Forecast by Shya Scanlon  OCT 05 2009

Forecast is a novel by Shya Scanlon being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast. Chapter 23 can be found at SoMaLit.

24.

The city looked even more spectacular from below. Open markets, store-lined streets, apartment complexes looking out over six story canyons carved into the earth; there was even a full scale amusement park-something long since banned above ground due to a series of weather-related accidents (the spontaneous freezing of gears, toddler-sized cyclones)-there were, in short, several areas obviously above-ground grade and legitimate, simple extensions of the city and catering to the well-intentioned classes. It was quite a surprise, Helen wasn't sure what she'd expected. Darker streets, perhaps. And filth. But it all looked very similar to what was happening topside, only without the weather.

Busy seemed to read her mind. "There's actually a major shift takin' place," he said thoughtfully. "We've been watching it for about a year now, but of course no one's talking about it."

Helen staggered around beneath the mirage in the wavy patterns people make while walking looking up. "You mean about how underground there's no..." She tried, stupidly, to think of something delicate. "There's no..."

"Bad guys?" Busy grinned. "Well, I wouldn't go that far, but yeah, something like that." He shuffled around, made his own wavy lines. "Yep. The city is actually flipping itself over." The city churned above them like a maggoty carcass; they spun slowly beneath it like flies.

"Let me guess: the weather."

"You got it, Miss H. Or at least that's what everybody around here thinks."

"Right. Well you'd assume."

"Yeah."

But it didn't take too long to discover that the reversal, if one was indeed underway, was incomplete. Her eyes just hadn't adjusted. It was like a first glance at the patch of picnic grass, when all you see is green, before you see the ants and the insects and all the little movements that together conspire to create an illusion of stasis, to lull you into sitting, laying out your food. Helen looked closer and longer and finally she found what, without having fully articulated it to herself, she'd been looking for: a bum bumming change on a street full of trash; a man being beaten outside a bar, broken glass from the window he'd been thrown through alive like sparks on the ground around him. Flashing lights, in several parts of the burrowing city, indicating alarms. Indicating crime. Busy came up beside her and they watched, together, as a woman's purse was pulled from her arm with such force that she crumpled onto the sidewalk, banging down first on her knees and then full forward, arms splayed out to either side having been too weak to break her fall.

"Ouch," Busy said.

As the purse snatcher ran Helen followed along with a middle finger posed to flick, and when he paused at a corner a high-gloss, manicured fingernail the size of a two story building plowed through him.

"Atta girl," Busy said. The thief chose a direction and kept running. "Wanna see where we're going?"

"Oh, right." She'd almost forgotten. "Of course."

"Well then!" Busy the dandy tour guide. "Well if I could, ah, direct madam's attention to the far side of the room." He did a little awkward jig and offered his arm with faux-gentlemanly suggestion.

Did he think, I found myself wondering at the time, that he had a chance with Helen? There were times when it seemed like he was distinctly trying to win Helen's affection, to flirt. I bristled. There was no way in hell that Helen would stoop to that level, was there? She may have been below ground, but she was above its symbolic import. This man was just a means to an end. I comforted myself with small thoughts.

The unlikely pair walked the length of the city to Georgetown-once the industrial district and now the most fashionable part of town, teeming with glamorous tight-skinned items. The swirling mass swelled and swirled above them like an enormous upset stomach, and Rocket, still on their heels, nipped and yapped at its ironic bowels-those basements of the basements of the basements whose placement might normally indicate extreme old age, but which were instead the most recent additions to this backwards, unplanned project. They stopped in front of an above ground building no more than 10 stories. It was a classic post-modern job, with all the utilities on the outside: plumbing, ventilation, electric, all coursing down the unpolished metal structure like strangling vines. It was atrocious, really, but obviously expensive. The first floor of the building was home to a club called The Gamble, and a long line of people waiting to get in crowded the sidewalk out front.

"I thought we were going to visit the Muslim first," said Helen, half-hoping that another decision had been made, that a decision had been made for her.

"Yep," said Busy. He was absently staring at the people in front of the club. They were too small to see faces, but as Helen's attention was drawn back to the crowd she realized that it wasn't a typical club scene. Everyone was in sweatpants and sweaters, casual bags that turned their lithe bodies into lumps. A limo pulled up to the curb and a couple emerged from the vehicle in what looked like bathrobes, bumped through the crowd, and disappeared inside The Gamble.

"What is this," Helen asked, "some kind of slumber party?"

"REMO," said Busy dully.

Helen stared. "REMO," she repeated.

"Yeah, these fuckin' people," he said, "these rich people just sit around and do REMO all night and, well, put it this way: ain't no point in looking good if nobody's looking, right? Plus, if you're squirming around on the floor, or whatever you decide to do when you get remotional, you don't wanna be wearing your Sunday best."

"So this is a club where people just come to-"

"Yep."

"But I thought REMO was-"

"It is."

"But so how do they-"

"Helen, dollface, you really gotta ask that?"

