7A – Gallery of Shadows

The voice came from a shadow.  Eric cannot see his assailant, nor has he heard his voice before, and he remains clueless whether this is Anja’s mole, or someone else.

Eric catches a green glimmer from a distant track light reflected on a raised iron crow bar which the man raises over Eric’s head as he slowly approaches through the puddles.

“Was is it you I chased?”  Eric asks, trembling.

“Who else could it be?” The man, to intimidate him, stands now behind him.

“My girlfriend claimed you raped her.”

“I know.”

“If you did it, you might do it again.”

“I never even slapped a woman in my life.”

“If you are not the man who raped her, my apologies.  If you are, go to hell!”

“You made a bad choice and that can kill a man.  Look where it got you.”

“What do you know about me?  Don’t you usually carry a knife?”

“I never carry a knife.  Knives are for cowards.”

“You meant to say bitches.”

“You still take me for your girl’s rapist?  Listen, a number of people saw you chase me.  Right?”

“Right.”

“Are you count’n on none of them tell’n the cops?”

“I never gave it a second thought.”

“Eric Dumbshit!” The man coughs, then wheezes.

“You know my first name, congratulations.”

“Nobody need pat my back!”  The man then walks around him, still in the shadows, coughing. “You got a blonde girlfriend, right?  Real pretty?  She gone clean out of her mind.”

“I never saw your face.  I still don’t know what you look like.”

“Want to see my face?”  He shines a flashlight suddenly right into Eric’s eyes, then shines it at his own face briefly and Eric sees nothing, blinded by the glare.  “Don’t you know better?”

“Than what?”

“To play games with someone who holds all the cards.”

“What good are cards if you only play solitaire?”

“Oh, you’re clever now but I heard you whining, and crying.  ‘Will I gnaw off my own hand?  Am I going to faint?  Somebody get me outta here!’ That’s how I know about you.”

“I’m not ashamed.”

“Not ashamed of chasing me just ’cause your crazy German girlfriend told you to?  What’s your proof?”  Again he shines his flashlight right into Eric’s eyes.

“You’re right.  I had and have no proof.  Now, if you let me go, you never have to see my face again.  I’m sorry.”

“Not that simple.  You see, I hate being accused, especially when I’m innocent.”

“How did you know my girlfriend’s German?”

He replies by shining his flashlight again into Eric’s eyes.  “I have ears for accents.”

“I believe you.  Now, do have the key?”

“Not so fast, dumbshit.  I want to know more about your girlfriend’s case.  Talk.”

Eric relents, cautiously relating everything from the watertower to the open mike, her reaction, and especially her attack in the underground.  After he finishes, the man, stops short, and speaks slowly.

“There was a girl attacked here last year but it weren’t any of us, I mean me and my people.  A guy followed her, at a distance, near here.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Somewhere in the back of her head, she joined our two faces together, kind of slid my face over his, I guess.”

“God, I’m sorry.”  Eric realizes that the man’s tone has changed, and that he could still escape.

“God has nothing to do with it!  More, the devil!  But, you know, I learnt to trust no one down here.  Nobody up there, either.  So I’m going to keep you handcuffed then show where we know she got it.  Maybe rub your nose in it. Then you’ll know the truth. Then your apology might mean something.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me!  Listen, that guy came back here after it happened and asked one of us if someone had seen his passport.  He met a woman in my group.  Now, if he did lose his passport, raping in the mud your girl who since flipped out, you be satisfied, and maybe avenge this bastard — it’s your business — and you can get off my ass! Besides, he knows, roughly, where we are.  I really don’t want him or any stranger, or cops, or you, poking around down here.”

“Why didn’t you look for the passport before?”

“No one has ever accused me before!  We never saw your girl again after that anyway.”

“So what next?  Do I go on rotting at this post?”

“No.”

“Can I call her?”

“You see any phones down here?  I left my cellular in my Mercedes.”

“Can I call or go back up to see Anja?”

“What and give us away?”

“O.K.   I’m sorry.”

