Spirit of the City, by Todd Ferrante

It was 3:30 in the morning when she woke me in her usual, horrifying way – with a sharp throb in my chest that sent me immediately upright in bed.  Once awake the pain dissipated, while the sudden surge of adrenaline helped keep me from falling back asleep.  It wasn’t the most comforting wake-up call – I’d much prefer soft lighting and gentle music – but she needed me awake and alert, so it accomplished the goal.

It had only been about six months, but I was already accustomed to these late night alarms and had learned to be prepared.  The first things I reached for were the pair of jeans and sweatshirt I kept folded on the nightstand.  Once those were on, I grabbed the sneakers and socks tucked under the bed.  Those posed a bit of a challenge in my still groggy state, but I finally got them all the way on and laced up.  Finally, I pulled open the nightstand drawer and plucked my cell phone, gun, and badge from the darkness.

Moving from room to room in the dark was a well-rehearsed dance, so there was no reason to turn on the lights.  In the kitchen I ran my hands across the cabinets until I reached the third one.  From the second shelf I grabbed an energy shot, something I found helped rid my mind and body of the last remnants of sleep.  After emptying the tiny beverage, I was out the door and racing down the dimly lit concrete stairwell of my apartment building.  It was ten floors, and while I could take the elevator, the stairs helped get my heart pumping.  By the time I pushed open the thick glass front door and burst out into the night, I was completely awake.

The air at this time of night was brisk with a clean, fresh smell, not yet sullied by the pollution and stink generated by the hordes that occupy the city.  The streets were eerily quiet and still, creating a misleading calm that could cause one to lower his guard.  But I had lived in this city too long and I knew that this pre-dawn peace was exactly what evil thrives on.  Once onto the street, I knelt and placed my open hand on the cold, rocky asphalt.

Just before my mind intertwined with hers, I noticed something off to my left and lifted my hand.  All the traffic lights had turned green while the crosswalk signs flashed the walk signal.  Over the years I’d gotten good at reading her cryptological language, but tonight she wasn’t operating with subtlety.  So I pulled up my hood and followed the glowing trail, her call still thumping in my chest.

I often hear coffee-shop yuppies putting on their most pretentious airs and saying how much they love the soul of this city.  In reality they are more entranced by the abundance of martini bars and stores that sell two-hundred dollar shirts than what actually dwells inside this collection of man-made structures.  But the truth is, there is an awareness to the city, something that binds together all the skyscrapers, parks, subways, and streets.  Her consciousness exists in a very different way than those that scurry within her, but the one sensation we all have in common is pain.

The physical structures are like her body, so damage or destruction to any piece of that body causes injury.  A pothole is nothing more than a pin prick, while a building fire causes severe agony.  But physical pain is temporary.  Potholes are filled and burned buildings are repaired.  What she is truly frightened of is the evil that breeds in her darkest recesses.  It’s like a cancer than can’t easily be removed.  I can tell by the intensity of her cries and the desperation in how she led me to the source that this was no physical threat, but something more insidious.

A flickering streetlight marked the end of the trail, down on the Lower East side, at an old firehouse.  The large garage door that once released the life saving engines now had a small, wrought iron fence in front with half of it painted a dirty gray.  Windows covering the front were cracked and caked with dirt, while ivy crept around the facade from the alley.  I remembered reading about this place in a few of the local papers.  Some cheap clothing manufacturer was leasing it out, but the company had recently gone bankrupt and the building had since been abandoned.

The front door didn’t seem to be the best point of entry, so I moved to the alley that flanked the building.  It was blocked off by a chain-link fence topped by razor wire, but I could see a small side door through the shadows that I wanted to use.  I took the padlock in my hand and reached out to her.  The lock snapped open and I let it and the chain slip through my hand to quietly coil on the ground.

The flat metal door sat near the end of the alley, but it was an exit only door with no exterior handles or knobs.  I stood for a long moment, preparing myself for what needed to come next.  Sure, I could easily have her open the door and waltz in, but the cop in me knows better.  During entry procedure training in the academy, one of my teachers used to say: “You can’t see through walls, so you better be ready for anything.”  Little did I know that I’d one day I’d have my own version of x-ray vision…and that it would hurt so much.

