This is part one of a short story I wrote a while back. I’ve broken it up into three installments, partially because is it longish for a short story, and partially encourage readers to come back for more. On a self-indulgent note, story won the 2016 New England Science Fiction & Fantasy Association Short Story Contest, which, if you’ll forgive my bragging, is something I’m quite proud of. Now that that’s over, please enjoy An Odd Missive, Part One.
The letter arrived inside an interoffice envelope and was put in Paul’s inbox, and in that way it was ordinary. But there is where ordinary stopped. The address read like this:
Messrs L. Parsnip & P. Looseleaf
752 Inside Thoughtful Lane
Chamber of the Next to Last A
North-South Webbton, Old York
The names were odd and the address absurd. There was no place called “Old York”; even the one in England was simply called “York”.
It also was handwritten, with the sort of care only given to weddings and other such events. The envelope itself was made of a thick paper — clearly handcrafted — and the very feel of it was smooth. The final touch was it had been sealed with wax, a copper-colored wax that was impressed with the image of a bottle.
There was a heft to it; whatever was in it was heavy, but not rigid like metal or plastic. The idea that it was plastic seemed somehow wrong. It had a slight give when pressed, gently of course; something told Paul to press gently.
There were no other instructions on the envelope, no memo, no stickies, nothing. Picking it up, Paul went to his supervisor’s office, Ms. Barbara Karkowski. Ms. Karkowski was a good boss in Paul’s estimation. She neither micromanaged nor attempted to be pals with those in her department. Questions would be answered, if asked, and paychecks would be passed out twice a month, which was all he asked for.
Paul stuck his head in Ms. Karkowski’s office and said, “Boss, I have a question.”
Ms. Karkowski did not look up from her laptop screen; she continued to tap away but did say, “Shoot.”
“I got this odd letter…” he began to say, which caused his boss to stop whatever she was typing and look up.
“Close the door,” she said, as she shut her laptop and gestured to the chair in front of her desk. The whole office was super-clean and functional, as if it had been decorated by Scandinavians from the future. There were no personal touches. No photos of loved ones, no tchotchkes, no themed calendar of dogs or cats, or anything else, for that matter.
She took out a key ring from her purse and unlocked a desk drawer, removing a wooden box and placing it in the center of her desk. The box was in sharp contrast to the rest of the office, as it was battered, stained, and clearly extremely old.
“What’s –“ he began.
“Please be quiet,” she said, but not unkindly.
Paul did as he was bid; this was odd, she almost seemed nervous. She was never nervous, occasionally irritated, but not nervous.
Paul watched as she pulled out a tiny key that hung from a thin chain around her neck. It looked a little dull to be jewelry, and Paul had never noticed it before. Ms. Karkowski didn’t wear a lot of jewelry, and the chain the key hung from was thin, so it must be normally hidden inside her blouse.
With a loud click, the box was unlocked, and she removed a leather-bound notebook. Like the box, it was stained and worn, but it did not seem in any danger of falling apart.
“What is written on the front of the envelope?” she asked.
Paul tried to hand it to her, but she made no move to grab it, saying, “Put it on the desk, facing me.”
He did so. She read the address and said, “Now turn it over.”
Again, he complied. This was getting odder and odder.
“Huh,” she said, and opened the notebook. She checked several pages and found what she looking for. Taking a card from the box, she wrote down what looked like several sentences. She then put the notebook back in the box, locked the box, placed the box in the drawer, and locked it once more.
“Paul, it is very, very important that you do exactly what I tell you to do,” she said.
“Can you tell me what is going on?” he asked.
She stopped and looked him in the eye for a good minute. He felt as though this was a test of some sort, not that he could tell what for, but he didn’t look away.
“You need to deliver that envelope,” she replied, and handed him the card she had written on. “Follow these instructions exactly.”
Paul read the card and said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just do exactly what I wrote, and there should be no problems.”
“Listen, is this some sort of hazing? I know I’m the new guy but –.”
“Paul, you’re a good worker, please just do this and it will sort itself out,” she said.
He looked at her; there was no hint of humor, no twinkle in the eye, no sly smile. There was however, a slight furrow of the brow.
“OK, I’ll be back when I’m done,” said Paul.
“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t you be?” she replied.
He was about to step out of her office when she added, “Be careful of the Coppermen.”
Paul wanted to ask if he had heard her correctly, but she was back to her tip-tapping on the laptop, and he knew that meant this conversation was over.
* * *
Paul put on his coat and left the office, the letter in his inside pocket. He pulled it out. The first part of the instructions were, “Take the 6 train downtown to the end of the line, riding in the last car”.
The 6 train was just two blocks from the office, but it began to rain, so he ran most of the way.
Paul walked to the back of the subway platform, and the train arrived just as he got there. Some good luck, he thought, as he pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. The car was crowded, but he was able to wedge himself in. Stations came and went — 50th Street, Grand Central Station, 33rd street, and so on — till they reached City Hall, end of the line. By then, it was only Paul, an old lady with a shopping cart, and a tall, thin man with a handlebar mustache and wearing an old-style suit with enameled pins on his lapel — clearly some sort of hipster, Paul thought.
Paul got off and looked at the card again. “Go down the metal stairs at the end of the platform till you reach the seventh step. Then walk backwards (this is important!) five steps and then forward nine”.
