A fantastic perception arose that I had ventured into a construction that stood between worlds, or linked them, as if uncountable nautilus shells intersected in myriad dimensions, the fluid geometries of their spiral passages offering pathways to new realities.
Beneath the city of New York supposedly lie seven levels of infrastructure. Some are cramped and tortuous to service, others grand in scale.
But this was Pico Mundo, home of the Gila Monsters. Our biggest cultural event is the annual cactus festival.
At key stress points, arches and buttresses lent reinforcement, and in some places the curved walls were ribbed. These elements had been executed with rounded edges that didn’t detract from the organic quality of the whole.
The immense volume of these tunnels seemed excessive for their reputed purpose. I found it difficult to believe that, with so many routes to follow, the runoff from even a hundred-year storm would rise as far as the midpoint of one of the larger arteries.
I had no difficulty, however, believing that these tunnels were only secondarily drains and were primarily one-lane highways. Trucks could travel through them, even eighteen-wheelers, and transfer from one passage to another with a two-maneuver turn.
Ordinary trucks or mobile missile launchers.
I suspected that this labyrinth lay under not only Fort Kraken and Pico Mundo. It also extended miles north and south through the Maravilla Valley.
If you needed to move around hot-target nuclear assets during the first hours of the Last War, to get them out of the devastation of the initial strike zone to points from which they could be taken to the surface and launched, these subterranean highways might meet your requirements. They had been constructed at sufficient depth to allow considerable hardening against blast penetration.
Indeed, having accumulated this far below the surface, storm runoff eventually must be dumped not into a reservoir but into an underground lake or other geological formation that supported the area water table.
How peculiar to think of myself, in the days before my loss, at the griddle of the Pico Mundo Grille, frying cheeseburgers, wrecking eggs, turning bacon, dreaming of marriage, unaware that far beneath me, the highways of Armageddon lay in silent anticipation of sudden convoys of death.
Although I see the dead, whom others cannot see, the world wears many veils and is layered with secrets that cannot be perceived with merely a sixth sense.
Mile after mile, I progressed less quickly than I would have preferred. My psychic magnetism served me less well than usual, often leaving me standing in uncertainty when I arrived at the option of another conduit.
Doggedly nonetheless, I proceeded eastward, or suspected that I did. Holding fast to an accurate sense of direction underground is not easy.
For the first time, I encountered a depth-marker post—white with black numbers at one-foot intervals—situated in the center of the watercourse. This six-inch-square fixture rose eleven and a half feet, nearly to the apex of the curved ceiling.
The gray water reached three or four inches shy of the two-foot line, close to the estimation that I’d made earlier, but of greater interest was the corpse. It had snared on the post.
The cadaver bobbed facedown in the flow. The murky water, the billowing pants and shirt, prevented me from determining even the sex of the deceased from where I stood on the elevated walkway.
My heart knocked, knocked, and the sound of it echoed through me as though I were an empty house.
If this was Danny, I was done. Done not just with the search for him, but finished.
Two feet of fast-moving water could in an instant sweep a grown man off balance. This conduit had only a minimal slope, however, and the unchanging depth of the flow, plus the lazy look of it, suggested that the velocity was—and would continue to be for a while—less than overwhelming.
After dropping my backpack on the walkway, I stepped down into the channel and waded toward the marker post. As lazy as the water appeared to be, it still had power.
Rather than dawdle in midstream and tempt the gods of the drain, I didn’t at once try to roll the body over and look at its face, but grabbed a fistful of its clothing and towed it to the walkway.
Although I am comfortable with the spirits of the dead, cadavers spook me. They seem like empty vessels in which a new and malevolent entity might take up residence.
I’ve never actually known this to happen, though there’s a clerk at the Pico Mundo 7-Eleven that I wonder about.
On the walkway, I flopped the body on its back and recognized the snaky man who had Tasered me.
Not Danny. A thin whimper of relief escaped me.
At the same time my nerves coiled tight and I shuddered. The dead man’s face was unlike the faces of other corpses that I had seen.
His eyes had rolled so far back in his head that I could not see the thinnest crescent of green. Although he could have been dead, at most, only a couple hours, his eyes also seemed to swell forward as though pressure within the skull might force them from their sockets.
Had his face been a bloodless white, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Had the skin already turned a pale green, as it always will within a day of death, I would have wondered what had hastened the process of decomposition, but I would not have been startled.
The skin was neither bloodless nor pale green, nor even livid, but several shades of gray, mottled from ash-pale to charcoal. He looked drawn, too, as if life were a juice that had been sucked out of him.
His mouth hung open. His tongue was gone. I didn’t think anyone had cut it out. He appeared to have swallowed it. Aggressively.
His head bore no obvious injuries. Although I was curious about the cause of death, I had no intention of undressing him in a search for wounds.
I did roll him over, facedown, to check for a wallet. He wasn’t carrying one.
If this man had not died accidentally, if he had been murdered, surely Danny Jessup had not killed him. Which seemed to leave only the possibility that he had been offed by one of his associates.
After retrieving my backpack and shrugging my arms through the straps, I continued in the direction that I had been headed. Several times, I glanced back, half expecting to discover that he had risen, but he never did.
EVENTUALLY I TURNED EAST-SOUTHEAST INTO another tunnel. This one was dark.
Sufficient light intruded past the intersection to reveal the GFI switch on the wall of the new passage. The stainless-steel plate was set at six feet, suggesting the designers of the flood-control system had not expected water ever to rise within a foot of that mark, confirming that the volume of the drains was far greater than a worst-case storm required.
I flicked t
he switch. The tunnel ahead brightened, as perhaps did other branches related to it.
Because I now proceeded east-southeast and because the storm was evidently coming in from the north, this new passageway brought no water toward me.
The concrete had nearly dried from its most recent soaking. The floor featured a skin of pale sediment littered with small items that had fallen out of the last spate of runoff from a previous storm.
I looked for footprints in the silt, but saw none. If Danny and his captors had come this way, they had stayed on the elevated walkway that I used.
My sixth sense compelled me forward. As I walked somewhat faster than before, I wondered….
In the streets of Pico Mundo are manhole covers. Those heavy cast-iron discs must be disengaged from integrating latch slots and lifted with a special tool.
Logic argued that the conduits belonging to the department of power and water and those under the authority of the sewer department must be systems separate from—and much more humble than—the flood-control tunnels. Otherwise, I would by now have encountered numerous maintenance shafts with stairs or ladders.
Although I had walked miles in the first tunnel, I had not seen a single service entrance after the one through which I had arrived. Less than two hundred yards into the new passageway, I came to an unmarked steel door in the wall.
The psychic magnetism that drew me toward Danny Jessup did not pull me toward this exit. Simple curiosity motivated me.
Beyond the door—heavy to the point of massiveness, as had been the two through which I had entered—I located a light switch and a T-shaped corridor. Other doors stood at the ends of the short arms of the T.
One of these revealed a vestibule where an open spiral of metal stairs led up to what was clearly another slump-stone shed like the one into which I had broken, property of the Maravilla County Flood-Control Project.