By D. Paul Fonseca
Chapter Three - down
Miguel and Arturo had been friends a long time. Miguel had even dated the other man’s sister, Olivia, in high school. Over the years, they had become the best of friends. They had spent time together on weekends, worked together in construction, and became confident tradesmen, building luxury wooden cabinets in Veracruz, a small town south of Tijuana, Mexico.
In 1993, they came over to the U.S. together, legally. Miguel had some family living in San Diego. He had convinced his friend, Arturo that there would be enough work for both of them and even though they had waited five years for their papers to be approved to immigrate, they both felt it was worth it.
Arturo was older by one year, but Miguel had a sharper mind, and they both knew it. Nonetheless, Arturo had raised the money to start their construction company in 1999. With a large family of cousins, and others married in, the enterprise had become fully family staffed. Since the beginning, Arturo’s been the boss. Now that the company was eleven years old, with all that had passed between them, they both knew exactly what the other was thinking at any given moment.
Across the large kitchen, the two younger men, Keith and his friend, Señor Scott, pulled on the drywall around the elevator tunnel. Huge metal bars ran up and down around the shaft of the lift. It would be revealed to be superficial, more of a deterrent than anything structural. As Arturo and Miguel watched, they took turns shining light into the dark space. They argued over what they saw. Shapes were unclear. Finally, Keith stood back and walked over to the large, blue, plastic cooler in the corner of the kitchen. He reached into it and retrieved a beer. With the bottom of his shirt, he gripped the wet bottle, twisted off the cap and took in a long swig of the amber lager.
“Arturo. I think we’ll call it a day,” Keith said. “You guys can take off, unless you think any of your guys would be willing to help out with this. I want one of us, me or Scott, to go down there and look around.”
Arturo and Miguel exchanged looks, “What about the pay? The two of us can keep working, but not down in there.”
Keith nodded, took another swig from the beer, and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out his wallet. He knew that the workers were spooked, and he didn’t want to subject them to whatever superstitions terrorized their minds. Plus, he’d rather have less eyes on whatever he found down there. “Here, this should cover all today's work, in full. Be sure you all come back in the morning. We’ll get a fresh start. I want to figure out what this thing is for.”
“Si! Grazias, Señor Keith.” Arturo nodded and accepted the cash, counting it out. Miguel followed behind him as they exited the kitchen to talk to their men.
A moment later, one of the workers returned. He was younger than most of them. He also didn’t seem spooked. “Mr. Patterson?”
Keith and Scott turned to see Jason, one of the workers with Miguel’s outfit, in the doorway of the kitchen.
“Yes? Oh, hey, you guys can take off. Didn’t Arturo tell you? You guys are done for today, and you’ll get the same pay for half a day’s work.”
“I know,” The young man looked at the elevator. “Arturo is my uncle. But, I want to help out. He said you guys were going down there.”
The two friends exchanged looks. Keith said, “I can’t pay you any more than what I already gave Arturo.”
“I know, I’m very curious. I spend a lot of time with my friends, urban spelunking, we've even gone into real caves together. You could say, I’ve done this before.”
“You’ve jumped down into a mysterious tunnel going into the unknown? What’s your name?”
“Jason.” The young man said.
“Jason? Great. You got the job!” Keith shook Jason’s hand.
Scott opened a cabinet which had several lengths of rope, all different colors. They seemed strong enough to hold Jason. One of them was new in plastic and the label read: Value – Nylon Rope, 100ft, 580lb. It looked skinny, but Jason saw the bundle and spoke up. “I’ll use that. I’ve used that kind before.”
Both Keith and Scott nodded the affirmative and Jason pulled open the package. He asked, “What did you guys get this for, anyway?”
Scott answered. “We use it to tie up the bad kids.” He laughed.
The other two shook their heads. Keith sighed and said, “That was in case Scotty and I needed to tie stuff down to haul things away. But, that was before we found Arturo and Miguel.”
“Gotcha,” Jason said as he unraveled the length of rope. He then tied off a foot-long loop a few feet from one end, and then another about four feet further down.
Scott tied off the far end of the rope to a large eyelet on the wall. The eyelet sat embedded in the concrete section of the kitchen's oven area.
Jason had celebrated his nineteenth birthday over the weekend. He felt like he could tackle the world and this unusual situation gave him a chance to look destiny in the mouth. He wore a black tee-shirt, leather work gloves, jeans and a shit-eating grin. The latter had Keith concerned. He didn't want the youngster getting into any trouble, but he was glad he had volunteered. It took the three men half an hour to pull off all the drywall and superficial two by fours to reach the elevator doors. They had good pry bars, and enough curiosity to work quickly.
