The room inside was tiny and dark. I carefully ran my hand along the inside wall feeling for a possible light switch but only pulled away cobwebs.
“That was pretty impressive with the door,” McKissick said but though the compliment was intended for me he addressed it to Madi, which I found more than a little odd. “Is he always like this, Ms. Wasonofski? And do you mind if I call you Madison?”
“It’s Madi, one d no e, but only if I can call you Andrew, Mr. McKissick,” Madi answered.
“Consider it a deal,” said McKissick.
“And no, Darius isn’t always like this. It’s only when you least expect it that he surprises you. I’ve been with him since God spoke to Moses and I still don’t properly know him, I mean, better than most, but there’s always something new lurking around every corner.”
“Oh, are the two of you together?”
“Me and Darius? God no,” she waved the implication off like a bad smell.
I cleared my throat and I believed they received the message because the conversation halted. With the light that spilled in from the waiting area, I saw a single lightbulb in a ceiling-mounted hanging socket. I stepped inside and gave a quick tug on the pull chain. The light from the 40-watt bulb that lazily flickered to life was only slightly better than the darkness. McKissick followed me in and the space instantly became cramped. Madi stood in the doorway. Even if there was enough room for her I doubt she would have taxed her borderline control over the claustrophobia.
If I were into steampunk, the single control panel fitted with antiquated levers, switches, dials, gauges, knobs and wheel hand cranks, would have been a wet dream, but as nothing was labeled in any sort of helpful way that might have indicated their function, I found this hidden control room gem unimpressive, to say the least.
“This doesn’t make sense,” I said.
“What doesn’t?” McKissick asked, closer to me than I was comfortable with. I felt his hot breath on my neck when he turned his head to speak. Apparently, it was a pet peeve I hadn’t been made aware of until this very moment.
“Don’t you find the contrasting technology between the door lock and this control panel the least bit peculiar?”
“Is that an electric telegraph machine?” McKissick pointed at a device in the center of the crowded console.
It was, or more accurately it was a telegraph key, a metal frame fitted with a hammer, anvil spring tension adjustment, circuit closer, wiring post, and contact gap adjustment which sat on a wooden base. McKissick reached for the knob and began tapping the hammer to the anvil.
“Is that Morse Code?” Madi asked.
“Yes, it is,” smiled McKissick.
“What are you saying?”
“What hath God wrought,” said McKissick. “It’s from the Book of Numbers 23:23, the first Morse code message transmitted 1844 to officially open the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line. Doesn’t appear to be working though, and why would it? Who would be on the other end, if it still had an other end?”
McKissick turned his attention to other items on the console, fiddling with knobs and levers and even tapping a few of the dials testing if the needles would budge.
“Why go through the trouble of securing this room if nothing here is functional? And if you’re going through all the bother of restoring the station why ignore this?” I asked.
“For posterity?” Madi offered.
“If it’s meant to be a mini technology museum, why hasn’t it at least been dusted?” I blew a small cloud off a section of the console and regretted it an instant later when I began to cough. As I turned my head away from the dust I caught sight of something, a triangle of paper wedged between the end of the console and the wall. I pried at it with my fingertips until enough of it was exposed for me to pinch hold of and pull free.
“What is it?” Madi stretched up on her toes trying to see around McKissick.
It was an old bit of paper folded like a pamphlet, yellowed to the point of browning. I held it up to the light and read the front cover, “BMT Lines, Rapid Transit Division 1924 subway map.”
Madi asked, “What does the 1924 BMT line have to do with any of this?”
“Absolutely no clue,” I turned the map over on my hands.
“Is that handwriting?” McKissick pointed at the ink scrawling in the margins. I nodded.
“Well, bring it out here in the open where the light is better and let’s take a proper look at it,” Madi waved us over to the cocktail table near a settee. I could only guess that it was either the size comparison to the control room or her overriding curiosity that made her consider the waiting area an open space.
We huddled on the settee, Madi to my right and McKissick reluctantly on my left. It was clear he wanted to sit next to Madi and was disappointed when I claimed the middle seat. When all this was said and done, he and I were going to have a talk. I placed the map back cover up on the table and we studied the handwriting done in ballpoint pen that wasn’t nearly as old or faded as the map itself.
“A series of dates,” McKissick said.
“Not in chronological order,” added Madi.
I tapped at the top date, September 12, 1867, “This was the day Beach demonstrated the pneumatic train at the American Institute Fair held in the Fourteenth Street Armory.”
“And February 26, 1870, was the day he opened the pneumatic train to the public,” said McKissick.
