shuffle ahead a few steps. There was a thud like a cannonball hitting a hay bale and the light was wiped away. The flash clattered on the floor. Shayla froze where she stood. She heard only the electric whir, steady in the background. The cold murk opened up all around her. Blind but exposed, she screamed, “KNOX!!” Nothing. She crumpled down and yelled, “CRUI–SER!WHERE ARE YOU?”
Nearby was a new sound. A dribble hitting the cement. At last Cruiser’s voice came from a distance. “What?”
“GET HERE! FUCK!”
Far into the darkness there was a prick of light. She heard crunching bootfalls. The light grew into a beam, bobbing across the floor and splintering whenever it swung her way. Before the beam reached her its shine hit Knox, then shifted over him. Shayla let out a Linda Blair hissing noise. A thick crane hook had entered Knox’s gut and ripped through his back. His Reeboks were a few feet in the air, quivering. The light played upward to a cable that disappeared plumb into the black. It played down to Knox’s face. Glossy blood drooled from his mouth. The light went to the floor. A dark red slop was scattered below the hook’s still-dripping curve. The beam flashed from the wet onto Shayla. From her cat crouch she stared up at Cruiser’s gray form. Finally he said, “Carol’s back there.”
She stood. “We—” Her voice went dry. With effort, she swallowed. “—get her. Okay? Then we go.”
Cruiser only sighed. “What a fuh-ken night.”
They followed his light as it crossed over steel scraps and crud hills, stepping around gaps where the cement floor was driven in. Cruiser called to Carol and a white streak split through the gloom. They traced it to where Carol was waiting between girders that supported some kind of overhead gallery. The beam from her flash slid over them. “Problems?” she said.
“A crane tore Knox up,” Shayla told her. “I don’t know how.”
Carol replied slowly. “That’s . . . oh, that’s . . .”
“It’s bad, yeah. This is a bad place to be.”
They could hear the charged hum from somewhere across the dead-black floor.
“Shayla?” Carol said. “Can we show you? Come.”
Carol and Cruiser stepped deeper beneath the gallery’s overhang, playing their flashes in crossbeams. The light caught an old iron swivel chair tilted in the debris between two corroded girders. The cash pouch was on its seat. The beams shifted to the back wall. They held on a fresh-looking tag, in lead-white donut letters: nox now nex ?
Shayla said, “Knox now– what? What is that?”
Carol said, “We didn’t do it.”
“So it was there,” Shayla said.
“Yes,” Carol said. “There’s something going on,”
“You know, Carol, that’s very good. I say you’re right. Something’s going on.”
“The message appeared,” Carol said. “It means there are presences here.”
Shayla’s voice turned kindly. “Should you maybe ask your cards, then? To find out?” Like she was offering a first grader Drano-laced Pixy Stix.
Carol replied simply. “Whatever’s here is real.”
In the same sweet tone, Shayla said, “And such presences already know Knox, so they could write his name?”
“I think they got it from you. Then they —”
“So you’re saying —”
“Not saying. I know it.” Carol paused. “I’ve felt chakras lots of times. Even coming out of my dog.”
There was a pause until Cruiser said, “We’re not going back that way.”
Shayla looked at him, seeing a gray ogre behind his flash. A shadowed hand at his side held the pouch. “I don’t. I don’t get where we need to go,” she said.
“Follow her,” he said.
Carol swept her flash over the labyrinth of girders that surrounded them. She led the way over to a corrugated steel path running out onto the powerhouse floor. To either side square pits opened, some webbed with rubble-filled nets, some dropping out empty. Carol walked point. Shayla strung along behind her, with Cruiser’s flash shining steady at her back. They crossed the main floor. The whirring grew as they moved across the cold, empty space. After a minute Carol’s flash hit the far wall. She ran the beam up from the debris pile at its foot and along a snarl of decayed piping. Cruiser called, “Hold up.” They clustered to watch as Cruiser’s light brushed across the bricks. It stopped on a neon-green board that sealed a low, arched window. The whir, now scream-singing, filled the darkness. Over it he said, “There. We’re good.” He spoke to Carol. “Go kick it out.”
Carol went toward the block of spectral green. After three steps she stiffened and shouted, “No . . . DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!” She threw her arms out and did a half-spin. Ragged blue light flared through the gloom and encased her, jolting her upward. For a few seconds she danced free of the ground inside a blazing cocoon. It lit up the powerhouse’s depths, across the bombed-out floor and into the grid of rafters far overhead. At the center of the blaze Carol’s face stretched like a rubber mask. Her hair was on fire. Then the airburst and everything blacked out. Shayla and Cruiser heard something crackle and pop. There was a reek of burnt hair, with an iron edge as if liver was frying.
The vast space went still. Shayla spoke first. “Listen to me.” Sounding like an android on Darvon. “We don’t move from here. I’m calling out.” She groped into her bag and came up with a phone. The size was wrong, and she realized it was the waiter’s. When she pressed the screen it didn’t glow on.
