’Twas just after noon when Autumn walked through the shadows o’ the tight alleys ’tween the copse o’ buildings in Eastern Boskeopolis. She had someone to meet, & it needed to be in a concealed space o’ secrecy: they both agreed that the alleycaves were the best choice.
Even in the sunny midsummer, the “caves” lived up to their name in regard to their flashing darkness, contrasted gainst the incubating sun. While this offered shade from the heat, it offered no cure for the way the steamy air brought out the rancid odor o’ the trash strewn ’long the ground—trash which probably told as much ’bout contemporary culture as ancient tombs did for their time period—& melted it till it stuck to whatever unlucky shoe happened to step in it, which was as impossible to avoid as stepping in bog water in the middle o’ the Spinach Swamps.
Her guest was already there, sitting cross-legged & leaning her back gainst a brick wall. She looked as if she were praying, & considering what Autumn knew ’bout her pretend-religious beliefs, Autumn wouldn’t be surprised if that were exactly what she was doing.
Autumn had never seen her real face under her orange bird mask—or the other disguises she wore.
Probably to prevent identification. Can’t blame her.
As Autumn entered, Heloise said without tilting her head upward, “You come earlier than expected, Madame Springer.”
“I don’t like to waste time,” Autumn said. She remained standing in the middle o’ the open concrete, looking down @ Heloise with slumped shoulders & hands in pockets. A thin rectangle o’ light beamed down on them, which made their cave look like a stage.
“O, but it’s inevitable for everyone,” Heloise said. “For any time you save now will only be squandered in the future.”
Autumn tilted her body’s weight from 1 leg to the other. “You said you had info on a good place to find treasure.”
“I do. Have you heard o’ ’Boskeopolis Underground’?”
“I have now.”
“Legend tells o’ a secret residential cave deep in the labyrinth o’ sewers & storm drains under the city. It says that years ago a large swathe o’ the city was destroyed in a fire, & ’stead o’ rebuilding from the rubble, the government built over it, leaving the literal caves o’ steel ’neath. Though @ 1st the government allowed people to reside there, they later condemned it due to the danger o’ cave-ins, toxic chemicals, & sexy drug parties. ’Twas here that the late Fitzgerald J. Chamsby, in his tenacious attempt to protect his wealth from taxation, hid a hefty ’mount o’ money in the form o’ gold & jewelry—for he was suspicious o’ Boskeopoleon currency.”
“Yes, his son shares his goldbuggery,” Autumn said.
“It’s folly to put much faith in any materials, fear,” Heloise said.
A message ’bout me as much as him, I s’pose, Autumn mused.
“If it improves your mood, most o’ this money’ll likely go to some poor kids, anyway,” Autumn mumbled.
“If you find it.”
“You’ve no map or mo’ info on where specifically this treasure bunker may be,” Autumn said not as a question, but a guess.
“I don’t, ’fraid,” Heloise said; “but then, what fun comes from learning everything from someone else?”
“I s’pose you have a point,” Autumn said. “Well, anyway, thanks. I s’ppose you want a portion.”
“I want only a certain large rainbow opal for my art projects,” Heloise answered. “It’ll be impossible to miss.”
“Can do,” Autumn said. “S’all?”
“Well, thanks for the help.”
& with that, Autumn left, ready to begin what she hoped would be a fruitful venture.
Autumn returned home to find Edgar exactly where she’d left him: in the kitchen, baking brownies, his chef’s hat flopping over the side o’ his skull, which Autumn had to admit she quite adored.
“Edgar, are you busy?”
“Nope. Just finishing up these brownies. Want to try 1?” he said as he walked toward her with a tray o’ them.
“Mmm, thanks,” she said ’fore taking 1 & giving Edgar a kiss.
“I have intel on where we can find a stash o’ treasure,” she continued as she ate.
“Where?” Edgar asked as he walked the tray to the kitchen.
“Somewhere deep under the city. I don’t have much detail other than that we should start with the sewers.”
“Will we need anything in the way o’ preparation?” Edgar asked. “Should I pack us any food & water to take ’long?”
“That’d be wise,” Autumn said. “I can handle the rest. You ready to go this afternoon?”
“I am a busy person…”
Autumn nodded. “Then we’ll go as soon as we’re done packing.”
They searched the city for an entrance to the sewers. Edgar reminded Autumn o’ their former home, only for her to inform him that she’d already considered it.
“We can’t go from there; it’s abandoned, remember? It’ll almost certainly lead to a dead end. There must be a better entrance somewhere nearby.”
So they wandered mo’, eyes glued to the streets & sidewalks for man covers, manholes, or storm drains poking up from a curb. While this journey began in the open, their legs absentmindedly led them into a short alley ’tween 2 Victorian-looking buildings. They only stopped when Autumn felt herself bump into something large & heavy in front o’ her, making Edgar right ’hind her bump into her, & causing the reporter stealthily stalking them to bump into Edgar.
Autumn looked up & saw a fat, rusty pipe protruding from the ground, slightly bent. ’Twas so tall, she had to grapple the top edge & pull herself up a foot off the ground in order to peek inside. While she hung on by an arm, she unpocketed her flashlight & aimed it inside to reveal a ladder made o’ the same rusty metal leading down to a slowly sloshing river. Everything was painted in the same dingy grays, ’cept the slight glow o’ the flashlight reflecting off the water.
“Bee, I wonder what this pipe’s doing letting its fly hang out in such an extra esoteric alley? You guys don’t think people actually use this for dumping their dumps, do ya?”
“Edgar, when did your voice rise in pitch & when did you start speaking in stupid diction?” Autumn asked without turning round.
