Friday, July 24, 2015

The Whisper in "Take Manhattan. Please!"

I’ll try to keep this short.

I used to be a reporter named Allan Jones. That guy died, for real. (Long story.) Now I’m just a temporal anomaly armed with a bandolier from the future that lets me turn invisible and walk through walls. I’ve got a special mask that lets me breathe when I “ghost out,” which has the added benefits of muffling my voice and concealing my identity.

I don’t carry a gun or beat up crooks like some kind of vigilante. Instead, I use my abilities to uncover secrets that the powerful and corrupt don’t want exposed. You’ve seen my work in the paper, but you’ll never see my byline. To my contacts in the news business I’m a phantom. You can call me The Whisper.

Believe it or not, I’d never been to New York. So of course I picked a heatwave in the middle of August to follow up on a nice, juicy corruption case. What’s worse, the stooge politician I’d targeted was an even bigger bonehead than me. Instead of using some nice, airy office or hotel for his clandestine meeting, he chose the sweltering ground floor of a building under construction. The walls were finished, providing a modicum of secrecy, but the only light came from some extremely hot construction lamps.

The building was an upside down cupcake of a Frank Lloyd Wright monstrosity on the edge of Central Park – the Guggenheim, they were calling it, and it wasn’t due to open for two more months. Invisible, I leaned against a workbench and waited for the players to arrive. If it makes you feel better to imagine me in a cloak and hat like the Shadow, go ahead, but I’m not that dumb. A short sleeve shirt and loose tie, that was the way to go. My breather was too stuffy already; if it wasn’t for the off chance that I might have to turn visible, I’d have been in my skivvies.

My mark was already there: City Councilman Fred Farstow, accompanied by two bodyguards and his jittery secretary. They were all sweating through their clothes, but that girl looked like she would pass out from fright before the heat ever got to her. She wore a severe business outfit with her blouse buttoned up to her throat and a tight skirt down to her calves. Her only concession to femininity was the blue and yellow kerchief around her neck.

“Jeez, Mr. Farstow,” she said. “Was this the best place you could find? Why not an icehouse?”

“I said no talking, Daisy. I told you once already.”

“Sorry, Mr. Farstow.”

“See? No talking means no talking. Tell me you’re sorry later.”

She hung her head and clutched her oversize handbag. I nixed any benefit of doubt I might have given the Councilman and turned on my tape recorder. It wasn’t a moment too soon, because just then a thin figure in black pin-stripes stepped out from a shadowed alcove. Four other men in business attire followed close behind.

“I see you have brought an entourage,” said the pin-striped man in an accent from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

“Mr. Luczek,” said the Councilman. “Good afternoon. I see you did the same.”

Luczek gestured at his men. “This is not an entourage. This is my merchandise. You wish to put pressure on the dock workers union? These men are the pressure.”

Farstow snorted. “What are they, accountants?”

“Show,” said Luczek. At his order, two men pulled out guns. The third whipped out a hammer and the fourth a crowbar.

“This is what you need, yes?” Luczek sounded annoyed. Farstow swallowed. I did my best to memorize faces. “What about you? Did you bring what I ask?”

“Daisy,” said Farstow.

She reached into her handbag and pulled out a thick folder. “You didn’t tell me you were dealing with a Russki,” she said as she handed it over.

“I am Ukrainian, not Russian.” Luczek took the folder and quickly thumbed the pages. Daisy backed away, white as a ghost.

“Everything you wanted,” Farstow said. “Plans for the whole Manhattan power grid, whatever good it’ll do you. You got a buyer wants to make a bid on the utilities, is that it?”

“Something like that,” Luczek said. “I will honor our arrangement. Give me a few days and you’ll find the dock workers much more amenable to negotiation.”

“Maybe I should get you to negotiate me a raise,” said Daisy.

“Excuse me,” said Farstow. He launched a haymaker at her jaw.

I saw it coming and couldn’t stop it. His punch connected with a crack that made even his bodyguards flinch. To her credit, Daisy didn’t drop right away. She staggered but kept her feet until she stumbled on a loose timber and fell over backward. Her head hit the concrete and I cursed myself for not being armed.

“Sorry about that.” Farstow straightened his tie. “Where were we?”

“Concluding our arrangement,” Luczek said.

Daisy sobbed and pulled herself to her knees. Farstow swore under his breath.

“Are you too dumb to stay down?” he said. “Get back to the car. I’ll deal with you later.”

She wobbled to her feet and made her way out of the construction site. I could see there was blood on her face and being the idiot I am, I had to fight the urge to follow her. I had to remind myself I’d be doing a bigger favor by tape recording her boss. When the next day’s papers came out, Farstow would be disgraced and in handcuffs.

“I got a couple names for you,” Farstow said. “Some union guys I think merit special attention.”

