The following morning I wrapped up a few loose ends of other matters, then went down to Silly... er... City Hall.
Professor Simon Archer is emeritus at the local University. He writes articles and whole books on city planning. Outside his field he is woefully absentminded. Whenever I need to research something at the Hall, Professor Archer visits. I flitted from office to office collecting data.
Back at the apartment I went over plats, blue prints, deeds, street and utility plans. The Anson Foundation for the Fine Arts owned the whole block that contained the Renaissance Shelter for Troubled Women. The Anson family I knew. Old money, local roots reaching back to the beginning of the city. Did lots of good works, many without publicity. Their Foundation for the Fine Arts? New to me.
The shelter consisted of several connected storefronts and the living space above them. The Foundation seemed to be renting some of the other storefronts. One of the rented buildings had been a notorious Speakeasy during Prohibition. Red flag that. Speakeasies often came with extracurricular architectural features. Some of the buildings across the alley were marked empty or as storage for the Foundation. Time to take a look.
I buzzed across town in my special van. Years ago, George Sanchez dubbed it the Imagemaker because of the makeup gear and clothing racks it carries. At my hidden garage I changed faces and put on a Gas Company uniform. Nobody but the guilty and the crazy turn down a natural gas inspection. I rigged up a work truck with the right decals and antennae and motored over to the shelter.
I’d selected the Gas Company employee’s personality carefully. A nice guy, neither handsome nor ugly. I gave him just a bit of the aw-shucks. He hadn’t fallen off the Turnip Truck today, but it hadn’t been long either. I parked the truck, grabbed the stack of test gear that looked just like what the Gas Company really used, and entered.
I almost thought I’d entered a hotel lobby. A few of the nice chairs and couches contained young women. None appeared over thirty. Mostly they seemed to be studying.
A black woman of about twenty-five stood behind the reception counter. She seemed weary at first. She relaxed as I managed to “Ma’am” her about four times while asking to see the manager. She used an honest to Lily Tomlin, Stromberg Carlson plug operated switchboard to summon her manager.
“I’m Mrs. O’Toole. Can I help you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m Joseph Byers,” I began with a big smile. “Somebody called in and said they smelled gas while walking by here. So they sent me over. Did anyone tell you all?”
“No, Mr. Byers,” she got all formal. “This person called you, but didn’t step in to warn us. Seems strange.”
“Sure does, Ma’am. Probably someone pulling a prank. But I gotta treat every call like its real. Hate to turn on the Ten O’clock News and find out this place went inta’ orbit. Now the Company’d prefer you get everyone out of the building, but I can’t tell you to until I find a leak. ‘Sup to you, Ma’am.”
“I think we will stay until you do,” she said a little coolly. She stepped to the switchboard, connected a cable, and pushed the ringer switch forward three quick times. A few seconds later I met the crew-cuts.
One turned out to be Matthew, the other James. Big, bulked up, and not a hint of a smile to be seen. I began to wonder if I’d find big pods in the basement. O’Toole assigned James to take me around, while Matthew would tell all occupants of the potential problem.
I had James take me out in the alley to look at the meters. I waved my detectors around. They looked just like the Gas Company’s because they had the same cases. George Sanchez took out the perfectly good guts of the things and replaced them with much smaller (and much higher dollar) electronics. Then he started adding the fun stuff. Echo-locators, transmitters, metal detectors. I waved them all over the alley. If there had been a gas leak, I’d have found that, too. Noting the small number of gas meters, I asked James about that.
“When they rebuilt for the shelter,” he told me, “they ran four buildings into one. I’ll show you the only furnace next.”
We went back inside. As we started down to the basement, James paused and pushed an intercom button. “Ladies, me and the Gas man coming down.” He turned to me, “We’ll give ‘em a minute. They sometimes fit clothes and try them on.” Good way to hide something, too, I decided.