Keith wound the rope, twice, around a steel support beam in the middle of the kitchen. They fed the looped end into the elevator shaft. The three of them talked about how they would lower the boy into the shaft so he wouldn’t have to repel down. Plus, it would be handy for them to also haul him back out in a hurry without the fear of dropping him.
“Let’s go. Here’s a light.” Keith handed a flashlight to Jason. He looked at it, then asked if they had some tape, and Scott pulled a roll of duct tape out of a drawer. Jason wrapped a band of it around his head and attached the flashlight to the side of his head. With a nod to the men, Jason was ready to go in. He sat on the edge of the elevator doorway with his feet swinging below him. The flashlight on his head revealed the state of the shaft as it led downward. He could see the cables running down into darkness but also, he could see the top of what appeared to be the elevator car.
Scott and Keith pulled the rope tightly against the pole in the kitchen and when it felt secure, Keith said, “We’re ready.”
Jason led himself down off the edge. He told them to lower him down, and with one foot in the lower loop, he went in and down, feet first.
The air felt warm, but the odor was awful. Jason couldn’t remember ever smelling anything quite like it, a cross between garbage and the decay of death, but something else as well. Something oddly sweet carried in the draft. Before him, the wall of the shaft told a story of neglect, and of time. Minute pebbles of dust, cobwebs and debris clung to the sides of the shaft with an odd sticky texture. Jason did his best to keep from putting his gloved hands on it. He didn’t like the feel of sticky things. Nonetheless, he was forced to keep his body stable only by pushing against the wall as he descended.
“How are you doing, Jason?” Keith yelled from above.
“Okay so far,” Came the reply. Jason sounded controlled, calm. He had gone down about twenty feet when his feet brushed against something. He yelled back, “Stop!” The light from his makeshift headlamp illuminated a metal structure beneath him, the car. “I found the top of the car.”
Jason couldn’t keep from smiling. This elevator had been sitting here, unused for the last twenty-four years at the very least. There were no marks in the dust over the top. No small animal tracks, no footprints of any kind. He shined the light over the whole of it, examining the edges and the surface of the top of it. “It seems like it’s in one piece,” he shouted. Then he spotted a long metal handle attached to a square door with large metal hinges. He yelled again to the guys in the kitchen, “I’m going to open the hatch and take a look around.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Scott hollered down to the young man. “Are you sure you want to do that? What do you see?”
Jason grinned in the warm recess of the elevator shaft. He could hear the sound of jealousy in the man’s voice overhead. He replied back, “I’ll let you know in a minute.” The young man reached to his right hip and flipped open the leather holster for his multi-tool and flipped open the knife, just in case. He made the sign of the cross over his chest and draw her down to the lever of the hatch, pulling it open. It stuck as if it were sticky with grime and age. The light in his hand, he peered inside, shining the beam quickly from one wall to another. The floor lay quiet, and covered in dust and grime. Rust permeated the walls and the doors to the elevator had been sealed shut with several screws and a large amount of bailing wire, holding the two doors together, locked from inside the elevator. Other than that, Jason felt sure of one thing. It was empty.
Far overhead, Keith and Scott waited in anticipation for the youngster to let them know what he saw. Keith looked at the rope in his hand, noting the amount of slack which had appeared once the boy sank to the bottom of the shaft. He twitched his mouth, looked over his shoulder. The beam they had wrapped the rope around looked to be an easy eight inches in diameter. “Scott,” he said. “Help me tie off the rope. I’m going in.
“What?” Scott was not amused. But he acquiesced. He also yelled into the mouth of the shaft, “Jason! Keith is coming down.” Scott’s hands worked the knot expertly and soon it had been tied off to the beam.
Keith donned heavy, leather workman’s gloves. He looped the rope through a clip on his belt and around his waist once.
Scott cocked his head. “Isn’t that carabineer for your keys? I don’t think it was meant to be used this way.” His voice lowered. “And I doubt your Levi’s belt loop will hold you if you fall.”
Keith looked at him. “It’s all we got and there’s no way I’m letting that kid go down there alone. Besides, I looped it around me. I’ll be fine” He grabbed the rope and began to lower himself down, slow and steady.
Once Keith had reached the top of the elevator, he found that Jason had already disappeared into the hole on the roof of it. The hatch lay open and the end of the rope lay loose on the surface. He called out, “Jason!”
No answer. The air, which blew out of the hole, assaulted Keith’s nose with its warm and unpleasant odor. He called out again. “Hey, Jason, where’d you go?”
He shined the light into the car. The debris on the floor looked strange. Keith flicked the light across the length of it. He could just make out foot prints in the dust. Then a crunching noise brushed his ears, faintly, far off and steady. It grew louder. He yelled. “Jason!”