“You were fast but easy to evade ’cause you don’t know the system. Nice cat and mouse.”

“Again, I’m sorry.”

“Great.  Now, your story might check out but you could still could be crazy, so don’t resist while I unlock these cuffs then put them back on you.  Otherwise, we start all over again.  And this time, you rot.”

“O.K.”  The man removes the cuffs from Eric.  “Ah!  Can I massage my wrists a little?”

“No.”

You want them in front?”

“Hands in front.  There, all right, let’s go.  You walk first.  I’ll tell you where to go.”

“What’s your name?”

“Walk!”

They walk for a half mile and Eric sees a fire burning, then as his eyes adjust, he spots other shadowy people around it.  The jet black walls and sooty tunnel reflect an eerie red glow in the makeshift amphitheater of their camp, the fire offering the group a smoky light.  They seem to be brewing tea in a large steel pot.  Eric follows the man, who seems to be their leader of sorts.  Several rise as he closes in, then, after he warns with an outstretched hand that he is not alone, they shrink back.  They seem poor but alert, and keen to gage Eric’s movements.  He feels remotely guilty, as if he is entering a courtroom.

“Sit down on this pail, back a ways,”  the man orders.  “Friends, this is Eric, who confessed he fucked up, taking me as his girlfriend’s rapist.  He, uh, said he was sorry.”

“Hi,”  Eric offers, shyly.

No one replies until an older woman speaks up. “You aware that Jakob came back here last night, woke us to tell about you, then he return, so you would not be too hurt after you chased him?”  Eric can almost see her face as the woman pulls closer to the fire while speaking.  Her gray-streaked hair is tied back tightly behind a shadowy, weather-beaten face, her taped-together glasses glint in firelight.  She crouches near Eric with a sober, suspicious expression.

“No, I didn’t,” Eric replies, plainly.

“I told him not to risk it,”  she says, rocking back into her shadow.

“I did too,”  another echoes.

Someone asks, “Are you worthy of Jakob’s mercy?”

“Probably not!”  a teenage girl’s voice echoes, who seems to be sipping from a tin cup.

“I don’t know,” Eric replies.

“We just want to know what kind of fool you are,” the woman insists.

“His girlfriend maybe was the one raped down here by knife point last year,” Jakob adds, then Eric can hear someone reposition themselves nervously.

“What did she look like?”  the older woman asks.

“I’m not sure I should tell you,” Eric replies, sheepishly.

“You better!”

“I know what she looked like!”  the teenage-sounding girl speaks up, walking to the fire.

“Don’t!” the woman shouts.

“I saw him with her on the street!” Jakob reassures the woman.

“Then there’s no harm!  You must be her boyfriend?” the girl asks. “She had sandy blondish hair, long,” the girl forges on, “though she was threatening to cut it.  Blue eyes, clear as a lake!  Smart, really smart, spoke good English though she was foreign.  Just in from Paris, born, she said, in East Germany.  Slim figure, in shape, like a runner!  Told me she been a runner.  A very pretty face, like a model.  But she was way too smart for that!”  The girl beams, proud of her wit, though no older than fourteen.  “Now, her name? I remember it!”

“Anja,” Eric relents.

“That’s right!”  The girl laughs, applauding her small triumph. “She was great!”

“Settle down, Ginny!” the woman breaks in.

“I be goddamned if I ever let a bastard with a mouth full of lies follow someone in we already accepted again,” Jakob observes, with great bitterness, and the rest seem to agree.  “I could have searched him and found his knife first.”

“Wait, you knew Anja?”

“Sure we knew her!” Jakob scoffs.  “Didn’t I  say that?”

“I don’t get it.”

“But that’s what this whole thing’s about!”

“I’m a little slow on the uptake.”

“Seems so.  Why would I bring you back here?”

“Did he give his name?”  Eric asks.

“Wait,” Jakob interrupts. “You answer the questions.  First, tell the whole story for the group, so they’ll be comfortable with you working near by.”

“Working?”

“Talk.”