Taking a deep breath, I pressed my palm against the coarse concrete building and cleared my mind.  In an instant my body was assailed by a myriad of impulses that nearly sent me into shock.   It was like being both electrocuted and frozen, while lying underneath a passing train.  My vision was filled with exploding lights, roaring sounds bombarded my ears, an acrid, metallic taste swirled in my mouth and all I could smell was something like burning rubber.  The first few times I tried this, I had passed out, but over the last few months it had gotten a bit easier.  The chaotic sensations aligned into a completely different consciousness allowing me to actually feel the hum of electrical current, the rushes of water pipes, and the tiny cracks in the foundation.

I pushed beyond most of the sensations and focused on what I really needed.  For a brief moment, I could feel what the building felt, giving me a mental picture of its layout, and more importantly, its occupants.  It wasn’t an exact picture, since the wood and concrete didn’t see like a human, but pulling together the weight on the floor and temperature differences – all the things that the building does respond to – I was able to get a pretty good sense for what was in there.  For the most part the building was abandoned, with the exception of a concentration of people on the third floor.  This meant there was no one in the immediate vicinity of this particular exit, so my mind whispered a quiet request and the door clicked and swung open.

The darkness was overwhelming and complete.  With the metal door closed behind me, I stood in a sea of absolute black, my eyes hungrily darting around for any bit of light.  When none came, I pressed on through the darkness, not wanting to draw any undue attention.  Carefully, I inched along the wall, sidestepping what felt like a bookcase, until I reached a corner.  I grew overconfident and nearly tripped over a chair as I sped up my movements.  But just after that my hand ran across hinges, which led to the discovery of a rough, cold doorknob.

This door opened into a much larger room, the garage of the old firehouse.  My eyes immediately picked up on the dim light seeping through the windows.  My hand was still grasping the doorway when warning pulses shot up my arm.  I could smell him before anything.  It was a sickening mixture of piss and alcohol, the same kind of smell worn by many homeless people in the area.  He hadn’t seen me, which is no surprise given the pitiful light situation, and this gave me the element of surprise.  I tensed my body and listened as he shuffled closer and closer.  His breathing was ragged and scratchy, which helped me pinpoint his exact position and orientation.

Once he was a few feet away I pounced, wrapping my arm around his neck and swinging behind him.  I quickly drove him into the small room and kicked the door closed behind me.  Once wrestled to the ground, I used my free hand to pin his arms behind his back.  That was when I found the gun.  I wrenched it from his hand and held his wrists together in a flawlessly executed police maneuver.

“Who are you?”  I whispered as menacingly as I could.  There was no answer, so I dug my knee into the small of his back and asked again, but he still didn’t make a sound.  Instead, he continued breathing those same wheezy breaths.  I paused and realized that he wasn’t even fighting me, in fact he hadn’t since I sent him to the floor.  I debated my next move, but something told me I was safe to take the risk.  I jumped up and ran my hand over the wall next to the door.  I found a light switch and quickly flipped it on.

The man lying on the floor certainly wasn’t your run of the mill bad guy.  His hair was long and caked with dirt, his skin dark and creased with age and exposure, and his clothes were ragged and filthy.  My initial thought was right, but I knew this was no simple squatter.  Firstly, the weapon he had was nothing for an amateur.  It was a 40 caliber gun, something that was once used only by police and definitely not something I’d expect to find in the hands of your run of the mill bum.  Even stranger was the fact that he had just shut down.  He remained motionless on the floor, wearing a blank stare.  I gave him a gentle kick, but he didn’t respond.

Suddenly the door burst open and two men, both as nasty looking and smelling as my catatonic friend, burst in, guns raised.  My hand slapped the floor and the light bulb in the ceiling exploded in a rain of sparks and glass.  Plunged into darkness, the men panicked and fired at my position.  Having already darted against the far wall, they had no chance of hitting me, but their bullets did hit their fallen comrade.  I could hear the sickening sound of bullets tearing through flesh and the escaping last breath of the wheezing man.

The two men stumbled in, nearly tripping over the corpse in the middle of the floor.  It was clear that these were not highly trained guards, and I started to wonder why they were in this place, carrying guns and trying to kill me.  I silently slid around the wall towards the door.  By taking out the first man, I had mistakenly drawn in the cavalry, and that wasn’t a mistake I planned to make again.