“Wait,” said Luczek. He was looking through the papers a little more carefully. “What is this?”

“What do you mean?” said Farstow. “It’s the plans you asked for. I checked them myself.”

A gun flashed into Luczek’s hand. Double claps exploded and both Farstow’s guards flew backwards.

Luczek walked up to Farstow, aiming at the Councilman’s chest. “The first few pages, yes. The rest are diagrams for transistor radios. Where are the power grid schematics?”

“They’re right there!” Farstow sounded like a balloon about to pop. “I put them there myself, in that folder. I watched Daisy put them in her bag. I… Oh my god. It’s Daisy! She must have run off with them. Look, Luczek, I promise –”

Thunder clapped again and blood sprayed the Guggenheim’s floor. I cried out, but luckily the noise and my mask hid the sound. Luczek dropped the papers on Farstow’s useless corpse.

He addressed his men. “Dispose of the bodies. I locate the girl.”

The girl. I ran before Luczek started walking. She had a head start on both of us, but I was the only one who could move through walls. I could outrun her, but could I outrun a bullet? Ever since I took on this “phantom reporter” gig, I’d made it a point not to risk my neck. Now, thanks to Daisy, I could feel myself drawn into the open, in a city I didn’t even know.

*

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*

My lungs were cramping by the time I reached the street. It’s hard to run when “ghosted.” My breather had a hard time keeping up. Maybe the damn thing needed its filter replaced. I didn’t even know if it had a filter. I’d stolen my gear from a super-crime syndicate from the future called JANUS, and as a result it didn’t come with a warranty.

Staying invisible, I dialed myself solid and pulled off the mask to breathe real air. There was no sign of the girl on the sidewalk in either direction. Across the street was Central Park. I caught a glimpse of her blue and yellow kerchief and darted after her.

I almost got creamed by a car. Damn thing didn’t even honk. The driver couldn’t see me and I’d forgotten to ghost out again. Breathing be damned, I dialed myself intangible and put my mask back on.

For a hot afternoon the park was sure crowded, probably by people who didn’t have air conditioning. I followed Daisy across and through a short stretch of woods until I hit a walking trail, an iron fence, and a huge body of water. Christ, no one told me there was a lake this size in the middle of New York City.

I looked left and right and picked her out on the left, moving at a steady jog despite her attire. As such, she wasn’t inconspicuous. Assorted strollers turned to watch her dart by. At my feet lay a discarded pair of women’s shoes. Smart girl, those heels would have slowed her down. Running barefoot on concrete would eventually do the same, but she had desperation on her side. I would have to work to catch up.

We ran a good three blocks before the lake came to an end and the path curved to the right along its bank. I don’t know how that girl was doing it. I used to run five miles a day in boot camp, but that was before Korea and I hadn’t kept up with my exercise. My mask was fogging and my chest felt like it had taken a bayonet. At least I didn’t have to worry about dodging pedestrians. Instead, I ran right through them.

From behind, Luczek ran through me. I had the disconcerting experience of my head being inside his for a moment before I veered aside.

He’d made her, sure as I did, and at the speed he was moving he was going to catch her first. His legs were longer and his stamina had a one-up on mine. My mission had to change. If saving Daisy was more important than catching her, then stopping Luczek was priority one.

At least he didn’t know he was racing me. I poured the last of my strength into one mad dash to pull in front of him, then dialed myself solid and planted my feet.

He creamed me and we both went sprawling. Luczek hit the fence on the edge of the lake and I plowed into a man and his lady friend. I pushed myself up while he swatted the air. Luczek came halfway to his feet, but I kicked him in the gut and then kicked him in the side when he was down.

I reached into his coat and got my hand on his gun, but he punched me away before I could grab it. He nailed me in the chest; if he could have seen me he would have put me down. I shoved him against the fence with all my weight.

Crazy, right? For all I knew, Daisy was as crooked as her boss Farstow. At the moment, I didn’t care.

Luczek figured out quick that he was fighting an invisible man, ludicrous as that must have seemed, and he shifted his tactics accordingly. First, he closed his eyes. Second, he hooked his arm under mine and twisted. I cried out. He reached his other hand to the sound of my voice in order to rake my face. His fingers latched into my breather instead.

“Gyuh!” he said, and pulled his hand back in disgust. I should probably mention that my breather isn’t like a gasmask. Instead of a canister, there’s a mass of rubber tubing covered in some kind of grease that never comes off. If you saw it you’d think that a squid had swallowed my head.

There was no point in wrestling this guy any more. I’d done all the good I could without hurting myself, so I pulled away, turned intangible, and kept running after Daisy.

Did I mention the park was hot? It was worse when running in ghost mode. Instead of stopping at my skin, the summer air got to pass through my whole body. And yes, while I couldn’t feel the people I ran through I could definitely feel the heat. With the sun in the cloudless sky shining straight down through the trees, it felt like my guts would boil.