“That, uh… That wasn’t me,” Edgar said as he turned alternately ’tween Autumn & the journalist. “It’s, uh… Would you mind if I asked who you were, Sir?”
The journalist tipped his hat, which impressed Edgar, for the journalist wasn’t wearing 1.
“I hope you don’t mind, Madame, but I just happened to overhear the conversation ’tween you & the masked woman.”
“I do mind,” Autumn said, turning her head to look @ the journalist. “Get lost.”
The journalist continued, “You see, Madame, I heard you say something ’bout exploring Boskeopolis Underground. I had heard it in legends ’fore; but never had I captured it with my own optical nerves. Do you think it truly exists?”
“Aren’t there government records that can prove that?” Autumn said. “What kind o’ journalist are you?”
As if by cue, the journalist spun round in place, then halted with his body leaning 1 way & an arm held out the other, as if he were trying to shoot down a plane with a literal hand gun. But ’stead o’ shooting finger bullets, he adjusted his li’l red bowtie & said, “I am Thursday O’Beefe, globe-famous, audacious reporter!”
O’Beefe stopped, awaiting the wonderfully tragic heart attacks that’d afflict the 2 from the immense shock his Holy Hand Grenade o’ knowledge must’ve given them. He received none—not even a bout o’ sudden high blood pressure causing them visual discomfort! ’Stead, the scene was pumped full o’ a stale silence, in which all O’Beefe could hear was the hot wind blow stray leaves gainst the ground. He turned ’tween the 2 & saw only blank blinking stares.
“I’ve never heard o’ you in my life,” Autumn said.
“You mean you’ve never heard o’ a li’l newspaper called The Boskeopoleon Daily?” O’Beefe said with a penisy grin.
“O.” O’Beefe’s upright stature melted into a slouch under the weight o’ his disappointment.
He machinegunned through the bag slung over his arm till he pulled out a stack o’ gray papers wrapped round each other. As he held it out to Autumn, she skimmed over the cover, ’fore finally snatching it & flipping through it.
“This is a trash tabloid,” Autumn said. “For sun’s sake, don’t you have any story that isn’t accusing some famous person o’ being a communist?”
“We tell the stories the mainstream media’s ’fraid to tell,” O’Beefe said with a wink, aiming his hands like pistols & flinging them up & down as if shooting down tiny planes.
“Fear o’ embarrassment?” Autumn asked, still staring @ the paper.
“& ink stains. Always spill it on my suit. Those are the dangers o’ roughing it through the jungle o’ reporting.”
“Huh,” Autumn said as she handed him back the paper. “Well, now that that’s settled, your presence is no longer useful—if it ever was.”
O’Beefe shook his head. “Uh, uh. I’m not leaving with such an amazing scoop o’ journalistic butternut swirl right before me. I’m following right ’hind you guys.”
He leaned closer to Edgar, causing Edgar to lean back a centimeter with a crumpled frown, put an arm round Edgar’s shoulder, & said in a slow, crunchy whisper, “Right ’hind you.”
“I’d thank you to cease molesting my partner,” Autumn said.
O’Beefe stepped back ’gain. Then, as if performing a magic trick, he whipped out a pad & pen from nowhere.
As he peered down @ it with his pen ready, he asked, “Now, are either o’ you communists?”
Autumn turned back to the pipe. “Come on, Edgar: we’ve wasted ’nough time.”
As she began climbing down, Edgar followed ’hind with his head slunk low.
O’Beefe started scribbling in his notepad.
“OK, I’ll just put you 2 down as democratic socialists.”
Much to her pleasure, Autumn had already sunk low ’nough that the reporter’s voice had become muffled, tinny, & hollow. She looked up to ensure Edgar was following her, & was confirmed, only to see O’Beefe climbing down ’bove him.
“Damn it. I told you to get lost, kid.”
“You need’nt worry ’bout my safety, Madame; I’ve been venturing into these kinds o’ dangerous reporting environs for hours,” O’Beefe said as he slowly took the ladder step by step.
Autumn felt her feet splash into water & then felt solid ground a few centimeters below. A moment later, she heard Edgar hit the water ’hind her. She extracted her flashlight ’gain & swooped it round, seeing brick walls stained with moss. Seeing that these walls covered all other sides, she started walking rightward. Edgar—unable to see Autumn, but able to see the beam o’ her flashlight partly blocked by her silhouette—skipped after her, making li’l splashes @ every step.
“Don’t worry ’bout me, guys; I’m almost @ the bottom, I think,” O’Beefe said as he centimetered his way down the ladder, his voice reaching Autumn & Edgar as echoes bouncing round the walls.
Edgar, who had caught up to Autumn by then, turned to Autumn. She shook her head & whispered, “Let’s hope we’ll lose him.”
“Do you think he might be trying to get the treasure for himself—that his claim o’ being a journalist is all fake?” Edgar whispered.
“I’m not sure,” Autumn whispered. “I just didn’t want that obnoxious douchebag dragging us back with his obnoxious douchebaggery.”
As they trudged forward, Autumn repeatedly waved her flashlight left & right to check for split paths. The same brick walls stretched onward, arching together @ the ceiling. They only varied in moss locations, as well as 1 area that was graffitied with the names o’ famous artists in blue, purple, orange, & red.
They were surprised to find that the odor inside barely registered, smelling mo’ moldy than scatological. Since the water appeared grayish, Autumn assumed the water they were currently splashing through was mostly excrement-clear—probably street runoff.
Meters later, they reached a wall with a circular hole in the middle, narrowing the path into a dark tunnel. Autumn could see by the way its lit exit on the other side dipped that this tunnel dropped @ a gradual slope.
Only a meter inside, they heard splashing steps ’hind them. Edgar heard a familiar puff o’ air: an annoyed exhale escaping Autumn’s nose.