Once out of the room, I kept to the wall until I reached a stairwell.  I sat on the stairs to catch my breath and realized now why she was so panicked.  Something was very wrong here.  I’d been called to robberies and murders before, but something about this situation was altogether different.  I laid my palm flat against the stair and felt the charge as our minds connected.  Since I was already acclimated to this building, the experience wasn’t as intense as it was earlier.  My two assailants were still searching for me in the dark room, like a pair of zombies.  I’d laugh at their stupidity if it all wasn’t so spooky.  Two floors up seemed to be the center of all the action, so I climbed as silently as possible.

The third floor was the old barracks.  At the top of the stairs was a bathroom and an old kitchen, both incredibly dirty and terribly outdated.  I considered calling for assistance, but I quickly decided against it.  When she first called me to a crime scene like this, my training kicked in and I immediately called for backup.  The result was an exhaustive investigation into me and how I “happened” to come across that drug den.  I had no reason to be there and all of my excuses fell flat.  The investigation was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence against me, but I decided then that mixing my professional life with my extra curricular activities should only be done in the most thought out and careful manner.

That night I had already violated about twenty different police codes, so I wasn’t about expose myself to scrutiny just yet.  This was my problem right now and I needed to handle it.  So I moved onwards, keeping myself flat against the wall with my gun raised and ready.  The funny thing was, there wasn’t anything I could have done to be ready for what was in that room.

The hallway opened up into a large, open room.  Several flood lights were propped on the floor, their light focused against the far wall.  Hanging were three people, each of them stripped naked and pinned upside down.  They were cut from navel to neck and the blood was collected in a huge pool around them.  It was a horror show that made my insides twist and turn.  Suddenly it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room and I had trouble breathing.  I stumbled backwards and couldn’t help but bend over, propping myself up with my hands on my knees.  That was when he spoke up.

“Do you like it?”  The voice came from the far corner of the room that was still bathed in shadow.  “I did it all for you, you know?”

I immediately crouched into a smaller target and raised my gun towards the voice.  “Police!  Come out with your hands up!”  I shouted.

The man laughed.  “You’re with the police?  How professional!  Well officer, I’m unarmed, please come and arrest me.”

“Step into the light with your hands up!”  I shouted.

“You first.”  With that more flood lights switched on, aimed directly at me.  The light was blinding, so I raised my arm to block it out, but the damage had already been done and I could barely see.  Suddenly, the gun was kicked from my hands, my arms were pulled behind me and handcuffs bit into my wrists.  I was shoved into a chair and my ankles were bound to its legs.  Then, in what seemed to be the strangest part, large mittens were slipped over my hands and taped on.  Only when I was tightly secured to my seat did the bright lights go off, leaving me seeing spots.

The stranger slowly circled me, but I couldn’t make out much more than his silhouette.  “So you’re the new champion?  Well, you’re not going to last very long if you let a little bright light stop you.”

“Who are you?”  I growled.  My eyes were finally returning to normal and I got my first glance of my captor.  My temporary blindness forced my mind to create all sorts of horrible images of the butcher, but as I got a better look, I was surprised at how normal he looked.  He was slightly older, probably in his late forties, with neatly cut salt and pepper hair, a thin, athletic physique and, despite my reluctance to admit it, a kindly face.

He held his hands behind his back and began pacing, like a professor giving a lecture.  “I guess you could say I’m your predecessor.  Before you came along, the city spoke to me.  It woke me up in the middle of the night, screaming about one thing or another.  I dedicated my life to protecting it.”

I struggled against my bindings.  The mittens made sense now.  The only way I could communicate with her was via direct contact.  Everything from my shoes, pants, shirt, and now the mittens kept me from making a connection.  The one thing he neglected to cover was my head, so I prepared to tip myself over so my face could touch the floor.  But as I looked down, I could see that he prepared for that as well.  The chair sat on a large piece of plastic, further cutting me off.

“You can keep looking, you’ll see that I’ve covered everything.  I thought the plastic was a more elegant solution over a hood.  I’d much rather we have this conversation face to face.”  With that, he pulled a second chair forward and sat facing me.  “Now, why don’t we start over, properly. My name is Arthur Reading, what’s yours?”