Eric obliges, while the group listens, with the occasional nodding of heads, absorbing details as a jury might, without lawyers, or judges.  Eric puts everything he has into telling the story, fully aware that he still handcuffed. There are sighs when he describes Anja’s obsession with moles, with heights, and her watertower, and when she mistook Jakob for her attacker.  When he finishes, the spirited teenage girl, who seemed fascinated, asks, “Did you make love to her?”

“What?”

“Ginny, shut up!”  the woman admonishes her.

“O.K.  Did Anja sing nicely?”

“Her first song was incredible,” Eric assures Ginny.

“I knew it!”  she exults.  “She sang to me so … beautifully.  I want to be a singer — and get out of this place!  I want to go to Paris too!”

“Cool your jets, Ginny,” Jakob replies.

“Justin?” This was apparently the name of the man with a sandpapery voice.  “What was this knife-wielding fuck’s name?”

“He said it was Dick Couteau,”  Justin says, flatly.

“Think it his real name?”

“Why would he give us his real name?” Justin wonders aloud.

“Couteau means knife in French,” Eric offers.

The older woman breaks in, “Now, who would name themselves ‘knife’ if they regularly uses one?”

“But, didn’t he say he met Anja in Paris?” Ginny asks.

“One speaker at a time,”  Jakob orders. “Look, what do you have to convict this guy?  You have witnesses here but we can’t go with you to no court.  You gotta confirm the identity.  The guy could be right out there.  He’s a scammer, probably Anja’s is just one of many.  Are you ready to die to revenge your girlfriend’s assault?  Are you ready to kill?”

“No,” Eric confesses.

“Then let the cops do it,  but don’t bring them down here.”

“O.K., but I’m still bothered by something — listen, Anja’s up there, thinking, well, anything may have happened to me.”

“You claim you saved her from committing suicide, right?”

“Yes.”

“And she’s the one who drove you to chase me, wrongly?”

“Right.”

“So if she kills herself now, she’s fucked your life twice over.”

“That’s if she’s reasoning clearly!”

“If she’s not reasoning that way, clear or not, she’s not worth it.”

“What?”

“You heard me.  I mean, her wanting to take her life when you met is one thing.  She didn’t ask you to help her.  But you did.  And, she accepted it.  Then she mistakes me for Dick Couteau, who we know was younger and whiter than myself.  You take over her case, but it was natural seeing how it almost killed her.  Now, if she takes her life, she’s ruining yours, after you tried to help.”

“That presupposes she’s doesn’t destroy herself because I disappeared.   And Anja is worth it no matter what she does!  It’s called love.”

“You and she made your love my, and our, business, boy!  It came to us howling down the street, intending to kill me.  I just spared your life!”

“You both cool out!” Justin jumps up.

“Stop!” Ginny rises, standing between Eric and Jakob, arms akimbo, imitating being an adult, “We got boiled potato soup.  With spices.”

The first woman, putting a pot of soup beneath Jakob’s nose, ” You eat before you go digging around in the room tomorrow.  That’s final.”

“The room?  Tomorrow?” Eric asks.

“O.K., this afternoon.  It’s four fucking o’clock!”

“The room is where you going to search for the passport,” Jakob explains.

Eric calms down but he also begins to notice the outline of group of bizarre witnesses, like a gallery, who sit silently in the shadows without appearing before the fire, and only now can he hear them very softly murmuring or shifting their positions.  They seem like ghosts, and no one mentions them. He accepts his bowl, waiting politely on his pail, without asking about them, but not seeing their faces, he begins to irrationally suspect the wholesomeness of the soup, sniffing the tin now on his knees.  Jakob examines Eric because he waits before eating, spoon in hand, though everyone else, especially the gallery, cheerfully begin with audible slurps and clinks of spoons to tin and porcelain bowls.

“Don’t believe our food will kill you, do you?” Ginny mocks Eric.

With this, for the first time, the gallery of shadows immoderately laugh, with an inherently insane sing-songiness to their collective voices.