Both McKissick and I pointed at June 14, 1911, and simultaneously said, “Zanetti.”
“Um, what’s Zanetti?”
“You weren’t subjected to the verisimilituder?” McKissick eyed Madi.
“No, only he was,” she shook her head and thumbed my way.
“And you didn’t tell her?” McKissick asked.
“Hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” I answered. “Instead of forcing the information on her all at once, I figured I’d offer it as needed.”
“Makes sense. I suppose if I was in your position I might have considered doing the same.”
“Hello,” Madi waved. “Still in the room. Would one of you brainwashed cultists please clue me in on what a Zanetti is?”
Zanetti was the name of an Italian railway company that unveiled its prototype excursion train on June 14th, 1911, and offered, free of charge, a test ride to members of high society in hopes of creating a word of mouth campaign to attract additional investors.
One hundred passengers boarded the three-car steam train at Zanetti’s station in Rome, along with a crew complement of six, and set out on a leisurely tour of the local sights, the most popular of which was a tunnel that had been carved into one of the Lombardy mountains.
But while the rest of the passengers were enjoying the complimentary hors d’oeuvres and champagne as they socialized, two men were simultaneously struck with a premonition of impending disaster. They attempted to share this with their fellow passengers and members of the crew and were at first dismissed then openly mocked.
As the train approached the mountain tunnel, it decelerated and the sensation of unease within the two men rose to a blind panic at the sound of an ominous humming followed by clouds of black smoke that began filling the train. The crew went about trying to put the passengers at ease as they opened windows to vent the smoke.
The two panicked men raced into the rear car and looked out of the window. Each reported seeing a milky-white fog billowing from the mountain tunnel and as the engine entered the cloud, the car split wide open. Both men leaped from the train to safety seconds before it entered the tunnel. The fog within appeared to be swallowing the train whole like a thing alive.
Their statements were later discredited as no debris was located inside the tunnel from where the train supposedly split open but the one fact that couldn’t be ignored was something mysterious happened during the ride since the train had actually vanished without a trace, taking one hundred and four people with it.
“Just so you know,” Madi pointed at both McKissick and I. “That was creepy.”
“It’s just an urban legend,” I said.
“Not the story, Major Marco, the way you two recited it in tandem. At one point you were finishing off each other’s sentences. Doesn’t that cause either of you the slightest bit of concern?”
It was true. I wasn’t able to tell which one of us said what. “Okay, you’ve made your point. You were right. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable having information stored in my brain, especially not knowing who placed it or what else they planted in there. I was wrong for subjecting myself to it, but if I’m honest, if something does go wrong, I’d rather it happen to me than you.”
“I hate when you do that!” Madi was on the verge of a pout but restrained herself in front of company. “You’re not going to win emotional points with me over this! Anyway, it’s too late now. Just promise me when this is all over that you’ll get yourself checked out, please?”
“I promise,” I gave her a two finger Cub Scout salute. “But you’re here and on the case so I feel safe because I know you’ll shut me down if I go fatal.”
Madi shook her head in exasperation but I caught the corners of her mouth turn up in a barely noticeable smile. She apologized to McKissick for some unknown reason, perhaps she thought she was being unprofessional but the astrophysicist wasn’t bothered by our exchange.
“Who’s Major Marco, by the way?” McKissick whispered to me.
“From The Manchurian Candidate,” I replied. “She’s insinuating we’ve been brainwashed.”
“You’re both lousy whisperers and she is probably right, but we’ll table that discussion for another time,” Madi gestured at the next date on the list. “So, how about that 1940 date,”
McKissick and I looked at one another and I motioned for him to explain.
“The events of this day came from the meticulous notes of a psychiatrist living in Mexico,” McKissick said. “He wrote about the admission of one hundred and four people into a local infirmary, each of them diagnosed with mass insanity. At first, most were in a catatonic state, and those who spoke seemed to be spouting gibberish but someone eventually worked out they were speaking Italian. When they finally located a translator, the patients claimed to have arrived here by a train they boarded in Rome.”
“Are all the remaining dates urban legends as well?” Madi asked.
“The next two are,” I said. “The first one came from an ancient record that told of a giant sled with a pipe spouting suffocating clouds of black smoke and dragging three smaller ones behind it bearing down on the walls of a medieval monastery in Modena, Italy that vanished just before it made impact. Next on the list is the date in 1955 when a Ukrainian signalman witnessed the sudden appearance of an unannounced steam locomotive with 3 passenger cars heading for the barrier of the station, running in an area where there were no tracks. As you might suspect, it also vanished seconds before impact.”
“Two of the remaining dates are present day and coincide with two of the shroud sightings,” said McKissick.