A light beamed into the car from where the doors should have been, and Jason stepped into view. “I’m right here.” He said. His voice was hushed, as if he were in a library, or a funeral parlor.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” Keith inquired, frustration in his breath.
“I didn’t hear you right away.” He turned his head to look over his shoulder. "This place is big.”
“How did you get down there?”
“There’s a ridge right there along the lip of the hatch.” Just hang on to that and jump down.
In no time, Keith stood in the car with Jason. When he landed, the car bounced, proving to Keith it was still supported on its cables. Jason whimpered as he pulled the flashlight off of his head. Tape tore at his hair as he pulled it off.
When Keith shined his light into the dark space outside, he gasped. “Oh my god.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Jason stood next to Keith, shoulder to shoulder. Their lights swept back and forth over the vast expanse of darkness. Just inside, a cobblestone floor surrounded a round, stone fountain. The water had long since evaporated. Three cherub statues stood embracing each other’s hands in the center. They stood upon a large stone, surrounded by twisted, winding grape vines. At the top, a round faced joyful sprite laughed through an open mouth and smiling eyes. His chubby hand held a small plate of fruit. The middle cherub faced out, seemingly surprised, looking over its shoulder at the two men with flashlights. The cherub near the bottom stood on hooves, Pan Pipes gripped in his free hand. Two tiny horns protruded from his forehead near his temples. The smile on his face had a sinister knowing quality which unnerved Keith.
The younger man, Jason sighed. He said, “On the other side of the fountain…, you should take a look.”
The men walked around the fountain, small bits of debris crunched beneath their feet. The sound echoed across the room. Keith shined a light across the way, looking for the other side of the room, but the light did not find a wall. Darkness enveloped the light, choking it out. The cobblestone floor filled the expanse. In the center, behind the fountain, a deep depression was carved out, simulating a canal. At one time, the fountain must have run out into it. The edge of the fountain dipped low on that side to create a concrete spillway.
The canal, at roughly eight feet wide was barely half as deep. The length disappeared into the darkened room. Keith shined his light across the empty canal. “Unbelievable,” he whispered.
“Yeah, but keep walking.” Jason walked ahead. In the dim lights, a sharp, angular object protruded out of the canal. Light reflected off the surface in an odd way. The smooth surface of it surprised Keith.
“What the fuck is that?” Keith mumbled under his breath. The younger man said nothing, but swallowed hard.
“Is that what I think it is?” Jason asked.
“Depends on what you think it is.”
“That’s a boat!” Jason responded. His voice echoed through the room. His light swung over the bow of the narrow boat. The point of the bow stuck out of the canal. Along the hull, several large cockroaches skittered away from the light. The thing was huge and dark. The hull had black paint peeling away in spots.
“How big is this place?” Keith asked while shining the light across the floor and then up towards the ceiling. “That echo is ridiculous.”
“That’s why I was whispering when you came in. It’s probably why I didn’t hear you come to the elevator, too. This room swallows everything, light, sound.” Jason ran his hand over the bow tip of the boat.
“This is a gondola…” Keith walked the length of the boat. “From Venice!” He smiled, realizing he owned this boat, and the room hidden beneath the restaurant. “Holy shit.”
Turning away from the gondola, Jason walked further away from the fountain. Leaving Keith to examine the boat, Jason searched for an end to the room. It had to be at least eighty feet long, he decided. The boat itself was just over twenty feet long and had a modest wooden cabin with windows and blinds. It seemed to be a private space, but for the open front end. Rags hung from the open front of the cabin. Jason guessed they were once curtains. The rags swayed, caught by a breeze.
When Jason passed the end of the gondola, his light struck the end of the canal. Water filled this end of it. Stagnant from years of neglect, the water was brown. Roaches scattered away from the banks of the water as the flashlight revealed more of the canal. Just when Jason thought the room would go on forever, he bumped into something. “Ouch!” He squealed. “Fuck!”
“What is it? Are you okay?” Keith asked. He rushed towards the young man, knowing that he could be responsible for any injuries that may happen.
“I found the end of the room, I think.” Jason rubbed his chin. In the dim light he saw a warm trickle of blood on his fingers. “I’ll be okay. I didn’t see it.” He raised up his light to see the dark marble underside of a bridge above him. The bridge spanned the canal and its flooring stretched out about four feet from the wall, creating a path over to the other side of the room. Jason rubbed at his chin, feeling a warm smear of blood come away on his fingers. “I think it is made of stone or something.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, man.” Keith caught up with his worker. “Let me see.” He shined his light on the man’s face. Just a scrape, but it looked like it already began to bruise. “You did a good one there.” Keith turned his light to the canal. The water disappeared into a cavern-like exit in the wall. Alongside the bridge, a stone pattern filled the wall with what looked like several tall, thin brick-lined windows.