They heard a familiar voice say, “Hey, guys; sorry ’bout the delay. Those ladders sure are tricky, aren’t they?”
Autumn released ’nother puff o’ petulance. This pushed Edgar into the most traumatic o’ conundrums: would it be ruder to dispose o’ Autumn’s desire to ignore the young journalist as dropping a kid’s crayon coloring in a soggy puddle or to ignore the young journalist, providing the 1st step toward his long journey o’ gradually decreasing confidence, possibly ending in an addiction to alcohol, wrist-cutting, or thumb-sucking?
“So, I knew a guy once,” O’Beefe said.
A hefty silence.
“I also knew a mailbox, but he was rude. Not only did he never reply to my letters, he never even opened mine. He just savored them in his mouth like pelicans do.”
All anyone could hear was the splash-splashing o’ their footsteps, the drip-dripping o’ liquid from thin pores in the ceiling, the creak-creaking o’ the pipe floor under them, & the exhale-exhaling o’ Autumn’s nostrils.
“That’s all right, I understand now,” O’Beefe said with a wave o’ his hand. “The toxic fumes must’ve constricted your language cords. I understand. That’s OK: the good news is I can speak for all 3 o’ us.” He raised his voice into a falsetto. “’Gasp! That’s important to know, Sir O’Beefe, Sir.’”
Edgar turned to Autumn to see her cold eyes & flat mouth as solid as diamond. He knew she packed her immense stores o’ ire not in gunpowder, but in cement blocks.
They finally left the tunnel to be drenched in dingy yellow light from the light bars hanging from the ceiling. Edgar watched 1 loosely tip back & forth, expecting it to fall & bonk them on their heads. Here the walls were no longer comprised o’ bricks, but o’ cobalt metal, splotched with rusted browns.
O’Beefe leaned in extra close to them—so close that they could smell his raddishy heavy breath & feel his saliva bacteria glide into their mouths & Autumn’s nostrils.
“So, what is your relationship, exactly?” he asked.
The silence ate a large chocolate cheese cake, causing its heft to grow even mo’.
“Are you 2 seeing each other?”
Edgar couldn’t stop the confused expression from forming on his face.
’Course we can see each other; we’re right next to each other, under a room-filled light.
“Is this just a casual relationship, or does it go much deeper, if you know what I—Ow!”
Edgar jumped back @ the sight o’ the loose lamp fixture falling on O’Beefe’s head. Certainly, such a heavy hit would kill numerous brain cells—all o’ which would be forgotten, without any proper burial or funeral or even names on a wall.
O’Beefe stared up @ the broken cords hanging from the ceiling while he rubbed the bump on his head. “I truly wish these rude lamps would wait till people aren’t under them ’fore they go sewer diving.”
As they continued, Autumn noticed a hole emerge to the right; as they neared, she saw a ladder poke out. She figured ’twas likelier that the way down led to the secret stash than farther down the stream, which she knew ’ventually led to the rivers, so she turned.
“Ah, I see we’re taking a detour now. Sufficiently important,” O’Beefe said.
She bent next to the hole & pointed her flashlight in. @ the bottom was dry concrete floor. No light seeped out; if there were light fixtures down there, they must’ve been meters in. Since she still preferred this path to the straight, she grabbed the sides o’ the ladder & descended, followed by Edgar & O’Beefe, the latter o’ whom babbled incoherencies all the way down.
When Autumn waved her flashlight round the lower floor, she found that the brick walls returned, though they were somehow ever dirtier than the last set, to the extent that you could barely see any red-brown under all o’ the dust, sewage, & spiderwebs. Plussur, she could feel a large fan blow from ’hind the bottom o’ the ladder. Most likely this was meant to deal with the fumes swarming the room, which blocked out the few light fixtures so as to make the room a dim gray, explaining the lack o’ light seeping out.
Also different from the previous rooms, rather than being empty, this floor was cluttered with trash: TVs with cracked screens, cannibalized fridges, soggy cardboard boxes covered in rat bites, & hunks o’ plastic & metal that Autumn couldn’t even interpret. She rued such a waste o’ perfectly good material that could be sold for scrap metal; but ’cause she anticipated greater wealth, she decided not to waste her limited pocket space nabbing any o’ it.
Trailing ’long the ground was a puddle o’ brown liquid that thinned as it stretched toward them so that ’twas shaped like a needle near their feet. Its scent was notably sourer. All this & the putrid fog indicated to Autumn that she had entered the sewage section.
Since their path was covered with crap, they begun by climbing the TVs & vacuum tubes. Farther in, the heaps o’ debris reached such heights that Autumn had to shove it all ’way, breaking the flimsier pieces apart when they wouldn’t budge as wholes.
Edgar stopped when he saw that Autumn wasn’t in front o’ him anymore, the light stationary. He turned round to see Autumn piling monitors & radios to cover the hole they’d just squeezed through. When finished, she turned forward ’gain, picked up her flashlight, & scampered ’way. Edgar scratched his chin for seconds ’fore following.
“What was that for?” Edgar whispered. “Were you trying to protect us from the grumpy green ghouls living in trash cans, threatening to assault our positive feelings?”
“If by that you mean ’that obnoxious journalist,’ yes.”
Edgar glanced back with jaw half-open. He’d forgotten that the reporter was with them no mo’. He just noticed now that his steady stream o’ tongue sludge had become smothered in the distance.
Autumn led them through mo’ mounds o’ trash, quickening her pace so as to add space ’tween them & their pest. As she & Edgar worked, she noticed a bright dot zip past her eye & heard a quiet sizzle. She turned & saw a drop o’ yellow liquid drip from the ceiling & land on a pile o’ scrap. The spot it landed on blackened & dented, releasing smoke.
