Pulp #13 – Blackwall (Part 4 of 6)
Vangatten tunnel – if the heart of the New Amsterdam beat black and fulla bile, this place was the artery feeding it, a soot-filled shit hole. How’s that for imagery.
I’m still a little fuzzy, this whole thing feels like an outta body experience, like i’m walking through looping thoughts, an endless network of dingy passages that lead no place in particular.
I’d heard alotta things about this place – public excavation projects for tax-breaks were pretty big before the money dried up in the crash and left this crisscross of stairwells and crack dens that nestled in the eaves. Apparently it used to be lined with carved stone facades, lead trim, that kinda thing before it was stripped for scrap. About the same time the peddlers moved in and started hiding in the cloven slips. Then, of course, the turf wars started, Blackwall and Vangatten, like estranged sisters pulling at eachother’s hair beneath the Trident. Yeah, it was that kinda place, like the place under your bed where you cram all the clutter. And yeah, if you delve deep enough under the bed, you’re gonna find that thing going bump.
If these walls could talk, well, you’d bet they’d spit out a few four letter words. But that’s just the thing, they weren’t talking, no one was, nothing was moving, the place was deserted. I’d started picking up my pace, stepping as lightly as I could to avoid stirring anything in the shadows. Whatever had made that scream, whatever had slapped consciousness back into me had long gone.
I guess i’m about half way, about a mile off Vangatten, I could tell cos the speck of light behind me started getting smaller than the one in front. I hadn’t really stopped seeing lights since I left Starboard’s place, they came and went, like the nausea, like the dizziness, like this gentle humming I’ve got between the ears. It’s only when I stagger past an escape road when I figure it ain’t in my head, well some of it ain’t.
The slip was lit up scarlet. The engine was still humming, the running lights flickering a little as the battery struggles to keep pace. I splutter a little as I get a better shot. I’m not sure what brought it on, the cloud of monoxide filling the cavity or the dead guy hanging out his cab.
He’d been dragged out and beaten bloody, guess the fumes did the rest. His legs still clung to his cab whilst the rest of him was splayed out on the tarmac, one hand clenching his gut, the other protecting his face. Didn’t look like it’d done much good. One half of his face looked swollen, the light made the blood stains look like ink, ink spilling from a cut above his eye. His eye’s still wide, eyes with a tint of yellow, eyes i’d seen before, hiding behind gold frames.
I take a closer look at the hand on his gut. It was soaking, drowning in a reservoir pooling at his sternum, trying to clot, rippling like an oil slick. The first thing I can think to do is roll one up, to pretend like it ain’t nothing new, turn away to imagine he’s not there. I remember I had a pack of straights, so far so good. But as I scrape at the flint, there’s a gargle from the body, a guttural rattle from his lungs, air trying to break through the blood. Selfishness starts wrestling with morality, my brain doing somersaults, hands shaking a little, smoke still hanging out my yap unlit. Did that rattle mean the guy was still kicking? What do I do then – patch it up? Hold the wound? Pressure? The cigarette becomes an extension of my incompetence, dangling limply there doing nothing but taking up space.
Trying to muster something that don’t resemble cowardice, I kneel beside him and make a flimsy attempt at placing my hand on the wound. It felt like molasses. Half hot, still gushing from the core, trying to burst through the cold film on the surface. I take my hand off and can’t help but think it looked like i’d just tried to throttle a squid. The image draws a smirk just before I start spewing my guts up beside him. How’s that for dying with dignity, bud.
I should straighten him up, lay him out right, do something I couldn’t fuck up. I figure I can pull his legs out the car without hurling again. Maybe. The fumes weren’t helping though, I could feel ‘em dragging me down towards the deck, sapping everything outta me. Gotta cut the ignition. I attempt to step over the guy but kinda stagger into a fall, denting the side panel of the cab with my elbow before barely keeping my balance by gripping the car door. The ignition’s one of those push in and twist deals, a concept that stumped me a little more than it shoulda. After a few failed attempts, I wrangle it a little harder, jerking the keys so hard the car starts screaming so loud it feels like it’s ripping pieces outta my ear drums.
Twist and turn, twist and turn.
Shit, calm ain’t too easy when you’re hitting frenzy.
They come loose and i’m plunged into darkness. But the screaming, the screaming’s still pummeling the din. It’s only when I see a trickle of blue lights dancing up the tunnel walls that I figure that sound ain’t coming from here.
I was about a minute off the strip. Killing the lights mighta given me a minute more. That gives me two minutes tops. Better make it count.
* * *
It seemed like a few hours before I stumbled on anything resembling civilisation. I use the term civilisation loosely, it looked like the inside of a sewer pipe, but a sewer pipe with a few lights. By that point I’d crawled through enough potholes, waded through enough detritus, trod on enough needles and nearly set alight enough heaps of trash to seriously start thinking about retiring to the suburbs. Guess the only plus was that I hadn’t heard a peep from the Stripes. Not to say that it was my kinda soundscape, not at any stretch. It was kinda what you’d expect from a creepy passage under a river in perpetual darkness – drips, creaks, that hollow kinda smothered silence that usually precedes a brutal murder of some sort.