We exited the stairwell into a multipurpose room. Obviously both classroom and recreation center with blackboard, study chairs, and some old video and non-electronic games. Several girls seemed to be studying while others took a break around a table. The window dressing ran much like upstairs, but subtle differences came at me from all directions. James hurried me to the utility room while I apologized to all the Ma’ams for interrupting. Upstairs the studiousness seemed real. Down here... a sham.
James got a little uneasy as I inspected the furnace and pipes closely. I threw every logical question I could think of about the condition of the buildings at him. I didn’t try scare tactics on him. For all I knew he might understand more about the behavior of natural gas than I did.
He glowered around at the girls as we went back up stairs. None of them seemed to have moved or even eaten any of the snacks at the one table. I Ma’amed them again and turned to smile at each group. One of these days George is going to manage to get a TV camera crammed into the hard hat I wore. ‘Til then I’ll continue to rely on my memory sessions. Though he obviously preferred not to, James agreed to a quick swing around the upper floors.
I thanked everyone and departed. As soon as I knew I had no tail I stopped at a phone booth and called George. I told him to hack my visit into the Gas Company’s computer call record in case someone checked up on me. Then I hightailed it to one of my quiet places.
Seated in what amounted to a walk-in closet, I dimmed the lights. On the table in front of me sat a small art deco decorative lamp. The outside is a cylinder of glass with a pattern painted on it. Inside is another translucent cylinder with a contrasting pattern. The heat from the bulb soon set the inner one turning, throwing dim moire patterns around the room. I used this as my focus.
The technique is supposed to have come from Tibet, but one of my honorary Uncles taught it to me as a kid. Soon I disconnected from the here and now and scanned my memory back to the shelter and to the girls in the basement. I studied each face closely, even putting myself on pause, or in a loop. Most people might notice some nervousness in those women. Having been around the underbelly (love that word) of society for so long, I saw more. Everyone of them I had gotten a good look at seemed to be on something. There were ticks, eye pupils dilated wrong, sweats, other things. And not all on the same thing.
With that conclusion I “ran” my memory upstairs and compared them to the bunch on public display. If anyone upstairs had taken so much as an aspirin, I couldn’t detect it.
As my memory ran forward again, I picked up a pen and started making notes and sketches of where I’d probed with my instruments.
Two hours and two cans of Mountain Dew later, I let myself into the basement of George’s business. I signaled my presence and began hooking up the Gas detectors for download. I’m not half bad at reading this stuff, but George is much better.
George joined me a bit later. He does move fast these days. His wheelchair is long gone and I sometimes swear he uses that cane for a pogo-stick. We used to meet in a forgotten bomb shelter at his home. For all I’d helped the family out, I knew I scared his mother half to death. Now he’s on his own, making a public name for himself in electronic security. And he’s still my ace in the hole.
He looked over my sketches while the data downloaded and processed. Finally the PaintJet printer started printing a series of images and text. While we waited George told me that he’d gone through some newsgroup archives and BBSs about Women’s shelters. The Renaissance Shelter for Troubled Women had a reputation for going its own way. They seemed to believe in starting people over in places far away from their troubles. They got their clients jobs two, three, even four states over. That was not to say that they were trying to only run troubled people out of town. They accepted transfers from other shelters and served as the last step to independence for them. Mrs. O’Toole had a reputation for making some odd choices in who to take in.
Finally we attacked the readouts, along with the Professor’s plats and plans. Lots of interesting tidbits showed up, but the big one, as I’d suspected, was some kind of tunnel showed up under the alley. Of course the thing could be walled off at both ends and be emptier than Capone’s Vault. (Poor Geraldo, he never knew I got there first.)
All this meant I had to get into those empty and storage places on the backside of the alley. I ought to get a room in that seedy five-story hotel a block over and study the place. For some reason I didn’t want to wait that long. I never leave weapons or other question producing stuff at George’s. So I told him goodbye and headed to the place closest to the shelter where I keep a full set of assault gear. I’d catch a nap until everyone in that block -should- be asleep.