“Careful round the falling acid, Edgar,” Autumn said.
Edgar gazed round till he found the dripping & then looked up @ the ceiling to see its source. Oddly ’nough, there didn’t seem to be any source, other than the barren concrete ceiling itself: a drop would just emerge from some invisible pore.
“Where d’you think this acid comes from?” Edgar asked.
“You know,” Autumn said as she stopped in the midst o’ moving a toaster, “I don’t know much ’bout sewers, but I don’t think this area is much like one @ all—& I certainly don’t think sewers usually have acid fall from the ceiling. & what ’bout these fumes? I mean, I’m wearing glasses, so they’re just fogging them up—I’m not sure how their affecting your eyeholes—but even without eye pain, shouldn’t this harm our health? You’d think we’d be hacking as if a million cigarette-smoke clouds were being blown in our faces.
“& why all this junk here?” She looked down @ the toaster still in her hand. “Since when were sewers repositories for a bunch o’ broken appliances & apparatuses that appear eerily similar?”
“What do you think’s the reason for these oddities?” Edgar asked.
Autumn paused. “I have a very fitting guess, but I loath to accept its reality. We already have 1 pest to deal with.”
“Where’s the pest?”
Autumn & Edgar turned round to see O’Beefe standing ’hind them, his business suit now much mo’ ruffled & covered in sewage. His body sagged & his chest breathed deeply, but his visage appeared as cheery as ever.
“If you’re going to burden us with your existence so much, you might as well help us with the work. Go over there & help us move this junk out o’ the way.” She pointed over to the spot under the acid drips.
O’Beefe frowned. “Zee, I don’t know if I should tamper with my research. This is s’posed to be your venture, not mine. I’m just an objective witness.”
“Whatever,” Autumn muttered as she returned to her work.
So O’Beefe stood back & watched as Autumn & Edgar hefted detritus back & forth with his hands clasped ’hind him, his head tilting left & then right @ the magnificent work o’ art performing ’fore his eyes. Then he got bored with the whole thing & started searching in other directions for any other form o’ visual stimulus, when he saw the yellow drops falling from the ceiling.
“Ooo, I wonder what this cool-looking liquid is,” he said as he moved over to it & held his hand out under it.
He stared up @ the ceiling & watched the newest drop as it grew from the ceiling & plopped, following it all ’long its trail toward his han—
“Ow!” he shouted as he pulled his hand back, curling his other hand round it & holding it closely to the top o’ his chest as a wounded moth with low self-esteem.
“O yeah, watch out for those acid drops, I s’pose,” Autumn said without looking back, her voice ’bout as far ’way from chalance as possible.
Edgar, however, handed him a guilty glance.
“You, uh… you OK? I think Autumn might have some 4th Aid supplies on her.”
O’Beefe, whose expression now looked frightened, only squeezed his hand closer to himself & said, “No. That’s OK.”
“Uh, are you sure? That stuff can burn metal. It, uh, can’t be good for your hand.”
O’Beefe shook his head. “No, I, uh… I have mutant regenerating powers. See.” He released his hand & showed it palm-out. There didn’t appear to be any form o’ skin ruin whatsoever, as if it weren’t burned @ all.
“Well, uh… I guess the laws o’ physics decided they didn’t want to work this time,” Edgar said as he scratched his ear. “They do that sometimes, I’ve noticed.”
O’Beefe nodded. “Satisfactorily significant.”
“I opened the way. Come,” Autumn said as she put a leg into the hole she made.
“O yeah: & watch for the rats. 1 o’ the bastards bit my ankle,” she added.
“What?” Autumn asked, turning her head back @ Edgar, only to see to his side O’Beefe on the ground, being attacked by rats, skittering all over his body with blood-clotting squeals.
“Don’t… don’t worry ’bout me, folks. This is all part o’ the experiment,” he said.
Autumn shrugged. She looked @ Edgar & said, “If he says so himself. Come.”
After that she fully dived in, squeezing through almost a meter o’ rubbish, crawling up through a thin hole in the pile @ the front. “Be careful ’bout the roof o’ rubbish round here,” she said in a voice grunting from the pressure o’ her movement through the gap.
When she finally ’scaped out the other side, she exhaled heavily, ignoring the reek round her, but quickly regained her composure. However, now she saw an even greater obstacle in her way: the wall in front o’ her was covered entirely in the same boxy broken equipment. A’least, this would’ve been a problem if she hadn’t turned her head round & saw a doorway on the right wall. Her eyes moved upward to the neon sign hanging ’bove the door frame—its smooth, bright lights a jarring contrast to the murk o’ the rest o’ the sewers.
It said, “Welcome to Chamsby’s Gulch.”
When Autumn stepped through the doorway, she saw that the term “Boskeopolis Underground” was no misnomer: before her stretched a concrete street covered in dust bordered by a row o’ buildings on each side, their upper portions cut off by the ceiling as if they were hares popping their heads up holes.
Sitting ’long the curbs were dozens o’ people in eclectic clothing indulging in various activities: reading, drinking, writing, potato peeling, talking, cellphoning, tossing cards in a fez, laptopping, blowing bubbles, & mo’. The bubble-blowing was done by a short but tubby toad with dark teal skin in thick wrinkles; the bleary gaze & dilation in its yellow eyes hinted that it may have taken too many tanuki leaves ’fore blowing said bubbles.
Autumn glanced @ them warily, wondering if perhaps she was too late & someone else had already found the treasure.
But as she walked by, she heard a familiar voice call out her name. She turned to its source & saw Dawn in 1 spot o’ the curb, waving in her direction.