The idea of this man sitting in front of me, trying to have a civilized conversation, while three mutilated bodies hung behind him was disgusting to me.  I kept my lips tightly sealed while staring intently into his eyes.

“Not up for talking?  No matter, I’ll just help myself.”  He leaned in and patted my pockets.  Once he found my wallet, he sat back down and flipped it open.  “Clay Jensen, six feet one inch, twenty four years old, brown hair and eyes.”  He closed my wallet and tossed it towards the corner.  “Very nice to meet you Clay.  How are you finding our fair city, now that you are so much more intimately acquainted?”

Again, I refused to give him the satisfaction of an answer.  I continued to scowl while my mind struggled to find a way out of this mess.  The handcuffs were impossible to break, although with enough leverage I might be able to use them to break the wood slats of the chair.  That would require a lot of momentum – much more than I could muster in this position.  That left my legs, which were bound with rope.  I shifted my feet and could feel the rope give slightly.  Unfortunately, for me to build enough slack I’d have to vigorously move my legs for several hours and I didn’t think my new friend planned on keeping me around for that long.

“Have you visited any of the museums?  The art takes on such a new life when you can see it through the city’s eyes, if you will.”  Arthur was truly enthralled by his own questions, and my lack of answers seemed to be disturbing him.  “Come on Clay, drop the hard-ass cop routine and talk with me.  I’m probably the only person who understands what you’ve been experiencing.  Ask me anything, please.”

I nodded towards the scene behind him and asked, “Why?”

Arthur turned, as if he had forgotten what was behind him.  “What, them?  I don’t even know them, picked them up on the street.  I needed to get you here and I knew a truly tragic situation such as that would set the alarms off.  Once the city felt their panic, it would tense.  Once it felt the blood, it would scream.”  He leaned in close.  “Yes, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s like an ice cube being pushed through your heart.”  He poked at my chest with his long finger.  “I know all about it, hurts like hell, doesn’t it?  And it brought you here, to me.”  He smiled, delighted that his plan had worked.

“How do you know about me?”

He jumped from his chair, his eyes lit up and a huge smile overtook his face.  “Now that is a good question.  It deals with our origin, something every champion should know.”  He looked to the ceiling, weighing his words carefully.  “You see, a city absorbs the life essence from everything around it.  Everything from the birds to the people give a tiny bit of themselves to it, and in turn, it gives to them.  Many cultures have realized this over the centuries, although few understood it as deeply as you and I do.”

He started pacing again, moving his hands wildly to elaborate his points.  He spent little time watching me, so I took advantage by continuing to move my legs in the hope of getting at least one of them free.

“As a city grows and develops, it requires a vessel to act as its voice and occasionally as its protector.  People are chosen and they are called upon to act on its behalf.  As the vessel grows older, a successor is chosen.  The powers of the former wane as those of the younger grow.  The overlap is meant to be a time of sharing and teaching.  Many times the path of succession stays within a family, while other times it can be completely random.”  He turned back towards me and for the first time, the friendly smile vanished and I could see a darkness in his eyes.  He remained silent as he approached me, grabbing onto the chair’s arms and leaning in towards me.  “Which brings me to my question: Why you?”

That was the same question I had asked myself many times over the past several months.  Ever since I began noticing strange oddities like taxis immediately stopping for me or elevators always opening as soon as I pressed the call button.  It wasn’t until I began having the dreams, the ones where I could see what was happening across town, like some out-of-body experience, that I realized there was some sort of connection with the city.  Of course I thought I was going crazy at first, that’s always the sane reaction, but the coincidences became too hard to ignore after a while.  One night, after a late patrol, I was climbing the stairs to my apartment when I tripped and my hands landed hard on the concrete steps.  My mind instantly intertwined with hers and, after I woke, I understood what I needed to do.

Thinking back on all this still didn’t provide any answers to the question, so I told Arthur the truth.  “I don’t know, she just chose me.”

He stood back, a surprised look on his face.  “Oh she did, did she?  Well aren’t you two just the cutest couple.  Tell me, did she ever mention anything about me during your pillow talk?”

This clearly agitated him as he clenched his fists and tightened his jaw.  But I couldn’t be sure whether or not that would lead to a mistake on his part or an escalation of his violence.  I had been up against erratic behavior before, so I felt fairly certain I’d find a small window of opportunity to use to my advantage.  That, added to a gut feeling, told me to push him.  “No, she never mentioned you.  I didn’t even know you existed until tonight.”

