“I can read you like a book, you know,” I used the tire iron to drag the manhole cover into place overhead. “Right now, in your mind, you’re asking me, Why we didn’t try to access the station directly from Broadway and Warren Street?”
Madi did her best to hide it but I could tell the climb down the wrought iron ladder rungs into the transit tunnel below was a chore. The problem was when it came down to offering emotional support or finding the proper words to act as a salve for difficult moments, I wasn’t the go-to person in our relationship for that sort of thing, she was. The best solution I could come up with was attempting to distract her by rambling on about the history of Beach’s invention.
“The simple answer is it doesn’t exist anymore. The entrance to the station was housed in the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store in the Rogers, Peet & Co. building but after the project was shut down, the tunnel entrance was sealed and the basement was reclaimed for other uses. The entire building was eventually destroyed by a fire in 1898,” I said.
When Madi reached the bottom she immediately clicked on her a compact flood flashlight at maximum brightness, flooding the tunnel with 32,000 lumens and shone it in both directions. Unlike the average New York City subway tunnels which were rectangular in shape, the pneumatic passageway was circular and to my surprise, it wasn’t as cramped as I imagined, however watching Madi’s eyes widening in horror and hearing her breath begin to quicken, I knew she hadn’t shared my spatial opinion.
We were standing on a narrow brick-laid lip that I assumed was a pedestrian walkway in case the pneumatic car halted midway and passengers needed to disembark single file back to the main station or in the event technicians needed to arrive to effect repairs. To the right, the tunnel appeared to stretch into nothing. I tapped Madi’s shoulder, pointed left with my chin and gave her a gentle nudge to get her moving before the paralysis of fear consumed her body. Luckily, there weren’t any other distractions that would have made our being here more problematic for her. The corridor itself was dank but there was no scent of sewage, urine or any littered trash for that matter, no tunnel-dwellers—which was a very real concern according to a documentary I happened upon some time ago—and no rats. Just the two of us and the only sound, apart from the distant rumbling of a train somewhere beneath us, was the empty sound of our own footsteps.
“This is incredible, really,” I continued. “By 1870, Beach’s crew managed to build this tunnel, complete with a tunneling shield in only fifty-eight days. It runs three hun—”
“Uh-uh! Don’t give me numbers!” Madi snapped, shaking her head. After a moment, her tone softened. “And…thank you.”
“For what, bringing you up to speed?”
“You know what.” Madi’s voice had a forced calm to it that made me both proud of her and guilty at the same time.
I didn’t know how to respond. That was the closest she had ever come to admitting her phobia and it couldn’t have been easy for her to do in the moment. I opted for something I thought was safe, “Is it working?”
“I’m annoyed that Duffy and Thompson crammed junk in your head without your permission…so, yeah, I suppose.”
“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from,” I offered a weak smile. “Only one car ran on the track, controlled by a 48 short tons Roots blower, nicknamed the Western Tornado, that was originally designed for ventilating mine shafts. When the car reached the dead-end at its terminus at Murray Street, baffles on the blower system were reversed and the car was pulled back by the suction to the Warren Street main station.”
The brick-lined corridor began slanting downward into a left turn and I heard a hollow echo that suggested we were approaching an open space.
“Since the system couldn’t get approval as a regular mode of transportation, Beach opened it to the public as a novelty attraction at 25 cents per person with the proceeds going to the Union Home and School for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans.”
“Some good came from it, then,” Madi said.
“I’d say. During its first two weeks of operation, the Beach Pneumatic Transit sold over 11,000 rides and over 400,000 total rides in its single year of operation.”
“Whatever happened to it?” Madi asked. “The pneumatic car, I mean. After the fire.”
“Workers excavating for the current-day BMT Broadway line in 1912, dug into this tunnel and found the remains of the car, the tunneling shield used during initial construction, and even the piano in the subway’s waiting room. The shield was removed and donated to Cornell University, which has since lost track of its whereabouts.”
“And how much farther is this main station, Mister Tour Guide?”
“By my estimation—from the junk in my head, as you so eloquently put it—it should be just around this bend. I wish I could have seen it in its glory days. Reports claimed the main station was a very ornate proj—” and suddenly I was at a loss for words. There was no longer a need for Madi’s flashlight as we cleared the bend, for we found the Beach Pneumatic Transit station and it was fully lit.