“What are you doing here?” Autumn mumbled as she walked over to her.
“We heard ’bout some secret town underground ’bout a week ago & decided to check it out,” Dawn said.
Autumn & Edgar suddenly felt something bump them from their right & left, respectively, & then saw O’Beefe pop his head out ’tween them.
“So, how long have you 2 known each other?” O’Beefe asked as he pushed a microphone in front o’ Dawn’s face, & then Autumn’s, & then Dawn’s, & then Autumn’s ’gain.
“Where did you even get that?” Autumn asked as she shoved it ’way from her.
“I found it in the pile o’ junk while I was trying to take my mind off the rat bites.”
“Who’s that?” Dawn asked.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Autumn answered.
As if by cue, the journalist spun round in place, bumping Autumn & Edgar over. He then stopped, his body leaning 1 way with his arm on the other side pointing up the other way.
“I am Thursday O’Beefe, earth-eminent undaunted reporter!”
Someone near the back in opaque black shades frowned at him & said, “Hey, aren’t you the 1 who manufactured a bunch of exaggerated stories ’bout what we do down here? I’ll have you know, we don’t have sloppy, drug-crazed sex parties involving moose-decapitation or listening to Thankful Deceased albums; our sex parties are, in fact, very tasteful. Last week we had one based entirely off the story of Hamlet.”
“I’m sorry you misinterpreted the story that way, Madame,” O’Beefe said with a short bow. “I can tell you right now, I have no opinions ’bout your li’l hovel myself—I have no opinions ’bout anything, actually. I just… I just report it and let the people think what they want.”
The woman raised a newspaper and said, “I don’t care if you have opinions ’bout it or not. The point is that you straight made stuff up.”
O’Beefe shrugged. “Hey, we all see what we see, I guess.”
The woman’s eyebrows arched. “So, what, did reality just show itself differently to you than us? In places where we see gas stations do you see giant pink elephants?”
Dawn turned back to Autumn & asked, “So, are you here for the legendary treasure?”
Autumn arched her eyebrows, her eyes flying in in every direction.
“How did you know ’bout that?” she said in a low voice.
“The same reason I know ’bout this place,” Dawn answered. “As for these people here, I wouldn’t worry, since they seem to be distracted by other activities; but I do know you have competition from a’least 1 guy.”
“It’s the Chamsby son we met @ that mansion, Lance,” Dawn said.
“O, great…” the rings that appeared under Autumn’s eyes indicated that she, in fact, did not consider this fact to be great.
“Why is it taking you idiots so long to find it?”
Autumn turned to the source o’ that voice & felt her facial features sag farther when she saw Lance Chamsby walking down the street toward them holding a cellphone to his ear.
“I would like to leave this cesspool as quickly as possible,” he continued. “My beautiful free utopia has been tyrannized by these raving communists.”
Someone from the crowd laughed & said, “Remember, Chamsby: slavery is freedom.”
Lance’s eyes twisted into a deeper ire. He turned ’way from the phone & shouted back, “Only the most totalitarian o’ mindsets would make the mistake o’ thinking A is corncob!”
The other guy just shook his head, laughing.
Lance returned to his phone, only to stop when he saw Autumn.
He said into the phone with a gloved hand rubbing his forehead, “Hugo Chávez. That looter’s here already. Get to it.”
He pocketed the phone & walked up to Autumn, causing her frown to dig deeper.
“& what do you think you’re doing here, looter?” Lance said with his chest puffed up & his hands on his sides.
’Fore Autumn could devise a reply, O’Beefe shoved a microphone in Lance’s face & asked, “How long have you known Madame… uh…” He turned to Autumn. “What’s your name ’gain, Madame?”
O’Beefe scribbled into his notepad & repeated in a low, slow voice, “Piss… off…” Then he added as he put it all ’way, “Got it.”
“I’ll have you know that this looter has been harassing me for years,” Lance said with an indignant index finger raised.
O’Beefe nodded & then shoved his mike into Autumn’s face. “Do you have any comments on Sir Chamsby’s comments, Madame Off?”
“He has it backward, but whatever,” Autumn said as she shoved the mike ’way.
Then she turned & examined the microphone closer.
“Why do you even have a microphone that isn’t connected to anything?” she asked.
“It adds flair to the whole thing,” O’Beefe said.
“Anyway, I don’t have time to deal with all o’ your neuroses,” Autumn said as she pushed past them, Edgar squeezing in ’hind her. “I have business to attend to.”
“Ha! Never has such a beautiful word been used to describe something so far ’way from its true nature!” Lance said.
When he saw Autumn moving forward without any response, Lance ran after her & continued:
“I’ll have you know that treasure is the rightful property o’ my father’s, & thus is now rightfully mine.”
“The way I see it, the treasure’s held by no one currently, & is thus free for grabs,” Autumn replied without turning her head. “Unless you want to run ’way to the socialist government to stop me.”
Lance gritted his teeth so hard that his face turned red & steam rose from his ears, which he had oft found to be an excellent way to heat tea.
“It doesn’t matter anyway, ’cause I’ll be the 1 to find that treasure 1st.”
“We’ll see,” Autumn said.
Lance repeatedly halted on his way toward the secret hole his henchmen found on an earlier search when he kept thinking he’d heard movement ’hind him. However, every time he’d turn back to look, he’d see nothing.
“Must be some strange acoustics,” he mumbled to himself. “Who knows what the savages did with this place. I know 1 thing: once I get that treasure I’m going to—
“Ooo! Are you following Sir Chamsby in hopes that he’ll lead you to the treas—?”
Lance swung round, only to see nothing yet ’gain. But this time he was certain he’d heard someone speak, & so he went forward, turning his head left & right as he wandered the vicinity.
After a few minutes’ search found nothing, he turned round ’gain & returned to his original path.
“I’ll just have to keep my ears open & see if I hear it ’gain,” he mumbled as he glanced ’bout.
In the corner o’ a dark alley, ’hind a dumpster, hid Autumn, Edgar, & O’Beefe, Autumn holding O’Beefe down with 1 hand while the other pressed his mouth shut, leaving nothing but soft muffles. Her eyes, meanwhile, stared out the alley, waiting for Lance to return.
After five minutes without a response, Autumn whispered for Edgar to sneak out & check outside. He nodded, stood up, & scampered out, 1st looking round the corner o’ the wall on the left side, & then the wall on the right. After a minute or so mo’ o’ checking, he returned & whispered, “I see nobody nearby.”
“It’s probably safe,” Autumn whispered. “But it’ll be a hassle tracking him down ’gain with the distance he must have gained by now.” She glared @ O’Beefe. “Perhaps if somebody took a hint & jerked it, we’d have a better chance; but clearly fate has afflicted us with a handicap.”
She released O’Beefe & immediately shut off her ears to the yapping his mouth released. As they continued through the underground city, Autumn with a hand on her aching forehead, snared an idea.
She grabbed Edgar, moving the area o’ his skull where an ear would be if he were human right up to her mouth, & whispered, “We’re going to run as quickly as possible round these buildings & see if we can ’scape our leech, OK? You don’t mind being dragged a li’l, do you?”
Edgar shook his head.
“Great,” Autumn said with a foot raised, just ’fore dropping it & scampering @ full speed, taking every turn she reached without thought, just trying to make as much distance & as unpatterned a path as possible ’tween them & O’Beefe.
After 10 minutes o’ this—moving out to the edges o’ the underground city, round, & then nearing the middle ’gain, only to return to the edges soon after—they finally stopped to catch their breaths. Autumn’s eyes wandered for signs o’ a bowtied suit, but found none.
“The only problem now is that we’ve probably lost Lance for good,” Autumn said in a low voice. “Then ’gain, it may not be a significant matter. @ 1st I wanted to trail him to avoid searching the same places he’d already searched; but it’s possible he overlooked where it is, anyway. Who knows how clever his henchmen were.”
Such sentiments gave Autumn li’l comfort, however. She’d remembered how well they were able to find those jewels @ Heureuse Manor. When she considered both the greater #s on Lance’s side & the highly-likely time advantage he had, her probability o’ success was low.
O well. Never stopped me ’fore, she mused.
“So, should we just search by ourselves?” Edgar asked, jolting Autumn from her thoughts.
“Huh? O, yes.”
Autumn squinted & slid her eyes left & right, moving her index finger in front o’ her face.
After a short pause, she pointed in front o’ them & said, “That’s the direction Lance ought to have gone. Even if we can’t find him, we might find areas he or his minions haven’t uncovered yet.”
So they went forth, sorting through every pile o’ equipment or rubbish they found splayed on the ground & investigating every building they passed. Oft during their trip, Autumn would have her eyes closed tightly with her hands on her head & her mouth muttering silently.
OK, think… If I were a megalomaniac trying to hide a huge pile o’ treasure where no one would think to find it, where would I put it?
Essentially, where in this place would I would hide my treasure, if I did?
She looked all round, trying to absorb as many ideas as possible while the fans in her head steamed from all o’ the electricity racing through her head.
Well, to start, he wouldn’t hide it in anyplace obvious: buildings, trashcans, alleyways… But he would likely hide it in a cluttered area full o’ hiding opportunities so that all the noise would better conceal it. People generally have a certain time limit for how long they want to search an area ’fore moving on, regardless o’ how many hiding opportunities each area has. In cluttered areas, the searcher is likely to become so exhausted with the obvious places that the real hiding place would slip under her nose.
It’d also be best to hide something in an area that appears identical to many other places, since people generally think in patterns & naturally point their attention @ the most disparate elements 1st. The likelihood that one might sloppily look through similar areas due to following these patterns is high. After all, there are possibly billions o’ hiding places here, & it’d be impossible to find all o’ them without wasting years. You have to cut corners in some ways.
Autumn’s eyes widened. She could feel her nerves buzz with excitement as if she were injected with 20 cups o’ coffee.
“Think o’ something?” Edgar asked, but Autumn only waved his question ’way.
Now, I’m not sure ’bout this place, but I would guess that the entrance would be the busiest place, right? It’s the busiest now, ’course; but was it always that way? & would not that be the 1st place one would check, & then soon leave when nothing is found? Granted, on 1 scale, the 1st place to look would be the time when the searcher has the most energy & might put the most energy into this area; but on the other scale, with so many other areas open, the searcher might move on mo’ quickly than if she were in a later area, knowing there are less options left. It is also the last place anyone would expect it to be, being so clumsily obvious, so that the searcher is mo’ likely to abandon it for what she expects to be golder mines. Moreover, ’cause it’s so close to the entrance & so near crowds, Fitzgerald’s disappearance here would’ve been less attention-grabbing than if he’d moved all the way through empty areas ’lone.
It’s not a solid fit, & I could be way off; but if it’s the right place, it’d immediately flip the chairs on Lance.
She checked the clock on her cell & saw that ’twas 25:178 pages.
Hmm… it’d probably be too late for this to turn into a failed venture.
Autumn considered for a few words.
Finally, she said, “Edgar, let’s turn round. I think I know where ol’ Fitz’s hiding place may be.”
Autumn held a tenuous hope that the crowds would’ve left from the entrance by then, but saw this return false when she returned.
O well, she thought. If they cared ’bout the treasure, they’d probably be searching for it. They’re probably too distracted to recognize what I’m doing, anyway.
1 person who was not, however, was Dawn, who waved @ them ’gain & said, “Back so soon.”
“Yup,” Autumn said without looking @ her. ’Stead, Autumn shifted her eyes left & right @ the building ’hind Dawn.
She moved toward the entrance while her eyes stared @ the building, trying to avoid making eye contact with any o’ the crowd members. She saw nothing by the time she reached the end.
No, it wouldn’t be somewhere so obvious, remember, she thought. She rotated, her eyes darting all over like a wild bouncing turtle shell.
Then it hit her—not the bouncing turtle shell, ’course, which actually hit O’Beefe’s kart just ’fore he was going to hit a jump, causing him to fall into 8th place, but the idea. She was thinking once mo’, What would be the last place one would be expected to search? 1 o’ her ideas was to consider the similarity ’tween the city ’bove & the city down here: maybe Fitzgerald put the hideout in the region corresponding to the place where the pipe entrance was ’bove. That was when she thought ’bout a difference ’tween the city down here & ’bove & found the answer to her earlier question: the ceiling! In the city ’bove, o’ course, nobody would think o’ searching the sky for a hideout; but down here, where there was no sky, that was a different level. Indeed, she’d never even looked @ the ceiling since she’d been down there, ’twas so far from her mind. How could I be so naïve?
She looked up & saw that the ceiling was covered in a twisty maze o’ pipelines, ending @ heads tilting downward. 1 o’ these heads appeared to be rusted over; but Autumn knew better: she could see by the way the light shined off it that ’twas truly bronze. Furthermore, ’twas a li’l bigger than the others—just big ’nough for a human to fit through.
’Twas such a brilliant idea. He or a trusted associate could just pretend to be a plumber or some such & dink round with the pipes ’bove while nobody even blinked. They wouldn’t even notice if he went through the pipe—after all, don’t plumbers go through pipes to fix some obscure apparatus or warp to world 4 all the time?
Autumn looked for a way up when she saw a dumpster leaning gainst a wall full o’ windows, having a smoke break.
“This way, Edgar,” she said in a low voice as she waved Edgar in its direction.
“Hey. Nice weather we have down here, ri—Hey! What are you doing?”
Autumn hoisted Edgar along with her.
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” Edgar asked as he looked down @ the dumpster. “It seems kind o’ rude.”
“It is rude!” the dumpster shouted. “I’m trying to have a friggin’ smoke here & you’re ruining it. How would you feel if I just waltzed up & stepped all over your head?”
“You know, smoking’s kind o’ ba—”
But Autumn interrupted Edgar with a nudge & motioned for him to latch onto her back. He nodded & wrapped his arms round her neck, hanging on like an extra backpack, while she proceeded to climb the windows.
When they reached the top, Autumn could see that the pipelines were still ’bout 2 meters ’bove them, which caused Autumn to cringe.
“Do you think you could give me a boost?” Autumn asked.
Edgar nodded & bent down. Autumn climbed onto his shoulders, her eyes still up @ the pipes. She could feel Edgar below her lurch a li’l & then gradually raise her up.
Unluckily, when she stretched her arms & stood on her arches, she found she still could not yet reach the pipes.
“OK, do you think you could, for a brief moment, hold me up higher with your arms?”
“I’ll try,” Edgar said enthusiastically.
She felt herself rise a li’l mo’, even mo’ gradually than ’fore. She stretched her arms as far as her sockets would allow, till her fingers finally reached the top o’ a pipe. She clamped her fingers down on the pipe & put full force on them, feeling the bones in them burn from the pressure. However, she was able to raise herself high ’nough to grab onto the pipe with her hands properly & pulled herself off Edgar’s hands.
“OK, now grab on & climb back up to my back,” she called down to Edgar, her eyes still cringing @ the pipe. ’Twas beginning to lurch under her weight, & she wasn’t sure it’d be able to handle Edgar’s as well, despite his lightness.
He did so, causing the pipe to dip even mo’. Deciding not to give the pipes any mo’ time to break than necessary, she immediately moved leftward, her eyes following ’long the pipes ’head to find the way to the bronze opening.
Out o’ nowhere she felt a violent itch on her hand, tenderizing her composure. She looked up & saw a plump rat sitting on her hand, just ’fore it took a great bite o’ her finger.
It took a great effort not to yank her hand back, which would surely make her lose her grip & fall off. ’Stead, she merely continued, flicking a finger or 2 whenever the rat followed, & muttering ’bout the plague.
After that distraction, they finally reached the bronze pipe end. Upon closer inspection, she saw that, like the pipe entrance, this had a ladder inside. She squandered no time ’fore climbing, sighing in relief @ its sturdiness.
3 meters up, they reached the top, & entered into a wide atticlike room, seemingly vacant, ’cept 2 piles o’ innocent-looking bulky pipes, their grayness matching the cement floor so that they almost blended in. They immediately netted Autumn’s suspicions.
Sure ’nough, when she walked over & peered inside, she saw that they were stuffed with ingots & jewelry o’ various shapes, sizes, & colors. Ever the multitasker, Autumn reached in to scoop the treasure into her pockets while she tried to formulate a mo’ efficient way to transport the whole mass.
However, the second her arm brushed gainst the inside o’ a pipe, she heard whirring. She turned her head, & Edgar emitted a worried squeak, just in time to witness a crane hand reach down over her. ’Fore she could move, it clamped itself round her stomach & lifted her off the ground.
While Edgar usefully held his hands to his head & shivered, Autumn attempted to squeeze her way out o’ the mechanical mandible, pressing her hand down gainst the top as hard as possible to push her way out.