Cruiser’s voice was so near it jolted her. “My phone’s dead. Flashlight’s dead, too.”
The whirring was gone. They heard something softly shift in the blackness where Carol had been. Shayla shoved the phone back in her bag and found a Bic lighter. She hit Cruiser on the arm and gave it to him, saying “Here. Use the money.”
“Ah fuck.” She heard the pouch zip. Saw the Bic’s puny flame jump. It hovered for a moment, then caught the edge of some loose bills. Cruiser’s hard face was lit orange, frowning down at the fire as it steadied. He held the burning tuft at chest height and looked at her. She could just make out the lump of dark denim on the ground behind him.
“It’s broke up all through the middle there,” Cruiser said.
“We’re still going back.”
Cruiser handed her the pouch and led the way with the flame. Twenty steps through the debris he said, “I need more.” His voice was rough, like he’d just been blubbering. She pulled out another sheaf of bills and gave it to him. A new flame came up with a rustle. They walked a paved strip with drops opening into shadowy ironwork on either side. From the emptiness far above came a crack like ice breaking. The air stirred as something heavy sheared past Shayla’s head and smashed on the iron. She heard Cruiser’s shout as a slo-mo growl, saw white-hot sparks on black velvet as she stumbled sideways. Then freefall. A sudden full-body shudder wrenched her straight, like she’d been grabbed in an energy field. Her feet fumbled for balance. She staggered back and steadied herself, then stood with wrapped arms, clutching the pouch. Cruiser was open-mouthed in the flame’s orange cone. “You went out over the hole and jerked around . . . . Like a movie going backward . . .” He trailed off. She stared at him. After a moment she moved ahead, her hand in the pouch for another sheaf of bills to torch.
They kept going, past the open shafts and through the floor’s wreckage. “This used to be all giant turbines,” Cruiser said.
“So you’ve been in here. Other times.”
“Yeah. I been in here.”
A dangling shape up ahead became Knox. She said no, but Cruiser led them nearer. The flickering fire showed the body jackknifed above a mess that shone on the rubble like palm oil. A wet clump fell from the hook and splatted into the rest. Shayla let out a short moan. Cruiser snorted. “He timed that one pretty good.”
They moved around Knox and came to the wall. Cruiser went slowly along, checking it in the firelight.
“There aren’t any vents,” she said.
Cruiser stopped. The flame showed blank brick, nothing else. “It’s not here,” he said.
“But it was.”
“Yeah it fuh-ken was,” he said.
“We’re at the right place?”
He didn’t answer. Absently, he said, “Wish day would come.”
“Fah real? You wish day . . .?”
Cruiser kicked out and a pipe rattled across the floor. “Everything’s made of fuh-ken metal. We can’t keep burning all the cash.” He lowered his head, giving it thought. “But . . .”
“I’m not sitting here the whole night with no way out.”
“Just wait, Shay. We’re good. There’s coal.”
Shayla glared at him. “So where’s the fuh-ken coal?”
“Underground. Wait, I need some more.” She gave him bills. Cruiser walked away. She watched him recede into the deep shadow under the hanging gallery till there was only a fist carrying fire. He stopped and stayed still while she picked her way over. When she got to him he was standing over a three-cornered shaft. It had stairs leading beneath the floor. They could see the first steps set in a curve that followed the shaft downward. Its center fell away into nothing.
Looking into the hole, fire playing on his Easter Island face, Cruiser said, “We’re good once we get down there.” He raised his head and hollered, “RIGHT, KNOX?!”
She stared at him. “What the fuck was that?”
He stared back through the shadows. “I saw what I saw. He’s helping you.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Fighting off the others of them. I don’t know. However it works.”
He stared a little longer, then said “More. Make this a fattie.” She dug in the pouch for bills and gave them over. He lit them from the flame he was holding. As the light grew he took the first stairs down until he was clutching the rail. She started the descent behind him. Slowly they moved around the curves, fire glowing on the shaft’s walls. “Big step,” Cruiser called where a stair was missing. At times his weight made the iron groan. She kept on warily, step by step, until he said, “Touchdown.” A few seconds later she hit firm ground. She looked back up. The shaftway was lost in blackness.
Cruiser played the flame around the enclosure where they’d landed, then led her through an opening in the wall. She watched him walk a short way off. The firelight shivered on a low overhead arch. There were squat columns running past and an antique bench with curved arms. She realized they were on an abandoned subway platform. Where Cruiser stood, the flame showed an enormous heap of coal bricks that blocked the way and spilled off onto the track. He squatted to push the burning cash under the edge of the pile. He watched the flame. “Come the fuck on.”
The fire licked up under the broken bricks, reddening a little hollow. Neither of them spoke as it burned lower. Finally Cruiser said, “Shay. I have to feed it some more.”
He turned and looked up at her. She was watching the red recede. “There is no more,” she said. The flame flickered. Then it snuffed out. His voice rang through the dark: “Can you fuh-ken believe . . .”