I helped Madi step up onto what must have been the passenger boarding platform for the pneumatic car and just beyond that was a small flight of stairs which led to the waiting area. I was stunned and I could see that Madi was as well. It was beautiful beyond imagining. The light that revealed the luxurious interior of the waiting area was coming from Zirconia lamps fitted into two old-fashioned rock-crystal chandeliers. The walls were adorned with frescoes done in a style that seemed to expertly imitate the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, in fact, one appeared to be the Sybils, his famous 1514 painting that decorated the interior of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome. In the corner nearest the stairs to the boarding platform was an elegant Steinway & Sons square grand piano. There were several bronze statues strategically placed in the space as well as plush leather easy chairs and settees and in the center was a goldfish pond filled with fresh water and live fish.
“This place is immaculate,’ Madi said, swiping a finger along the leather of an easy chair and holding up a finger to show no trace of dust.
“And it must have cost a small fortune to restore it and manage the upkeep,” I added. “But who would go through the trouble and for what reason?”
“Million dollar questions, the both of them,” a man’s voice said from behind and startled the hell out of me. Madi let out a little yelp. I swung around, maneuvered myself between her and the unknown visitor and raised the tire iron.
The man stepped out from behind a velvet curtain in the far corner, hands outstretched in front of him, palms facing us. “Unarmed, I assure you. I mean you no harm and my apologies, it wasn’t my intention to frighten you,” he said with a friendly smile. Going off his face alone, he looked to be in his mid-thirties but the graying at his temples was throwing my estimation off. His expression was one of weariness as he gave me the once-over but when he eyed Madi, he suddenly didn’t look tired at all.
“Are you the caretaker of this place?” I asked. My grip on the tire iron tightened.
“No. I’m as much a trespasser as the both of you. Good evening, Miss,” he nodded to Madi and tipped an invisible hat.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“My name is Andrew McKissick,” he extended his hand and looked at the tire iron. The message was clear, I would either have to switch the steel level to my non-dominant hand or put it down to accept his greeting. “And you must be Darius Quaice. I’ve been expecting you but I wasn’t aware you would be bringing an assistant.”
Madi stepped in front of me and shook McKissick’s hand before I could stop her. “I’m Madison Wasonofski, Mr. Quaice’s business partner,” she said, gripping his hand firm enough it caused him to wince slightly and pumped it hard twice to stake her claim as my equal, as she had been known to do to thwart off misogynistic behaviors whether intentioned or born of ignorance.
“Wait a moment. McKissick. McKissick? As in the astrophysicist who examined the subway car for the MTA?” I asked.
“Guilty as charged.”
“But his name was never revealed in any of the arti—” Madi started but stopped when I tapped my temple.
“And you said you were expecting us?” I queried, leaning forward to take the man’s hand.
Madi suggested we be seated as we exchanged information and made her way to the settee and easy chair nearest the goldfish pond. I think she needed to focus on the fish in order to prevent her claustrophobia causing a scene.
McKissick explained that he had been visited by two men fitting the description of Duffy and Thompson, though they gave different names, two days ago in a meeting nearly identical to ours in which they informed him that I would be accompanying him on the subway shroud investigation shortly after they had the chance to speak with me.
I had never been a man who liked, believed in or trusted conveniences or coincidences. Someone was laying a trail of breadcrumbs and like a fool, I had followed it. Despite the knowledge implanted in my mind that confirmed his identity, there was no reason for us to believe this man was telling the truth or not to suspect that he was in league with Duffy and Thompson, or worse yet, the mastermind behind this entire affair. But I couldn’t deny that something in his manner put me at ease.
“So, you believe the subway shroud is a time travel device?” I asked. I sat beside Madi on the settee while McKissick took the adjacent easy chair.
“I wouldn’t state that conclusively but I suspect it may be capable, whether it was designed to or not, of generating a time dilation field.”
“Like in Doctor Who?” Madi asked. Off his confused expression, she added, “There’s an episode where the Doctor and Bill Potts are separated on opposite ends of a huge spaceship trapped in the gravity well of a black hole and time passes differently for the both of them.”