“Pipe down!” Ginny chastises them.  And they do.   Seeing that Ginny, a mere teenager, has some authority over them, does not reassure Eric.  Yet what do they have to do with the soup before him?  He makes a point of clinking his spoon against his tin to let them know he’s eating. Then whispers to Jakob, “No one has said a thing about the other people, over there, in the shadows, and they have not said a thing, either,”  Eric digs into his soup, and has to wait for at least a minute for a reply.  Eric can feel two or three of them stop eating, seeming to wait also for a reply, although he did whisper.

“We talk later,”  Jakob finally answers.

The silence which follows seems ominous to Eric, but the soup is tolerable, very heavy on spices, though he observes the man they call Justin and the older woman whom he hears someone call Lauren adding more and more red-hot sauce.  Lauren pipes up finally, “You live in an apartment?”

“Yes,”  Eric responds.

“Like it?”

“Yes.”

“You a student or something?”

“Yes.”

“Of what?”

“Of architecture.”

“They teach you about the subway?”

“No.”

“How useless!”  She snorts and several others nod.

“As high as a city is built, it must sink down its roots,” Ginny says, as if both admiring and mocking Jakob’s tone of voice.

“The water, electricity, oil, gas, the transportation, the foundations of every building is right here, and below us,” Lauren adds.  Both seem to be reading from an oral primer authored by Jakob.

“Wait!” Ginny continues, smiling, puts down her bowl, and begins to act out an old speech which Jakob must have made. “It’s exactly like megaphysics!  The higher the heaven, lower the hell.  And the more fools in it!”  She winks, and sits down.  One of the members of the shadow gallery clinks his spoon against his bowl.

“Metaphysics!” Jakob grumbles.

“Every building, like every man, has its roots in the earth.  If not, it falls,” Ginny teases, waving a piece of bread like a pointer.

“Like my watertower girl, Anja.” Eric adds.

“That’s right,”  Jakob glances to Ginny, irritated. “For most, the world in the air is a dream, the world beneath our feet, a grave.”

After everyone relaxes to digest, Eric turns to Jakob, and catches a glimmer of shame on Jakob’s face, reflecting the crimson cast by the fire.  They have hinted at a homemade ethos which knits them together as a group, a seeming effort to transform the necessity of their underworld life into a choice, but there is something on Jakob’s conscience.

“Eric, if my memory serves me, there was another guy behind you, who hung behind with Anja after you passed her by,” Jakob says.

“Yes — Danny.”

“Danny see you run in the tunnel?”

“I wasn’t looking back.”

“That’s why you gained on me,” Jakob breathes, with weariness.  “What kind of guy is this Danny?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Is Danny strong?  Or is Danny weak?”

“The truth?”  Eric hesitates. “Danny is weak.”

“O.K.  Scenario.  Coward witnesses on platform do nothing but jump on the F-train, one, maybe two, call the cops.  They describe not only you and me, but Anja and Danny.  Anja wishes to protect you, because you may catch me.  Even if you don’t you could be jailed for running into the subway, or at least fined.  There’s a chance you beat, kill me, too.  Or I get you.  Anja resists.  Danny caves.  Danny calls the cops.  Probable?”

“Maybe.  But what does it mean?”

“It means, for us, we can’t use any of the tunnels west of here.  I’m not going to say, because you could tell the cops where we are when you surface. Throw them a bone.  Further, it means you must surface, with evidence, to exonerate yourself if you’re screwed.  Perhaps we are too. They might be lenient if you prove you were not out for revenge.”

“Which gets us back to the room?”

“You bet, the room.”

“No,”  Lauren speaks up, “Which gets you to sleep!  Done eating?”

“Yes.  Thanks for your hospitality.”  Eric says.

“You don’t feel sick?”

“No, I feel better, and sleepy.”

“Ginny, show him to his penthouse and his king-sized bed,” Lauren chides Eric.

“I would say goodnight, though it’s day, and dark.”

“That’s the least of your worries.”  Justin makes a rat-munching sound then throws Eric an old sleeping bag.  Eric rolls over, still cuffed, on to the ground.

“Sleep tight!” Lauren advises.