This was stone blindness. “When day comes there’ll be light to climb back up,” she said.
“What we’ll find out.”
She moved till she hit the tunnel wall and slid down with her back against it. She heard Cruiser shuffle over and stop a few feet away. He smacked the wall and sat with a grunt.“Lighter’s done with.” His voice was scratchy again.
“Maybe a train’ll come.”
Neither of them spoke for a minute. At last Cruiser said, “You know something?”
“Guys building this place ate it down here.”
“Sandhogs they used to call them.”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t expect a cave-in.”
“But maybe that’s them up there.”
The tunnel was silent. Nothing to cut the blackness. Finally she said, “Yeah. Them and Knox. And Carol.”
“Well, yeah. Maybe.”
“And I ask, how do you have all this information?”
“I told you I been all over the fucker.”
She waited before saying, “That makes me think.”
She could hear him breathing. There was a rustle as he edged closer.
When she didn’t answer he said, “I need something right now.”
Thick fingers blindly slid across her cheek and neck, then trailed down the front of her shirt. She threw a cross-body punch. Then panic shot up as his huge weight came around like some dungeon’s trap door. She squirmed and skidded away along the wall, panting, “Are . . . you. . . kidding me?”
For a moment she heard nothing. Then his near-whisper came out of the dark: “I didn’t . . . Please, Shay?”
“God. Are you that much of a fuckwit?” She choked out a laugh.
There was a pause. “I don’t get you, Shay.”
She could hear his quick exhales. “You think I don’t see,” she said.
“This is just what you wanted.”
“This. Meaning me.”
Half-laughing she said, “You’re thinking the situ now is for me . . . Because I have to.”
“So you’re the Cracker Jack prize,” he said, a little proudly.
“You’re an idiot enough to try. Easy girl, easy money, like that.”
“And Carol and your boy?”
“You know the building from before. So you knew about that hook? You knew about the electricity? The graffiti. All of it. You.”
“I don’t think so.” She imagined him scoffing in the dark. “I set it up? What Carol said was right . . . about them. They went for the decap on you.”
“Wrong. You saw —”
Quiet as a creeping pool of blood she’d moved back over to him. Now she felt for his shoulder, then his face. Everything hard as marble. “Hey,” he said. The Seecamp fired an inch from his temple. She jumped up and edged down the platform, still seeing the flash and his head snapping away. She stopped and stood against the wall, staring blind and stuttering, “Whu-well, Knox, is this whu-what it’s about?”
In the darkness in front of her, above the track line, Carol appeared. Carol with her eyes sagged out, her curls matted, her face lashed with gore. The apparition hovered then faded out. The next instant it was there again. Now it was Carol in her denim jumper, face clean and shining, smiling as she silently mouthed, “Way.” Then everything went black.
Okay, the hallucination channel was on. What else? Shayla was wiped, wired, tripped out, couldn’t trust herself. And don’t forget guilty. Ghosts always came for the guilty. But then why wasn’t it Cruiser? She knew he couldn’t set a plan that had parts to sync up. He never booby trapped anybody. She did him for being way the fuck out of line in a time of stress. That and raw anger over Knox. She needed Knox around for relief of pain. Finding him was the only thing that’d saved her in Covenant House. What if he still had her back, out there doing whatever it takes? She could go to him. Or was that the guilt talking again? She sank her shoulder to the floor and folded herself against the wall. Her cheek rested on the wrist of the hand holding the gun.
Or could Carol be a messenger? A messenger inviting Shayla to go over to them. She and Knox, they’d have each other’s backs. Would Cruiser still be a problem when she got there? She hadn’t had such a brilliant life. Fah real. One slaphead stunt after the other. Just take for example the present situ. The worst ever, so far. Would anything not be an improvement?
A velvety blue radiance flooded down the tracks. Seeing it, Shayla didn’t even move. She lay thinking she’d be able to feel its light against her skin in some unknown way. Beyond the platform’s crumbling lip a silent man swayed by, then a file of men. Some wore coarse overalls and work caps, a few were nude. They had walrus moustaches that looked like grafts holding together their blue-lit faces, if bloated-out shapes swimming free of the skull were still faces. Maybe a dozen of them came, slowly passing where she lay in darkness. Last came Knox, marching straight and whole. He went by with the rest. At the last second he threw her a sudden glance, goofing, his eyes like sapphires.
She quickly sat up. “KNOX!!” She pushed the gun’s nose up under her left ribcage, till the pain cut off her breath. Then it all vanished. She was alone in the tunnel. Down the platform a blotch of light was shining through the opening to the stairwell. Cruiser’s body was visible as a grainy mound, so near it startled her. The coal slide was a black ramp beyond the light. A shout came down the shaft: “Police!” There was a pause. “Who’s down dare?”
Knox said, “That’s an Italian fortune cookie. You don’t get off so easy. Hope you liked your veal, ’cause there’s machine gunners waiting at the tollbooth. Someone’s slapping your sis, like that.”