Ahead, the way opened to a wide, treeless platform. To the left were steps down to another walkway, and to the right was a large stone building jutting out into the lake. An inscription read “Central Park Reservoir – South Gate House.” Daisy stood there in the open next to a pair of drinking fountains, looking back the way she’d come. Her hair was disheveled, her feet bare save for torn hose, and she clutched her carrying bag like her life depended on it.

A shot like a backfire knocked a bite out of the stonework above Daisy’s head. I turned to see Luczek with his gun out in broad daylight. Women screamed and men jumped aside. He took aim again and I dove at Daisy, dialing solid and then ghosting again when I had her in my arms.

The bullet went through us like a hiccup. I said “Don’t scream” in that atonal rasp that’s all that my mask allows. I dragged her around the corner of the gate house. She flapped and flailed exactly like a fish on land. I spun my bandolier’s dials to turn solid and visible, and for the first time in forever someone got a look at my get-up. I can imagine what she saw: some sweaty guy in a dripping white shirt, ramshackle tie, and a black rubber sea monster for a head.

She gasped. Holding on to her, I dialed us invisible-only and rolled us both to the side as Luczek’s third bullet cut the air behind us. I couldn’t ghost us again without choking her, so I pulled Daisy along down the steps away from the reservoir.

“Wait,” she said. “What are you? Where are we going? I was supposed to meet –”

Shut up,” I said. “You’ll give our position.”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Luczek standing exactly where we’d been a moment before. If we’d been lucky he would have kept on the way Daisy had originally been running, but he guessed correctly and followed us down the other path instead. I pulled Daisy by the arm and we ran the shady path south. Before long it dropped us on 86th Street as it cut east and west through the park. Cars whizzed by at a steady enough clip that it would have been suicide to cross while invisible. I knew Luczek wasn’t too far behind.

Crap. There was a way out of this, but it needed timing and cooperation.

I watched the oncoming cars and picked one. “When I say jump,” I said, “jump straight forward and hold your breath.”

There was a third dial on my bandolier besides visibility and tangibility, and it was the trickiest one to use: the dial that set my frame of reference. It’s what stopped me from sinking through the ground or let me match speed with any vehicle I happened to be riding in. It also, when I was feeling particularly stupid, let me try a stunt like this. My target, a bright red convertible Chrysler with tail fins like a god damned rocket, was almost upon us.

Jump!” I screamed through my mask and spun all three of my dials.

We jumped right in front of the car, fully visible. As the driver slammed on the brakes, we ghosted through the engine block and the front seat. By the time we reached the back seat, my bandolier had shifted our frame of reference from the road to the car, so we were moving along with it. I dialed us solid so Daisy could breathe and I pulled off my mask before our driver, some poor kid out on a joy ride, decided that aliens had landed.

He swerved all over the road. I reached and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, hey, hey, kid, calm down. Get a grip.”

“Who are you?” he shrieked. “How’d you get in here? What the hell, man? What the hell?”

“Road!” I shouted.

The kid swerved again to avoid an oncoming car. He gripped the wheel so hard I thought he might rip it off. His chest heaved. I was afraid he might lose consciousness.

“Breathe, kid. Breathe.” I patted his shoulder. “Keep driving. We’ll be out of your hair as soon as we figure where to stop.”

“What do you mean ‘we’?” said Daisy. She leaned back in the seat to collect herself. I could see where she’d ripped the hem on her skirt to make running easier. “Why are you after me?”

I wiped sweat off my face. I hadn’t shaved in days. I probably looked like I’d escaped from the drunk tank or a lunatic asylum.

“You can call me the Whisper.”

“I don’t want to call you anything,” she said. “I want you to leave me alone.”

“Daisy,” I said. “I know you’re on the run from Luczek. I know you’ve got what he wants in that bag. He’s already killed Farstow. Next he’s going to kill you.”

Her face was white. “How do you know all this?”

“I was there. I saw the whole thing.” I cracked my best cocky smile. “I’m the Whisper, baby. The Shadow took the day off.”

Our joyrider screeched to a halt at the corner of Central Park West. Daisy jumped from the car. I shouted for her to wait, but she was already dashing down the sidewalk.

“Thanks for the ride, kid,” I said. I pulled my mask back on.

“Sure thing, Dad, no problem.” He spoke slow while he watched me in his rearview, then yelped as I turned invisible. If nothing else, I’d certainly made his day.

*

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*

Confident that I’d lost Luczek, now I needed to make sure that I didn’t lose the girl and with her the story. There was still a story, I just didn’t know what it was. Farstow’s death would hit the papers without my help. The question I needed to answer was “Why?”