Madi was on her feet, pacing in front of the coffee table before I even finished, “So, the mysterious they filled your heads with these urban legends as a supposed connection to the subway shroud, but how does Beach’s missing pneumatic car fit in?”
“We have at least two chances to find out,” I said.
Madi stopped dead in her tracks, “What?”
“There are three more dates, two of them in the near future.”
“And the third one?”
“There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell any of us would live to see it,” I said.
Before Madi could respond, we heard a noise coming from the system control room. A repetitive clicking sound.
“That can’t be,” McKissick was out of his seat and halfway to the room before I could react. “Grab something to write with!”
Madi pulled a pen from the back pocket of her jeans but there was no paper in sight so she snatched the map off the table and I followed her across the room.
McKissick hovered over the telegraph key, huffing more from excitement than excursion, and shouted out letters as he deciphered the Morse Code dots and dashes until he determined, “The message is just repeating now. What does it say?”
Madi turned the front of the map to face us and the message read:
THE DIGERATI AWAITS YOU
“So, am I the only one in the room who doesn’t know who or what the digerati is?” asked Madi. Neither I nor McKissick had the faintest idea. “Now you two know how it feels. I guess the only sensible thing is to ask whoever sent the message.”
“Wonderful idea but we’ll have to wait until they’re done transmitting,” McKissick turned his head in the direction of the system control room and the clicking of the telegraph machine. “There’s no discernable variation in the pattern which suggests the message is on an automated loop, however that’s possible.”
“Digerati is a term coined in the early 90s to describe people skilled with or knowledgeable about digital technologies, especially computers and the Internet,” I held my iPhone out, displaying the Google page.
“We can get a signal down here?” Madi fished her phone from her pocket. “Why didn’t I think to check it? I could have kept pace with the pair of you.”
“Why is that important?” McKissick asked me under his breath.
“She has a thing about being left out but I wouldn’t mention it, she’s pretty sensitive about it,” I said in the softest voice I could manage.
“For your information, I am not sensitive. You won’t find a person on the planet who likes being out of the loop. And to save yourselves future embarrassment, please abandon the whole whisper thing. It isn’t working for you.”
McKissick asked if there was any additional information on digerati, anything relating to an organization or a movement. There wasn’t. We couldn’t even be sure it was connected to our case or simply some random message.
“I want to take another look at the map, see if it proves us with some sort of clue,” I plucked the map from Madi, who was conducting her own online investigation.
Unfolded, the map interior resembled the current New York City subway map minus the IND and IRT train lines and it didn’t take long for us to notice an area of the J train line circled in pen that encompassed the Brooklyn portion of the ride, from Marcy Avenue to Cypress Hills.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked McKissick.
I was. The next date listed on the reverse side of the map was March 12, 2018, and if our theory was correct, the subway shroud or better still the ghost train would be making another appearance.
The next hour was spent investigating the waiting area for anything we might have missed, waiting to see if there was a break in the telegraph message for us to contact the party on the other end, and trying to construct a plan on how to make contact with a ghost train and what to do if we were successful.
“All right, we’re just spinning our gears here,” I said as the jetlag finally caught up with me. “Maybe we should rest up and reconvene later with clearer heads.”
“Of course,” McKissick said. “Would you mind if I took the map with me? Only for a day or so. I’ll deliver it to your office, I promise.”
“Why not take pictures of it with your phone?” Madi asked.
“No cell phone,” he patted his pockets. “Unusual in this day and age, I know, but my landline serves its purpose nicely so I never saw the need in having one.”
Madi and I traded glances but we had gone over the map with a fine-tooth comb so there wouldn’t have been any real harm in our taking back and front photos of it and letting McKissick hold on to the original.
We were ready to part ways when McKissick asked, “Where are you going?”
“Back to the ladder in the tunnel that lets out on Reade Street, same as you, right?” I replied.
“Why would I do that when the original entrance has been incorporated into City Hall Station?”
“You mean we climbed down a manhole for nothing?” Madi shouted, her voice echoed in the waiting area.
She was never going to let me forget this.
To be continued…
Week 9 of my personal 2018 writing challenge to turn my daily tweeting habit into something productive… and I think I’m starting to get a handle on the story… it’s still early days but I’m no longer rudderless.
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.
There is at least one character floating around in my gray matter that hasn’t made it to paper yet and if I commit to that character there are six more characters that need to be added to support the storyline. As mentioned above, a plotline is starting to take shape and it definitely will be a time travel story (Why? The world may never know) The ending is still anyone’s guess. Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of the characters will clue me in.
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