Keith eyed the dark patches with suspicion. “I think those windows are for show.” He ran the flashlight over the high wall. “Probably some kind of mock up cityscape for atmosphere.” But, his head swam with inquiry. Why would someone build this under the restaurant and then close up shop for so many decades? He turned to the young man.
“I’ll be alright.” Jason said, wiping his chin with his tee shirt.
“Well thank god you still have your teeth. That could have been a lot worse.”
Jason shrugged. He shined his light under the bridge. It had dimmed since they entered the underground room. “I can’t tell where the water leads to.”
Keith said, “Probably just a drain hole.”
“Then where is all that air coming from?” Keith shook his flashlight.
“Can’t you feel the breeze? I mean, sure, the smell is most likely the stagnant water, but the air is blowing pretty good for us to be so deep underground. I’d gauge we are at least eighty feet beneath the restaurant.”
“True.” Keith shined the light back at the water, then he looked back at Jason. “Let’s get you upstairs and get some ice on that.
“Yeah.” Said Jason. I think I’m done here for now. I think my light is dying.”
Before they walked back to the exit, Keith led them away from the canal. “Let’s see where the room ends on this side of the canal. We’ll make it fast.”
As they made their way, several chairs appeared, stacked up against the wall. They looked heavy, made of cast iron and upholstered in slick, heavy red leather. Several red leather booths, like the ones up in the main dining area, also sat against the wall.
Jason blurted out, “Wow!”
“Wow is right!” Keith examined the chairs and found large cast iron framed tables, also stacked up on one another. “This was some kind of dining room.” He shined the light in his hand on the wall. “What’s this?” Keith found the edge of a black cloth behind the furniture. They appeared to be curtains, draped over the high wall. He pulled on the fabric, and found that it moved sideways along a track on the ceiling. It became evident that it covered only a section of the whole wall, and when moved aside, Keith and Jason both shined their lights over something completely unexpected.
“That’s insane!” Jason ran to the wall. Before him, a life-sized façade of tall buildings, some covered in stucco, some heavy with stone, stood up, mimicking the real Venice, Italy. Jason continued,” I never saw this on the plans.” He chuckled, completely in awe of the spectacle.
He pulled aside another stretch of curtains. More of the Venetian scene unfolded, perfect in its imitation of the original, although neither man had ever seen the actual famed city. One of the buildings appeared to be constructed of pink marble, with tall slender, arched windows, peaked at their apexes. Columns of white marble held them aloft against the structure. Three of the buildings had large balconies with short columns or walls around them. All the windows sat deep in the hollow of their frames and only darkness lay behind them.
Keith said nothing. He took in the discovery in near disbelief.
“I can’t even…” The younger man shook his head, and gazed up at the spectacle. Then he turned around, searching the room with his dimly lit lamp. Turning the light upwards, he could just barely make out a stone brick patterned ceiling. “This is at least eighty by eighty feet.” Jason seemed more excited than Keith. “If both sides of the canal are the same size, there are almost thirteen thousand square feet in this basement. It’s like you have your own neighborhood down here!”
“Damn.” Keith mumbled.
Suddenly, a deep sound reverberated through the floor. It reminded Keith of being suddenly plunged under water, his ears suddenly cut off from sound. He felt immediately sick. Jason experienced the same thing. Then, something sounded even more disconcerting. The boat, the gondola, rocked to the side, rubbing against the stone canal. It moved just enough to be seen by both men. They swung their lights around and then all went still, no breeze, no noise. The gondola had been turned to point more to the left, away from the side of the room the men stood on.
Keith looked at Jason and motioned towards the exit. Without another word, the two of them returned to the fountain, both quiet, and more than a little unnerved. They looked over each other, wondering if they both experienced that same internal discomfort. It was clear they both had and they hurriedly stepped into the elevator.
“Scotty!” Keith yelled up to the kitchen.
“Two to beam up!” Keith giggled.
“Fuck you.” Scott replied, sounding amused. “You guys okay?”
Keith looked at Jason. “We’re okay. I’m coming up, and then we’ll hoist up Jason. Got it?”
“Got it.” Scott double checked the rope tied off to the steel kitchen post. “You sure you can climb up, Homie?”
“Fuck you.” Keith planted his work boot on the wall. It was then he noticed bent rebar hand holds, each about a foot long, stuck out of the wall, behind the elevator. A space of about ten inches lay between the elevator and the permanent ladder on the wall.
Jason said, “Well lookie here!”
Keith grinned. “Looks like we’re in business.”