Helen felt dumb. In a city where cops visit a car-jacking operation just so they'll be able to deny it for a high personal Buzz yield, what's a little harmless REMO abuse among the rich?

"Right."

"Right."

They stared longer at the line. The people didn't seem to be interacting at all, just standing there patiently. No one was let in.

"So why 'The Gamble'?"

Busy shrugged.

"And you're sure this is where the Muslim lives."

"I double checked. I really don't know the deal, Miss H. We'll just hafta go take a look."

Rocket brushed up against Helen's leg, and whined.

"Besides," Busy continued, "it looks like your friend here's either hungry or needs to be let out, or both." He bent down and gave Rocket a rough but loving rub. "That right, Rocket? You ready to go?" The dog's tail went to work. "Yes you are. Yes you are." He stood back up. "First thing we gotta do," he said as he started back for the lift that had brought them to the room's lower level, "is go meet Blain." Helen followed close behind. "He's been looking into that warrant of yours so we know what we're up against."

"I'm really grateful," began Helen, but Busy raised his hand without looking back.

"Helen, there ain't no use being grateful. Like I said, if there weren't something in it for me, I wouldn't be doing it."

"Right," she said.

Helen couldn't help but wonder if this, like the fake-not-fake fear of heights, wasn't another instance of Busy trying to please his wife with extra Buzz production on the side, but she didn't question it too far. Helpful or selfish, some friendly fate was obviously shining favorably on her small adventure, and she didn't want to tempt or tease it. She'd come here on the strength of forces outside herself, and she'd come peacefully, releasing herself into the situation's momentum with either trust, resignation, or both. To begin struggling now would upset the rhythm of her journey, would jinx it. She followed Busy back into and down the hallway, not wondering whether he'd led her that way before, just watching his interaction with Rocket, the muted movements of the two seeming almost abstract without sound. Their playful shapes had little rhythm, tumbled together and apart unpredictably, their collisions alternately slowing them down and speeding them up. She thought of the broiling image of Seattle she'd seen, and of the transition Busy claimed was taking place. Would people truly sacrifice the sky for safety, she wondered? Would they give up sunsets for their fear of storms? She had to admit that she didn't find it altogether unpleasant underground. The stillness was profound. Words that when spoken above ground would scatter like they'd been waiting to be released were down here content to hang about one's own head, or fall softly to the floor. Everything seemed more personal, intentional. If above ground was a handshake, being underground was a hug. Helen thought of her house, the metal shutters on the windows. She realized that she could barely picture it from the outside. She'd memorized the roof from above, satellite imagery having replaced her own ground-level view some time ago, but what it looked like from, say, the side, or the backyard, was a mystery. She seemed to recall a red front door. But it could just as well have been brown. It was a fucking door.

They'd been walking for perhaps five minutes when Busy stopped at a spot midway down a completely bare hallway, and pushed his fingers into the wall. Helen watched the tendons on the top of his hand dance under visible veins, and he glanced up at her, smiled, and stood back, brushing his arm well into the wall until it disappeared to just above his elbow.

"After you," he mouthed.

Not quite used to this, Helen bent down, locked a finger around Rocket's collar, then closed her eyes as she stepped through the wall. When she opened them she was standing in a large, open room with a hardwood floor filled with people sitting behind big wooden desks. It was nothing like any of the other rooms she'd seen in the shop, and in fact unlike any room she'd seen for years. It reminded her of high school, a little, the large columns throughout the room holding up a ceiling much higher than she could see reason for. The desks had each their own area, complete with a rolling chair on one side, a stationary chair on the other, a floor lamp, and a coat rack. There were green metal machines in the middle of each desk that looked like typewriters, but smaller, each one with a long thin arm that ran front to back. The people at the desks were rapidly typing into the machines, and at odd intervals pulling the handle toward them and letting it spring back to its rest position. Helen took her earplugs out, letting the racket of keys enter, and gazed across the open space, trying to take it in, until her eyes found what was undoubtedly the strangest thing about the room. The wall opposite her was home to a series of floor to ceiling windows so big she hadn't noticed them at first. She could see that out beyond them was another wall of windows she couldn't see beyond. Helen bent down to take out Rocket's earplugs and turned up to Busy with a look of huh?

Busy gave the room an important look. "This is where we do the math," he said heavily.

"Oh," said Helen, "the math. I was wondering where that was done."

Everywhere people sat and stood, walked across the room, descended a staircase to one side and brushed past others coming up. The people behind the desks-mostly men-accepted paperwork from people they barely glanced at, and handed them back small tabs-receipts?-which were taken, pocketed, and packed back down the stairs. The stream of people was constant, the number high, and the process seemingly quite efficient. No one sat for long. No one waited. Business was good.

"It's also the legitimate side of the business," Busy added.

"So these people are..."

"Just normal folks that need a good, old-fashioned accountant."

They began walking down the side of the room and Helen saw that Blain was walking toward them. He appeared more relaxed than he'd been the last time she'd seen him, but he still wore a stern look that made Helen hope he wasn't bearing any more bad news.