His eyes shut tight and his whole body tensed.  I thought for sure he was going to explode in a rage, but the tension turned into a sort of intense concentration.  His head shook and his knuckles were white, but then, it all stopped and he emerged calm and smiling.  With a few long steps, he strode to my chair and stood over me.  “Our city decided that I wasn’t fit to be her champion any longer, so she stole the power and started giving it to you.  But since the process takes time, I’ve still got a bit of juice left and I intend to use it.”

There was a shuffling sound behind me as someone entered.  I recognized the foul stench as that belonging to one of my homeless assailants from downstairs.  He walked around me and stood motionless at Arthur’s side.  “This fine gentleman is going to take care of you for me.  You see my whole point in bringing you here tonight was so I can take back what is rightfully mine.”

“And we couldn’t have met for coffee?”

Arthur clapped his hands and smiled.  “A joke, very good Clay.  No, you see this process requires your death, so a Starbucks just wouldn’t be right.”  He began circling the room, hands gripped behind his back.  “Tonight you’ll die and all of the power you held will return to me.”

“You’ve already got me tied up, what do you need this guy for?”

“I’m not one to get my hands dirty.  Over the years I’ve learned to do my part without getting too involved – I found that it helps in avoiding you and your police buddies.  One way is to use the city’s homeless. I bet you didn’t know we could do that, did you?  I enlisted this guy, plus his comrades downstairs to help me create the bait.”  Arthur motioned to the bodies hanging behind him.  “And now to dispose of you.”  He closed his eyes again and focused.  After a moment, the homeless man walked behind me and I could hear him cocking his gun.

This was something I hadn’t thought of before.  Some of the more forgone homeless seemed to blend in with the city, so why wouldn’t I be able to control them?  But I needed time.  Arthur seemed so wrapped up in being a proper gentleman that I figured I could divert his attention, even just for a moment.  “Arthur?”  I called.  The use of his name got his attention and he immediately waved for his goon to hold.  “Why did the city take your power?”

He shook his head, making tsk sounds.  “That is a long story and I’m afraid it’s too late for such tales.”

“Give me the short version.”  I said.  It didn’t take a psychologist to see that Arthur liked the sound of his own voice, so I knew he wouldn’t mind talking a bit longer.

He thought on it a moment.  “All right.”  I smiled to myself at how easily he gave in.  “The whole ordeal stems from a difference of opinions.”

As he went on, I closed my eyes and reached out as I did when connecting to the city.  I let my mind go blank and felt the air around me.  It was a soft, warm feeling, with the sick smell of both unwashed and decaying bodies.

“The city wanted my protection, yet didn’t provide me a thing in return.”

While Arthur’s voice filled the room, I was able to hone in on the small sounds coming from the man behind me.  His breathing was rough and shallow, just like his fallen compatriot downstairs.  I focused all of my attention towards that sound and tried to form a connection.

“…they were whores anyway, I don’t know why it made any difference what I did with them.”

Suddenly, it clicked.  I felt myself connected to him.  Everything Arthur was saying now echoed as I heard it with my own ears and this man’s at the same time.  It took all of my willpower to maintain the connection and I hadn’t even tried controlling him yet.

“…so in a way, I’m saving you from a life of slavery.  You may not see it now, but you’ll thank me.”  Arthur, finished with his story, came towards me and patted my head.  “Goodbye Clay, I’m sorry you got wrapped up in all this.”  He turned and walked a few feet away, facing the gruesome tableau that had called me there.

My connection to the gunman allowed me to see through his eyes and feel as his arm slowly rising.  I couldn’t stop it, so I panicked and did the only thing I could think of.  The gun exploded in a bang.  Arthur sighed as he knelt down.

“Now, let’s not fight again.”  He said, whispering to the city as he placed his open palm on the floor.  It took a moment, but he could feel that something was wrong.  He turned and was immediately filled with anger at the sight of me still alive.

Knowing I couldn’t stop the homeless man from what he’d been ordered to do, I tried pushing the other way.  I waited until the gun was at just the right height and forced the man to pull the trigger, shooting my handcuff chain in the process.  It was a lucky shot to say the least, but I wasn’t about to question it.  While Arthur was kneeling on the floor, I was already pulling at the gloves on my hands.