“I’ve never seen the show but the principle is sound,” McKissick said. “It’s the theory of relativity at play and it’s been tested with a pair of atomic clocks. One remained earthbound while the other was sent on a trip into space and when it returned there was a small disparity which proved that time moves slower under the influence of a stronger gravitational field.”
The three of us debated gravitational time dilation as an effective means for time traveling giving the limitations of being able to only move forward in time, speculated on the identity of the organization behind our recruitment, attempted to solve the riddle of why the pneumatic station was in pristine condition. When all the logical and completely absurd avenues of possibilities and probabilities had been explored and we each sat there in absolute silence, mulling the mysteries over in our minds, I was struck with a thought,
“Where’s the car?”
“What?” Madi said.
“Where is Beach’s pneumatic car? Someone went to great effort to restore this place to a working station, right? So why not restore the car as well?”
“Unless they did—” McKissick started before I cut him off.
“When we first spotted you, you were coming from that corner, McKissick. What’s behind those curtains?”
“Nothing, actually,” he shrugged. “Just a wall with a bit of writing on it.”
I leaped from my seat and hurried to the maroon velvet curtain. Brushing it aside I saw that the wall was covered by 2×2 inch polished mosaic tiles and at eye level were thirteen lettered tiles that spelled out the words COSTLY MENTORS.
Madi and McKissick were soon behind me reading the words over my shoulder.
“Is it some sort of clue as to who’s behind all this?” Madi asked.
“I thought it was some sort of inside joke left by the original builders or the restoration team,” McKissick said.
“Why tiles?” I said, thinking aloud. “Floor to ceiling, only this section of the wall is tiled and then covered in a room filled with dazzling opulence. The ultimate obfuscation? I mean, when distracted by the wonderment of everything else, who would bother to look here?”
“Dar, what are you getting at?” Madi’s voice faded into the background. The words Costly Mentors had my full attention now.
I ran my fingers over the raised letter tiles. They appeared to be loose but just barely, not enough for me to pry any of them free. Then I moved on to the surrounding tiles, exploring each until I discovered a plain bone-colored tile that had a slight give to it. I pressed the tile slowly into the wall roughly an eighth of an inch until it clicked into place. Stepping back, I waited…and nothing happened.
“Curious,” I muttered. Leaning closer, I inspected the tile edges surrounding the gap left by the recessed bone tile. There were grooves in the exposed ends of the tiles. Testing a theory, I placed two fingers on the tile above the gap and pulled down. The tile slid one space down without effort.
“What is it?” McKissick asked.
“A sliding puzzle?” Madi guessed.
Nodding, I continued shifting tiles around until I had access to the lettered ones. “I have an idea.” Sliding tiles around the puzzle was the easy part, lining the letters up also proved no real difficulty. The problem was arranging the letters into a word or words when I wasn’t sure what I was looking to spell. I managed MERCY TON SLOTS, MY LOST CORNETS, TRY MOST CLONES, and a series of others with no success…until I stumbled upon SYSTEM CONTROL. One digital beep and the sound of a magnetic lock tumbling later and the door to the Beach Pneumatic Transit System control booth opened.
“Pay no attention to the booth behind the curtain,” I smiled.
To be continued…
Week 8 of my personal 2018 writing challenge to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive… and I’m not particularly happy with my progress at this point. It’s nearing the end of February and I’m at a mere twenty-three pages. Definitely time for me to step up my game, make some hard choices and push the plot forward.
As a recap to newcomers:
This story is an experiment to write a stream of consciousness book with no outline or plot in mind, just a year’s worth of whatever-pops-into-my-fragile-little-mind tweets without edits or the fancy flourishes that will come in the rewrite.
Although I have introduced one new character this week, I still have absolutely no idea what his importance in the greater scheme of things will be, or how many others will be added later on, what the story will ultimately be about (but it seems like it’s going to be time travel story which is bizarre because I’m not a fan of those) or how it will end. Initially that terrified and thrilled me simultaneously.
Though I’m lagging behind at the moment, I will persevere in my endeavor to either create something (hopefully coherent and good) from thin air or fall flat on my writerly face.
Don’t forget, if you can spare a moment, I invite you to either cheer me on or tell me what a colossal mistake I’m making. I’m good either way.
©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys