We’re pleased to have an excerpt today from Toby Ball‘s new novel Invisible Streets. Author David Bell has compared it to the works of Philip K. Dick and Sidney Lumet’s crime dramas, which seems a potent combination. This is the third of Ball’s novels to be set in a setting known as The City, following his earlier Scorch City and The Vaults. Invisible Streets will be released on July 24th on The Overlook Press.
This morning, Frings rode in uneasy silence in the back of a black Lincoln next to Nathan Canada, who was chain-smoking Camels. Frings did not like Canada. Not only was Canada the man behind the New City Project, but he was also, if not corrupt himself, tolerant of the corruption that kept the project on track. Frings further suspected that Canada was responsible for an incident years ago that had left a man dead and him with a bullet in his knee. No proof, of course, but strong suspicions.
Canada, in turn, hated Frings for his high-profile opposition to the project. Canada, in Frings’s experience, made no distinction between the personal and the professional. He harbored personal animus toward anyone who worked against him.
The Lincoln came upon a high chain-link fence, the gate padlocked, huge yellow signs—work zone keep out—hung at close enough intervals to show that the owners meant business. Before them, on the far side of the fence, loomed the Carl S. Patterson Municipal Tower, or, as it was usually called, the Municipal Tower, or just the Tower.
When Frings had first heard of the concept for the Tower, it had seemed like the height of folly: two buildings—one on each side of the Crosstown—supporting a larger building, twenty-five floors from the ground, that spanned the Crosstown and tapered, pyramid-like, as it rose another twenty-five floors. Atop the structure, a spire rose a hundred feet into the air, ringed at its peak by a circular observation deck. And yet, here it was, the exterior completed, though the interior wasn’t yet ready for occupancy. In his column, Frings had dubbed it “The Colossus of Roads.”
Two cops stood at the gate. One approached the driver’s window. The driver, a city employee paid to chauffeur Canada around, rolled down his window.
“I’ve got Mr. Canada and a guest to take a look at the site.”
The cop, eager to be seen asserting his authority, nodded at the other uniform to unlock the gate. Frings saw the driver give the cop a tight nod as he pulled past.
They’d had these meetings before, tense affairs where Canada made his case while Frings listened, valuing, if nothing else, the insight he received into Canada’s thinking. Frings wasn’t sure if Canada expected to sway Frings’s opinions through the sheer force of his personality, or if he just liked keeping up a connection with Frings, staying in his head.
They drove down a gravel road to the front entrance of the northern tower. The driver stopped, the car idling. Canada took a last drag and ground the butt into the ashtray slotted into the door. “We’ll be a few minutes.”
Outside they were confronted with a cutting wind, and the two men hustled as best they could through the door. It was warmer inside, but not as warm as Frings would have expected. Men in construction helmets and work clothes moved about, increasing their pace and sense of purpose when they saw Canada.
“We’re installing the electrical wiring, the heating system, that kind of thing, in the lower towers,” Canada rasped, lighting a new cigarette. “The upper building isn’t as far along.”
A workman strode over to them, carrying two hard hats. “Hello, Mr. Canada. You and your friend should wear these while you’re inside.” He handed a hard hat to each.
Frings put his on and watched Canada do the same. Canada’s helmet seemed too big. He would have looked ridiculous, but the seriousness of his demeanor, his determination not to concede the embarrassment of his appearance, made him seem sinister.
“Thank you, Mr. DiIulio. I’m taking my guest to the observation deck.”
“I’ll let them know to clear out, sir.” With that, DiIulio walked away, speaking into a walkie-talkie.
Canada led Frings to a single elevator set apart from the larger bank of elevators further down the hall. There was only one button inside, labeled “12,” and Canada pushed it. He talked as they ascended.
“Not that you’ve ever written about it in one of your columns, but this building is the product of the type of arrangement—government–business partnership—that is the future of the City. As I know you are aware, the City put up 60 percent of the funds needed for construction, and private business contributed the other 40. In return, they will have space in the crown jewel of the New City Project—the best address, proximity to important government agencies that will be headquartered in the other tower, a dedicated exit from the Crosstown directly to the underground garage. This building represents the future of the City, both figuratively and in actuality.”
They arrived at the twelfth floor and walked down a narrow corridor. “The elevator we took was the tourist elevator, which lets out only onto this hall, which leads to the observation deck elevators.”
They walked by an empty room. “This will be a souvenir shop. Bring something back to your home in Bumfuck, Wisconsin, to remember your visit to the City by.”
The next elevator took them up the center of the spire to the observation deck.
“I had to be talked into this building, Frank. I wasn’t sold on it initially. But the Council, they insisted, and, while I have my doubts about their intentions, I believe they were, in this instance, correct. People like boldness. Hell, they like brazenness. That’s what this building is.”
The elevator doors opened to a narrow lobby that led to the deck. A sign reading no smoking was posted opposite the elevator, and as he walked by it, Canada lit a fresh cigarette from the butt of the one he’d been smoking. He dropped the butt and stepped on it, absently.
The observation deck was a ring—a fifteen-foot-wide circular corridor—the outer wall of which was constructed mostly of thick glass. A walk around the deck afforded an extraordinary 360-degree view of the City, most of it well below the height of the Tower.
“It’s spectacular,” Frings said, looking east, to where Capitol Heights bled into Praeger’s Hill and the suburbs beyond. And gashing through it all, the signs of the Crosstown construction—cranes, rubbled buildings, road sections at various stages of completion.
“It’s so close. You must feel like you’re this close to winning.”
“I’m not close. I’ve already won.”
Frings let that go. “Why are we here, Nathan?”
“Because, I wanted you to see this, Frank. I thought that if you saw it for yourself, you’d realize: it’s over. You can harp all you want, but it won’t change a fucking thing. You and those Kollectiv 61 shitfucks—it’s time to concede. Use your pull with these people. Tell them to stop. Nothing’s going to change. They’re just wasting the people’s money now.”
It was, Frings thought, more or less what Littbarski had told him—not even all that different from what Panos had said. In their minds, the project wasn’t just necessary, but a fait accompli. The time for arguments against it were over. Frings subconsciously clenched his jaw, envisioning the Crosstown cutting a swath straight through to the new City Center, imagining the bleak new cityscape.
He thought about the subtext to this meeting—the reason, presumably, why Canada had brought him here in particular. His words hadn’t conveyed a threat, because they hadn’t needed to. Just by choosing this spot for their rendezvous, Canada was sending a message. It had all happened five years ago, four hundred feet below them, in the Tower’s shadow.
That day, the day that his knee was shattered, he was meeting a union gink named Laz Wolinak at the spot where the Tower now stood—though at that point construction had barely begun. The plan had been for Frings to meet Wolinak at the on-site foreman’s office. He’d found the trailer sitting isolated amid a chaos of broken rock and stacked building materials. Frings saw a cluster of rats swarming on something in a patch of weeds. He climbed the three steps to the trailer door and gave four raps, as Wolinak had told him to.
Wolinak answered, sweating ferociously, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Come inside.” He practically pulled Frings across the threshold, closing the door quickly. The trailer was dim, claustrophobic, and smelled like an ancient ashtray. Three desks, three file cabinets, and a couple of chairs by the entrance were the extent of the operation, except for the girlie shots taped to the walls. The place hummed with Wolinak’s anxiety.
“I didn’t get the papers yet,” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t want to have them out if someone else showed up first.”
Frings nodded, thinking just get the papers, I’ll take a few photos, we’ll get the hell out of here. Wolinak’s nerves were starting to play on his own.
Wolinak walked to one of the file cabinets, keys jangling in his shaking hands. Frings could hear Wolinak’s labored breathing as he struggled to get the key in the lock, seeming impossibly tense. He finally managed it and pulled open a drawer. He paused for a moment, then started pawing through the files with increasing alarm.
“What is it?”
Wolinak grunted a reply, slammed the drawer shut, opened the one above it. Again he pawed through the files, again he slammed the drawer shut. Down to the bottom drawer—paw, slam.
Wolinak’s face lost all color. “We’re fucked.”
Frings’s pulse began to race. “Where are the files, Laz?”
“Not here. Somebody moved them. We’re fucked.”
Frings felt the adrenaline. “Okay, calm down, Laz.”
“Fuck calm down. We need to get out of here.”
“Okay. Okay. We’ll go.” What had happened? Someone must have known. From outside, he heard the sound of a car approaching the trailer.
Wolinak leaned over and vomited. “Fuck,” he said, spitting.
Frings opened the door, hoping irrationally that maybe it was the cops. It wasn’t. A black Buick pulled up a dozen feet from the trailer. Three men got out, stockings over their heads, their faces distorted. Frings looked for the license plates, but they’d been removed.
The men approached, big ginks, looking at Frings, guns in their hands. Frings heard Wolinak retching again.
One of the men motioned backward with his head. “Get out here and bring the other one too.”
Frings didn’t turn, said, “Okay, Laz, we’ve got to go out.” Frings descended the steps cautiously. The men held their guns casually by their sides, but their postures were alert. Frings stepped to the side to let Laz, his chin and shirt wet with bile, step out. The man who’d talked before motioned for them to move away from the door and stand against the wall of the trailer.
The men lined up in front of Frings and Laz, a sense of anticipation now palpable. Frings’s breaths were shallow.
The man doing the talking said, “Jesus, Laz, look at you, shit all over you. You really balled this up. You really did.” He raised his gun and buried three shots in Laz’s chest. Laz collapsed, lifeless. Frings started shaking with panic.
“You, Frings, I’m supposed to give you a message.” The gink with the gun brought his aim down a little, put a bullet in Frings’s knee. Frings dropped, pain overwhelming him, consciousness ebbing.
“I’m supposed to tell you to stop being an asshole.”
Frings curled up into the fetal position, his knee hurting more than he thought anything could hurt, watching the three sets of feet as they walked away. He heard the car start and pull away, crunching over the broken rock and cement. He turned his head so that he could see Wolinak, who’d landed on his chest, his lifeless eyes cast in Frings’s direction. In the last moments before he lost consciousness, he wondered if Wolinak had a family; if his decision to help Frings meant that a child—or children—had just lost a father, a wife a husband.
Excerpted from Invisible Streets by Toby Ball. Copyright © 2014 by Toby Ball. Forthcoming on July 24, 2014 from The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved.
Toby Ball works at the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of The Vaults and Scorch City, also available from The Overlook Press, and lives in Durham, New Hampshire, with his wife and two children.