Rushing through winding roads to slink around the orange glare of streetlights overhead, he stopped periodically to check for pursuers. Holding his breath to listen, his body blended from view for a moment before stirring to move on again. He stepped around an oily, rainbow-hued puddle reflecting a dark, ominous alley. He always felt safest between two, tall buildings.
Up ahead, a chain link fence stopped trespassers from approaching the back entrance to a greasy restaurant. This was only an invitation for a moment of fun for Joey. He stepped up once, twice to the top of a dumpster, then kicked off a grip point to plant his left foot on a brick window sill. From here it was an easy vault to spin like a top over the barbed wire with his feet tucked in and arms out at his side. He landed a bit loud for his taste, but was satisfied enough to grin as he pulled his hood back up over his head.
That’s when he heard the footsteps and hushed voices echoing lightly behind him on the other side of the fence. He allowed himself a quick glance back to glimpse the inhumanly tall shadows sliding over uneven, faded bricks. His grin turned grim once again as he pushed on past a plump, pimply dishwasher on a smoke break, slumped on a milk crate by the open kitchen door. Joey cast a steel glare at the startled boy and slid by without a word.
Back on the main street again, he could see the train station up ahead, crowded with taxis and lumbering buses. He approached hurriedly, but did his best to appear like an ordinary commuter on a tight schedule, rather than a covert messenger chased by whoever the hell was after him. The lights of the station got more intense as he moved.
Security was tighter than usual on this night of nights. Heavy plated guards milled around with fully automatic rifles pointed at the ground. They were in black and green gear with only their eyes visible. They were scanning ID cards and eyeing everyone as if each commuter was suspicious and dangerous. He had expected to be clear of the area before the clamp down, but no such luck. He considered dipping past the scan line and getting a cab or even climbing over the roof and dropping in from the other side. The first option was too slow, and the second, too risky.
He pulled his hood down around his shoulders to comply with security protocol and swung his messenger bag around front to grab his ID card from a dedicated section of the pack. This was always a dreadful moment for Joey. Though his crew had a top notch card maker, there was always the possibility of being pulled aside for questioning or tipping off the instincts of a sharp-witted guard for some intangible reason. Potentially, his name could be flagged or the card’s hologram could be out of date. Any number of things could go wrong.
When it was his turn to approach the towering security officer, his eyes shifted between meeting the hard, cold eyes and analyzing the patterns on the concrete ground. He handed over the card with only a fluttering of eye contact, trying to determine which would seem the most natural. He tried not to stare at the impressive gear strapped upon the soldier’s large frame, but at this range, he found it hard not to take in a few details:
The rifle looked like it could toggle between deadly and non-lethal munitions. An array of grenades were tucked into pouches on the left side of his abdomen, ranging from flash bang to incendiary. The scanner he used to examine Joey’s credentials was sturdy and looked to be weather proof. He also noticed the helmet had mini cameras and appeared to provide night vision at the very least. This was beyond a routine “safety” inspection. Something big had gone down and it may not have actually been of his doing.
After the officer peered at the card and read the display on the scanner, his eyes studied Joey’s downcast face. He looked back at the card, then at the teenager again. He grunted, dismissively held out the card, then waved him through with an arrogant backhanded gesture. Joey concealed his relief for as long as he was being watched before exhaling as he stepped toward the entrance.
Once inside, he stood on the platform amidst the shuffling crowd of pedestrians. Most were staring at their phones with earbuds to keep reality at bay. He glanced up at the digital sign that read,
“The next train will arrive in (4) minutes”
The wind swept his fogging breath down the length of the platform. Hands in his thick hoodie pockets, he waited patiently.
“Now, more than ever, it’s important to keep a watchful eye out for suspicious activity…”
droned the pre-recorded message over the loudspeaker. Joey rolled his eyes and shook his head subtly. He couldn’t cast his gaze in a single direction without seeing something “suspicious”.
He scanned the faces of his fellow travelers. They all seemed half dead to him. Their thumbs scrolled through news feeds while reflections of empty promises slid across their glazed eyeballs.
“The next train will arrive in (3) minutes.”
He took a deep, healing breath and shifted his weight slightly. A brisk wind cut through his jeans and sent a sharp frost shivering up his spine. Trying to appear casual as he glanced back toward the entrance, he huddled himself against the biting cold and kept his mind at ease as best he could. He wanted desperately to pull his hood back up, but this would have the opposite of the desired effect and only draw unwanted attention toward him. He kept his head down and tried to stay focused on an intricate stain by his feet.
Fifty feet to his right, a group of young people laughed and carried on as they waited to party in some downtown club. He took measured breaths and guided his thoughts away from hateful resentment.
Let them have their fun. Focus on the task.
“The next train will arrive in (2) minutes.”
The wind picked up again and howled through support beams and pillars. His eyes squinted and teeth grit for a moment before his head lifted again to regard his surroundings. Above and behind the platform on the other side of the tracks, sharp, bony-fingered branches swayed against the dark purple sky. They appeared to him as if in a trance, worshiping the infinite space beyond their skeletal reach.
The harsh fluorescent lights surrounding him blocked out the swirls of galactic stars that once captivated his youth outside The City. He would’ve missed those days if not for the alternate form of claustrophobic constriction he endured back then.
Lost in thought and memory, he vaguely drew his attention back to the stain on the ground once more.
“The next train will arrive in (1) minute.”
A shadow covered the ground before him and did not pass on. He looked up and saw a child’s eyes locked onto his own. She was held in the arms of a man with his back to Joey, facing the tracks like any other. The girl stared at him over the man’s shoulder. Blonde ribbons of hair streamed out from below her little blue winter hat. Her expression was slightly inquisitive.