Daisy kept a brisk pace toward 87th, but I had longer legs and the benefit of shoes. She was starting to limp and the sidewalk must have been scorching. Instead of crossing to the shady side of the street, she kept on the side by the park. Before long I saw why: up ahead was an entrance to the subway. It wasn’t one of the big ones, just a fenced-off set of stairs heading underground, no wider than those in a brownstone.

I followed her down. I must have jostled the knobs on my belt wrong when getting out of that kid’s car, because apparently I was still partially solid. A short Hispanic guy walked through me and stumbled. For me it was like swimming through molasses. Unknowing, he dragged me ten feet upstairs with him before I got unstuck. I lost sight of Daisy in the process.

I fixed my ghost setting and walked through the turnstiles. Just as I faded through them, the lights flickered in the station and several people gasped. Had I just made that happen? My equipment never seemed to short out electrics before.

The station was a narrow concrete cavern with a crowded shelf for passengers and an empty chasm for the trains. I really preferred D.C. and its trollies, safely above ground where you could jump off and book it if you had to. I looked up and down the platform for Daisy, but couldn’t see her. Where the hell had she gone?

Wait, there she was, hiding behind a column. She wasn’t alone. I could tell from her body language that she was chewing somebody a good one. Curiouser and curiouser. No need to be coy when you’re a phantom: I strolled around the pillar to scope what was going on. The man she was reading the riot act to was a well –dressed black fellow; he turned his head and I got a look at his face.

Christ almighty with a hockey stick, it was Special Agent Buck Powell of the F. B. goddamn I. He was one of the very few people who knew my story, and though he was on the side of the angels, he’d still like nothing better than to catch me with my pants down and confiscate my Whisper gear.

“Look, we can handle this,” he said to Daisy. “Just let me have Farstow’s papers. With that and your testimony, we’ve got Luczek dead to rights.”

“Yeah, when you catch him!” She gripped her carrying bag like a bulletproof vest. “If you catch him. You were supposed to take him out when the deal went down. Now that maniac’s loose and he’s after me. Not you, me.”

“I know and I’m sorry.” Powell wiped his brow. “Nothing went down the way it was supposed to. First the meeting place changes at the last minute, then Farstow’s driver manages to lose his tail. Nothing today’s gone like I planned, but that doesn’t mean our deal has to change.”

“You bet it does, sugar.” Daisy inched away from Powell in the direction of the edge of the platform. I resisted the urge to go solid and pull her back. “I’m gonna need protection. More than you’ve given me so far. And not just for me, for my family, for as long as that goon is out there.”

“Now Daisy, we’ve talked about this,” said Powell. “We can’t afford to keep you under guard indefinitely. And besides, that would make you even more of a target.”

“Don’t tell me what you can’t afford,” said Daisy. “If you can afford to send some spooky Invisible Man after me, you can pay for a couple of beat cops.”

Uh oh.

“Invisible Man,” said Powell. “What are you talking about?”

“You know, you Feds and you cops like to pretend you’re all strapped for cash and manpower, but if the government’s figured out how to make a guy see-through I don’t see what you need me for at all.”

God damn it, Daisy. I wanted to chase a story, not become one. Again.

 “This invisible character,” Powell said. “He give you a name?”

“Whisper something.”

“Jones!” Powell turned slowly in a full circle. “You meddling son of a bitch. I know you’re watching us. Stop being a coward and show yourself for once.”

What the hell. I turned half-visible but not solid.

Ehh. What’s up, doc?

Powell punched harmlessly through my face.

“Oh well,” he said. “Worth a shot.”

“What, he’s not with you?” Daisy backed away from both of us. A gust of wind from the tunnel ruffled her skirt and the rails sang a high pitched whine.

“Most definitely not,” said Powell. “What’s your angle, Jones?”

I shrugged. “Following a story. I thought the Times might like to know that Farstow’s been dealing with organized crime.”

“It’s more than that, Jones. I’ve got intel that says Luczek’s got ties to JANUS.”

Holy shit on a hamburger. “That’s why you’re here and not someone else. Has the FBI got a JANUS task force now?

“If you can call it that,” he said. “It’s only me.”

“Guys!” said Daisy. “Guys, remember me? I’m glad for your little reunion, but can someone please explain what you’re gonna do for me?”

A train blew into the station and drowned Powell’s answer. The rush of air pushed Daisy away from the tracks. Overhead the lights flickered; this time I couldn’t take credit. Somehow over the din, I picked out the sound of a gun being cocked.

I spun around. Luczek, as brazen as daylight, stood the length of a train car away. He leveled his gun. 

Everyone around him was pushing away, and I heard someone shout for police. The train’s brakes hissed and the doors slid open.

A strange, deep sound vibrated through the station. Lights flickered a third time, now much stronger than before. Luczek looked up, distracted, as did everyone else. I put my hand on my control knobs, unsure if I could ghost both Powell and Daisy.

Somewhere a light bulb popped. Then every other light blacked out.


*

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