There was a metal stairway leading down at the end of the platform. It looked like there was normally a chain across it, presumably to keep people from doing what Paul was about to do. The area was poorly lit as it was, and it looked dark down there. This had to be some sort of elaborate prank. Paul didn’t like pranks, usually because he was the victim of so many, but he tried to be a good sport about them.
He counted out his steps carefully, watching his feet: forward seven, backwards five, and forward nine more. On the ninth step, he looked up and saw a tiled archway and an old-fashioned turnstile ahead of him. Oddly, the lighting seemed better now. There was no slot for a Metrocard, but he saw a metal sign reading “Entrance” and below that “5 Cents”.
He looked at the card his boss gave him. There seemed to be new instructions on it somehow: “Enter the turnstile, DO NOT JUMP! Wait for the Y train. Get on and ride till you reach Stuyvesant Square station, but before that, go to the hot pie stand and buy two”. Paul, who had never jumped a turnstile in his life, fished through his pockets and luckily found a nickel, dropping it in the slot and pushing through the turnstile, which made a metallic thunk as it turned.
Walking down a tiled, arched corridor, Paul eventually came out to the platform for the W train. Like the corridor he had just passed through, it was tiled and had a curved but higher ceiling. It did look like a subway station might’ve looked when you only had to pay a nickel to ride. Must be one of those station restorations the city did to commemorate the subway’s long history, and he probably entered it through some little-used back entrance — a shortcut, Paul thought. There were even people dressed in what, at first glance, seemed like period costumes. Upon closer examination, though, there was something off about the clothing.
One young woman wore a hoop skirt with denim jacket over a yellow tank top and a tiny hat with blinking lights. The man from the subway with the handlebar mustache was there, reading a newspaper. Another gentleman, in a bowler and goggles, checked his pocket watch and raised his eyebrows. Three women wearing military jackets, jodhpurs, well-polished boots, and some sort of veiled hats that suggested a very stylish beekeeper nodded at Paul as he passed them, murmuring something he couldn’t make out.
This was clearly some sort of subculture gathered here, Paul thought; hipster-ish, what with all the old-timey clothes and affectations. He figured it was best to go along with it. Then he saw a cart selling, according to the sign, “Hot Pies”; so Paul walked up.
“Two hot pies, please,” he asked.
“Sweet or Savory?” asked the old woman standing behind the cart. Paul consulted the card his boss had given him; it now said, “Buy both, eat neither”.
“One of each, please,” he said.
“I like your manners,” the Hot Pie lady said, with a smile. She pulled two pies out of the cart, wrapped them in paper, and placed them in a brown paper sack.
“Ten cents” she said, as she held out bag.
Paul fished a quarter out of his pocket and received the change. Glancing at the coins she gave him, he saw that the nickel had Jefferson on one side and an owl on the other. The Dime had a wasp and the profile of a woman he didn’t recognize.
“Ummm… my change,” Paul began.
“Would you rather have pennies?” asked the Hot Pie lady, who held out a handful of copper coins of varying sizes and shapes.
“No. I’m fine,” he said, “Thank you.”
Paul mingled in with the others waiting for the train. As he looked around, he saw, worked into the tile, the name of the station: “New City”. If this was a hazing, it was the most elaborate he had ever been in.
He felt a light breeze and saw a light coming down the tunnel. The sound of clattering was heard and the train thundered into the station in a cloud of steam. The train stopped, doors opened with a hiss, and a new group of unique people poured out, and Paul was fighting a rushing river of lace, crinoline, old leather, silk, and canvas. With some effort and more than a few excuse-mes, he made his way onto the train just as the doors slid shut.
Paul fell into the wicker seat, and nearly into the lap of a spindly man as the train took off. The man was dressed as if he were submarine mechanic, based on the brass and steel tanks that sat on the floor between his legs, the helmet with many small, thick glass faceplates that he held on his lap, and the many tools that hung from his broad, rubberized belt.
“Sorry,” Paul said, over the noise of the train. Submarine Mechanic said something in what sounded like Chinese, and shifted down two seats with a dirty look.
Normally, Paul enjoyed reading on the subway; it made the time go faster and usually prevented strangers from talking to him. However, he didn’t want to miss his stop and get lost. A little voice in the back of his head told him that would be bad, very bad.
A short man wrapped in a coat many times too big looked up at Paul, then closed his eyes and lowered his head. Paul normally took great care in picking out clothes that blended in with his surroundings, but now he was the odd man out. If he were dressed in a Napoleonic Calvary officer’s jacket and a kilt made of fur, he’d blend right in. Of course, that would be silly, as there already was someone sporting that particular ensemble at the other end of the car.
Stations came and passed: Pieter’s Point, Inside Star, (the Submarine Mechanic got off there), Old Amsterdam, Widower’s Walk, Svetlana Boulevard, and Lonely Hill, to name a few. Paul glanced at the card, which now read “PAY ATTENTION”, and he looked up and saw they were pulling into Stuyvesant Square Station.
He leapt up and exited, carrying the paper sack with the two hot pies, which seemed to still be hot. Looking around, he saw people walking towards an archway with the word “EGRESS” across the top. He vaguely remembered that was another word for exit, albeit an old-fashioned one, but that seemed to be the order of the day