By the time I hit a corridor off a service tunnel, it looks like I just stumbled up onto Broad Street. I ain’t kidding, no more sewer pipe. This place was ten feet wide, brighter, tiled, well once upon a time. I had a feeling I knew where it was heading. I’d hearda this place before, Elkbridge, well, like it was some kinda myth, a shipwrecked country club beneath the Trident. They said it’d been like the jewel of subterranean engineering, a ballroom two stories high, trimmed with gold leaf, hung with crystal. Yeah, it’d probably looked like that once too.
The trail weaved it’s way up to the grand entrance – two splintered doors barely hanging on their the hinges. This is kinda how I’d imagine a forest to be on the turn to winter. I ain’t seen a forest since I was a kid, the memory’s so vague I start thinking tree trunks are topped with bulbs, the forest floor is just there to let the rain run off. So, what is it about this place? I dunno, it feels like it aches, mourns for the pretty little face it once head, the air was musty, thick with melancholy, so dense you couldn’t take a breathe without having to think what it’d lost. How it’s leaves had scattered and rotted, how it’s fruit been stripped by the rodents. They’d torn it apart, salted the earth. The caryatid’s that’d once lofted the ceiling onto their shoulders were a sideshow – crudely painted hookers with all the trimmings, gashes slashed into the abdomen like some perverts sadistic fantasy. The chandelier, naked, stripped of every last crystal. The carpet squelched under foot, reeking of mould. This weren’t decadence no more, this weren’t prestige, it was a crypt.
I weren’t moving, I shoulda been breaking for the surface, but, I just weren’t. Something had caught my eye, something in the corner behind what I guess used to be a radiator cover.
I’d tried to gloss over it on first inspection, tried to ignore it and keep the ascent ticking on. But I just kept on getting drawn back to it, like the way you’d stare at a car crash. Something, something that felt like curiosity was reeling in me in, no matter how much I thrashed at.
I don’t have time to stop and stare.
But what the hell was it?
A huge dent in the side of the wall, flanked by candles, burnt to the nubs, insignia of the Sidewinders and the other tribes shared the wall with Augustinian iconography.
Two minutes, I had two minutes.
The alcove had been chiseled out. I guess it was just about big enough to crawl through but not a whole lot bigger. You could tell how deep it went though, even with my spark in there, the darkness soon swallowed it up.
Don’t worry, I’ve read too many cheap slashers to figure not to burrow down the rabbit hole, hell, I’d written half of ’em so I was wise enough to it. Still, that didn’t stop me plunging a hand inside, being a creature of curiosity ya know.
I fumbled around, picking up nothing but rubble or a few news rags from outta town – The Nolk Tribune, never heard of it. Couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, after all that anticipation. I’m halfway through pulling my arm outta the lion’s mouth when my sleeve gets caught on one of the rebars, and that ain’t the only thing that’s been caught there either. What felt like a satchel had been tasseled to it, onea the straps caught on the bars. I couldn’t quite get at it without putting both hands in. Surely that was stupid, stupid enough to do it anyway. It was weird, whoever had gone to the effort had –
‘Who the fuck are you?’
It weren’t the most classy of entrances. Then again, he didn’t look like the classiest of guys. There was about thirty foot between us, about a sixty pound difference in weight, and what I’m guessing was a very different approach to conflict resolution. So I skip the introductions part.
By the sound of the rabble behind me, I’m guessing a few of his buddies have joined the party too. Usually I’d stop to check but I was a little preoccupied with absolutely pegging it outta there as fast as possible. I take a leap at a fresh setta doors. They seem to work alright, ain’t too sure how they’ll hold up after me though.
This was too much. I just wanted to curl up in the fetal position, get a good kicking if that was gonna be what it had to be. That’s had to be better than this. Every step felt like I was about to give way. I was blind too, back in the sewer pipes, making it up as I went along, had about one wrong turn in me before they’d have me in a headlock or had me playing their new pin cushion.
I’m at a few sprint, adrenaline filing in the gaps of fatigue, got me clawing at every handle I pass until it feels like one’ll give way. Still the footsteps are getting closer. How many? Twenty steps…Ten? There must be a door, must be something. The passage started drawing in on me, started to grate at my shoulders, nicking the mothballer, stifling the escape, turning it into a jaunt, then a stroll, then a struggle. Then-
There couldn’t have been much left of my shin after that, really, fucking staircase felt like it was made of crowbars, and shattered glass. Fuck it though, this is it, it has to be. I’d like to say I take it calmly, collected, but I don’t. I make a hash of the first few steps, spluttering, shuffling half a waltz until my ass is caught in the gap between steps. That when I get a glimpse back down the passage. At first there’s nothing much to report, the hole still pretty a void of any notable note, anything but a moving darkness, a shift in the black, like a form fumbling at its outline for definition. But then the footsteps creep into the description, and I’m off my ass again, back trying to break all twenty-six bones in my feet as I stumble up the staircase.
The guy behind me is taking two at a time, inches behind me, from ripping a hole in the mothballer. He’s got fingerprints on me when I reach the door, and then the night, and then Vangatten, aflame.