Blain started speaking just on the inside of earshot, his low but loud voice crawling under the high-pitched jitter of the adding machines. "We're all set," he began. He didn't look at Helen. "You wanna..."

"Yeah," said Busy.

"Then let's go to the, ah," Blain turned to Helen, "you got your mask?"

"Yes," she said. She felt her bag for the object. "Yes," she repeated.

Blain looked at her a moment, then turned and led them farther along the wall.

"So what can you tell us about Helen's little legal problem?" Busy asked as they walked.

Helen stared out the enormous windows and tried to remind herself that she was still underground. It was light outside, though it was obviously not sunlight. It had a bluish tint which, though bright, had no warmth.

"Well, not much," Blain said.

"Meaning..."

"Meaning, I guess, that there was either some sloppy paperwork behind the order, or someone doesn't want people to know who's behind it."

"So everyone's just following orders, in other words."

Blain paused and looked back at Busy. "Guess so."

"Shit."

"Good news is," Blain continued, "it's just a normal warrant, looks like. Nothing weird."

"So the cops'll-"

"Yeah, they won't give a shit."

They started to make for the middle of the room where the stairs were.

"Helen," Busy said. He was walking behind her and to the side. She turned her head in acknowledgement. "I'm wondering if you want to bring Rocket along with you or not." He let the statement sit for a second. "He'd be perfectly safe here with us if you wanna leave him."

"Huh," she said. Helen hadn't even thought about the option of leaving Rocket. She'd assumed he'd come along. She thought about it as Blain guided them toward the stairs, and down. The lower level was a fraction of the size of the floor they'd been on, and looked more like a waiting room. There were couches along either wall, empty, and directly before them two large revolving doors that spun with people coming and going, fake palms to either side. She followed him to the foot of the stairs, Rocket at her feet and Busy close behind. She watched as the dog trotted around the room, sniffing things and glancing back to her after visiting each corner like a bomb-dog saying all clear. She didn't want to leave Rocket anywhere.

"Rocket's with me," she said, turning to Busy and looking him in the eye.

Busy nodded. "Fair enough," he said. "It's just that-"

"You're gonna halfta keep him on a leash," Blain said.

Helen looked at Rocket, who wasn't paying any attention.

"I don't have one," she said.

"Well then-"

"Well then we'll have to lend you one," Busy bent in, warm.

It was clear which was the good cop. She wasn't sure what Blain had against her, and frankly I don't think it had anything to do with Helen. I think it was just a matter of inconvenience. Blain went along with this with a tired acceptance; he knew it would cause more trouble to fight it but he wasn't therefore going to expend any more energy than necessary on the project, and was rather on the hunt for a good, sound reason to abandon it.

"You gonna let her use yours?" Blain asked.

"Yes," Busy said, flatly.

"What about-"

"What about him?

"Well he'll-"

"He'll be okay is what he'll be." Busy turned to Helen. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a coiled line with a leather handle. He handed it to her. "Helen, what's going to happen here is that Blain's going to-"

"Blain?" Helen said, despite herself. She knew immediately that she shouldn't have said it, that she sounded startled and upset.

"Helen, it's okay," Busy said. "Blain knows where you're going, and he'll take you there. He's knows this city better than anyone I know."

"Of course," Helen avoided eye contact with Blain, but nodded in what she hoped was a humble way.

"I've got to take care of some things, but I'll be meeting you out front of The Gamble in an hour or so and we'll see if this Asseem's the guy you're looking for."

Helen forced herself to look at Blain, who was looking at her dully. "Okay," she said.

Though I had of course no way to know for certain, I liked hearing that Busy would meet back up with them. Blain's apparent distaste for the whole errand made me itch. I'd never tracked anyone underground before, and if Blain short-cut them through any unpleasantness I was in for a long shift. Besides, the paperwork involved after even the most routine intervention is unbelievable.

Sometimes I wish I could drop the "job" part of watchjob, and just watch. No connection, no responsibility, nothing but me and Helen.

They took one step closer to the revolving doors, and Busy leaned down to give Rocket another rub. It was good to see Busy and Rocket get along. Helen considered it the most reliable sign that he was, in fact, on their side. How could he let anything happen to Rocket?

"You're gonna want to put that mask on now, Helen," Blain said.

She looked over at him and straight into the blank almond eyes of an AS-Mask, the forehead just beginning to disappear above his hairline. She nodded, and reached into her bag, pulling hers out too. She looked at Rocket.

"Rocket doesn't like them," she said, not expecting anything to change because of it.

Busy was still crouching beside the animal, and gave him a small squeeze. "He'll get used to it, won't you boy. Won't you." He nodded for her to put it on. "Yes you will. Yes you will." Rocket's tail wagged and he let out a brief, encouraging bark.

"It's okay, Rocket," she said in her most dog-optimistic tone. She grabbed the AS-Mask with both hands, and put it up to her face.

Read on to chapter 25...

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