Shadows slid across every surface as the lighting shifted. He glanced off to the left and saw the glowing headlight which heralded the arrival of the train in the distance. Above the white spot of light, the skyline, dotted with yellow and orange windows, punched out black, jagged shapes from the darkening sky. Above, the crooked horned moon watched over all like a serpent’s eye.
He turned his attention forward again to see the girl’s hand was outstretched toward him. In her tiny fist was a round, smooth stone. She gazed deep into his eyes with a curious look upon her little round face. Her cheeks were flushed with pink. She prompted him with a gesture which encouraged him to accept the stone. He tentatively placed his hand below hers before she plopped the heavy object into his palm.
She smiled a little and followed his eyes as the man turned and walked off with her toward the entrance of the station. Something strange and ethereal crept into his awareness. As he turned to watch them disappear into the night, a dreamlike sensation tugged at the corners of his perceptions. Behind him the train thundered past and jolted him back to reality.
In his seat upon the train, he pulled his hands out from his hoodie pockets and observed the stone between his fingers. He turned it over and studied the strange, blue symbol engraved into the black, polished surface. It was oddly familiar, though he knew not how. It looked like a painted calligraphy character, but its meaning evaded him.
The stone itself was like a huge coin, about three inches in diameter and nearly a half an inch thick. He ran his fingers over the smooth, shiny surface and admired the flecks of grey scattered throughout and deep within it.
What is this? Why was it given to me?
He looked up and saw a man in his thirties, seated across from him and dressed in a black pea coat watching him closely. When Joey met his eyes, the man glanced away. Sensing something peculiar, Joey put his hands in his pockets once more and kept an eye on the man from his peripheral for the rest of the ride.
The train rumbled through the night and passed over expanses of urban structures all too familiar to him. The City’s many attractions blurred past at blinding speed before giving way to open expanses of slow moving sky scrapers at a great distance. He drank in the sight as he always did before plunging into a deafening tunnel with streaks of orange darting past at a pounding rhythm.
The man in the black jacket kept his eyes away for the rest of the ride. Far from downtown where the buildings were dwarfed and huddled together as if for warmth against the winter chill, Joey’s stop had finally arrived. He stood up slowly and glanced at the man who checked his silver watch casually. Joey grabbed his black bag and flung it over his shoulder before stepping past him and balanced near the door with his hands in his pockets, hood down over his eyes, swaying gently as the train decelerated into the station.
The brakes hissed and squealed as the doors slid open, granting him access to his familiar neighborhood. Stepping outside, he shot a sideways glance and saw the man, talking quietly on his cell phone, leaving through a different exit two doors down. Joey clenched the stone and pretended not to notice.
Striding down the quiet street of crumbling bricks and boarded windows, he took a sudden turn down a less familiar road. Daring not to look back and risk spooking his follower, he strained his ears for clues of pursuit. A siren wailed off in the distance and left glimpses of red and blue pulsing between buildings up ahead. A raven squawked from above as it lurched and spread its wings awkwardly upon the top of a weathered telephone pole.
As he passed an open alley, he noticed a cluster of symbols spray painted on the brick wall. One caught his eye enough to make him slow to a stop, his head tilting much like the raven who was apparently watching at this very moment.
He pulled out the stone and compared the symbol to the one dripping on the wall. It was different, but it was the same color blue and had a striking similarity. It seemed to guide him into the alley in such a way that was inexplicable to him.
The narrow opening between the two buildings was a gloom of swirling steam and abandoned heaps of trash. Exposed metal piping and electrical wires twisted and squirmed up either side of him like bionic vines reaching for the watchful moon above. A rat or two scuttled and squeaked away at his cautious approach. He stepped around a puddle of grease and…blood? Unease gripped his stomach and tried to wrench him back to relative safety.
He almost turned back when he saw the door at the far side of the dead end. There, upon the oddly ornate wooden door was engraved the very symbol that rested in his palm. The stone grew warmer as he got closer. The slashed lines on the round, smooth surface increased in brightness until it actually emitted a ghostly blue light that slightly illuminated his surroundings.
As if in a dream, Joey glided forward, transfixed by these phenomena. He reached the door and involuntarily laid his hand upon the rough and ancient-feeling wood. The blue symbol on the door now glowed and streamed out the incandescence between his fingers until he was enveloped by the endless hue. He closed his eyes and let the warmth fully enclose his entire being.
The man in the black coat rounded the corner and found himself alone in the alley. He made his way forward, darting his eyes in every direction, readying himself for an ambush. At the far, brick, featureless wall, he found an odd, smooth, black stone on the ground. Bending to examine it, he turned it in his hands. It was blank. Puzzled, he turned his attention toward the brick wall. There was no reason for it to raise his awareness, but something about it captured his imagination.
His mystification was interrupted by his vibrating phone. Startled, he reached into his coat pocket and placed the phone to his ear, still staring at the wall.
“Report,” came the director’s voice from the other end.
The man slowly turned away from the wall and took a step or two back toward the street.
“He’s gone,” was his reply.
The raven called out triumphantly …
Brian Relay is a digital artist with ten years of random work experience that loosely relates to his field of study. He lives in New Hampshire with his Batman figurines and his collection of half-resolved issues. Together with his un-imaginary friend, they’ve successfully completed their very first comic book. Also, he recently picked up his novel-in-progress (NIP) that was collecting digi-dust for an embarrassing amount of time. He’ll let you know when it’s done.