In a rage, he sprang to his feet and launched towards me, hands outstretched.  I was able to free both of my hands just in time to catch his oncoming attack and deflect it.  The force knocked us both to the floor.  With my feet still bound to the chair, I fell in an awkward position.  The plastic still prevented me from connecting with the building, but that didn’t stop me from going after Arthur.  I landed two good punches before he rolled out from my reach.  I struggled against the chair and was able to untie one of the ropes.

Arthur scrambled to his feet and grabbed the gun from the homeless man, knocking him down in the process.  He fired three shots, but with my one foot free, I was able to roll out of the way.  I was also now off of the plastic sheet and sighed with relief.  Instinct took over and I slammed both my hands onto the dusty wood floor.  The flood lights cracked and sizzled as I blew out the bulbs.  Arthur fired two more shots, but in the darkness they were far to the right.

Hundreds of options sprung to mind, but there was only one that I knew would do the job.   Electricity arced from each of the wall sockets.  The air flashed and cracked as the man-made lightening shot across the room.  And just like real lightening, it was attracted to the tallest object, which in this case was Arthur.  The bolts hit him and sent him screaming to the floor.  Left in complete darkness, all I could hear was his body lurching from the remnants of electricity coursing through him.

It was over.  I dropped flat to the floor exhausted, my nose filled with the smell of burnt human hair.  After resting for a moment, I regained enough energy to untie myself from the chair.  Once free, I turned on the overhead lights and walked to Arthur’s still body.  His arms and legs were bent in awkward positions and his eyes were open wide.  The hair on his head was standing straight up making him look like a cartoon character, but the burn mark on his chest was much more real.  I checked for a pulse, but there was none.  It wasn’t my intention to kill him, but having been backed into a corner like that, I didn’t know what else to do.  The problem now was how to deal with the aftermath.

I could have just left.  I’ve handled situations for her in the past and simply left the results for the police to clean up.  But this was different; there were too many loose ends.  A gunshot victim is one thing, but how are the police going to deal with an electrocution?  I decided to clean things up a bit.  Arthur had left a duffel bag in the corner where I found the handcuff keys, and the knife he used to cut-up those three people.  I wiped the fingerprints from the guns and tossed them in the bag.  I frayed the floodlight wire and rested it in the pool of blood.  Finally, I moved Arthur’s body to the edge of the blood to complete the picture.  Hopefully, the police would believe that Arthur shot the homeless man downstairs, and after savagely killing the three victims upstairs, electrocuted himself due to his own faulty wiring.  It was a stretch, I know, but it was the best I could do on short notice.

The last two pieces were the two homeless men dragged into this mess.  They were both stuck in a trance state, which I decided to use to my advantage.  It took me a few tries, but I figured out how to get inside their heads and control them like Arthur did.  So, I brought them both outside and commanded them to forget everything they saw here.  The one who didn’t try to shoot me I released and after a bit of stumbling, he seemed to continue on like nothing had ever happened.  For the other man, I had one last request.

It had been an exhausting night, leaving me with more questions than answers.  The streets were still empty, but I could see the tiniest glimmer of dawn in the dark blue sky.  I stepped away from the sidewalk when I heard a car break the silence.  It was a cab and it pulled over next to me.  This was her way of saying thank you, so I hopped in.  The ride was quiet and as we drove, I looked at the buildings and streetlights with a new perspective.  I wasn’t the first.  This fact stayed with me for the entire ride as I contemplated what it really meant and wondered what those before me were like.

When I arrived home, the cab’s meter conveniently broke, but I tossed the driver a ten anyway.  I took the elevator back up to my apartment, my legs feeling dead from the night’s activities.  Once I opened the door my cell rang. The call was earlier than I expected.

“Jensen, we need you downtown.  Some homeless guy called in something, sounds like a quadruple murder.  You always deal in this weird stuff, we’re going to need you.”              I told him I’d be right there.  I went into the bedroom and changed into something more appropriate.  After that, I shuffled into the kitchen and through the darkness, grabbed another energy shot from the cabinet, and started down the ten flights for the second time that night.

 

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