She was utterly shocked to not find success.
When Edgar had finally calmed down ’nough, he said, “You want me to go get Dawn for help?”
Autumn shook her head. “It’s probably operated by a switch. There has to be some way Fitzgerald kept it from attacking him.” She didn’t mention that this way could have been a handheld remote, which could be anywhere—including outside this room, or even outside the whole sewers.
Their eyes combed through the room, only to be interrupted by the heavy thunking o’ weight gainst metal emerging from the pipe entrance. They directed their eyes @ it & watched when they saw a familiar face pop in like a Venus fly trap.
“Ah, good. I see you’re still here. Well, I’m not surprised to find you still here, ’course.”
Lance looked @ Autumn with a grin that could run an All-You-Can-Eat-Feces restaurant out o’ business. Autumn returned with a bitter glare. Just a bitter glare. It couldn’t do as amazing a trick as Lance’s grin, but ’twas quite formidable by itself, in a traditional way.
Edgar, meanwhile, stepped back to the wall ’hind him, hoping to hide in a shadow while he continued looking for a way to drop Autumn.
Lance stood up straight, with his hands on his sides, while his tuxedoed henchmen in drama masks with white left sides & red rights entered ’hind him.
“So good to see you… to see you…” Lance turned to a henchman who was already standing ’side him & barked, “Agent Granny Smith Apple: supply me with a witty riposte.”
Autumn narrowed her eyes. “Riposte to what?”
“Would ’I would give you a hand, but I see you already have 1 big ’nough to last you a lifetime,’ be to your pleasing, Sir?”
Lance rubbed his hands together swiftly. “Excellent.” Then he stopped rubbing them together when he felt them burn.
“Owie!” he owied just ’fore waving his hands & blowing on them.
“Where’s the voodoo skeleton?” Lance demanded with a threatening finger aimed @ Autumn—OK, mo’ like “insolent finger.”
“I think he’s trying to hide in that li’l shadow next to the pipes, Sir,” Agent Burnt Sienna said.
“I can see that,” Lance said as he turned his eyes over to Edgar, causing Edgar to shudder even mo’ than he’d already been doing.
“All right, skeleton, make this easy & crawl into the cage,” Lance said as he pointed to a li’l pet carrier Agent Laser Lemon held out.
Edgar considered refusing, figuring it’d be rude to leave his duty without a fight, ’specially to help such a mean person; but then he saw Lance aim a burning stare @ him. After squeaking, “Ouch!” in response to the burns from Lance’s magical stare, he trudged into the cage. There he just sat with his body curled together & sighed while the minion closed his cage.
“Golden,” Lance said as he strode forward. “Now, whatever you idiots do, don’t touch any o’ those pipes.” He pointed @ the pile nearest Autumn, & then @ the other. “As Madame Looter here has wonderfully demonstrated, touching them will set off father’s brilliant trap. Now, he said there was a mechanism to turn it off somewhere. We just need to find it.”
“Is it that button up there on the ceiling?” Agent Razzmatazz asked. Everyone—including Autumn & Edgar—followed their eyes up Razzmatazz’s finger to the large red button with the words, “Turn Off Trap,” right next to 1 that said, “Release Captured Looter.”
Autumn smacked her forehead. How could I fail to look @ the ceiling twice?
Lance snapped his fingers. “Well, you idiots know what formation you’ll need to reach it.”
The minions nodded & formed a human ladder, with Agent Razzmatazz @ the top, given the honor o’ pushing the button for finding it.
“Hey, every peoples, did I miss anything relevant?”
Everyone turned to the pipe entrance to see Thursday O’Beefe sitting in a li’l red go-kart being carried up by a fishing pole held by a spectacled turtle floating in a cloud.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said to the speechless crowd. “While I was stunned by a blue shell, someone knocked me into a lava pit, which is why this polite turtle’s helping me up here.”
“Last time I checked, there weren’t any lava pits anywhere here,” Autumn said with eyes narrowed in deep hatred.
O’Beefe shrugged as the turtle lowered him to the ground. “Hey, I just report the world as I see it. Everyone’s free to form their own conclusions.”
“Um… If he… retrieved you from a… lava pit, shouldn’t he return you to the… track?” Edgar asked, pausing many times, unsure if he heard certain words correctly.
“Shortcut glitch,” O’Beefe said.
Everyone nodded in understanding.
The turtle released him & flew ’way, back down the pipe entrance. O’Beefe dismounted his kart & beamed an enthusiastic smile round @ everyone with hands tied ’hind his back.
“So, is this where the treasure is hidden? How are you all going to divide it?”
“We’re not dividing it @ all,” Lance said. “The woman & her skeleton are looters o’ the 1st degree, & have received their just wastelands by being imprisoned—hopefully for life. The treasure is my father’s, & thus belongs to me. My workers here”—he swooped his hand toward the minions, who were still standing in ladder formation, considering it rude to interrupt the conversation by noisily getting down—“will be paid in wages for their help, ’course.”
“Eightch, that rat may have a different opinion,” O’Beefe said as he pointed to his right.
Everyone turned to see a hand-sized rat on its hind legs step toward the tower o’ henchmen with a radiating green fang protruding.
“What is that?” Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty cried.
“It’s straight out o’ a bad comic book!” Razzmatazz shouted.
“I’m ’fraid o’ mice!”
“I’m ’fraid o’ hand-sized things!” Then Agent Granny Smith Apple gasped as he looked @ his hands. “Including my hands! Ahhh!”
The minions toppled over in their scramble to get ’way from the rat & Agent Granny Smith Apple’s hands. Then everyone saw a net jump on them, covering them like a blanket. They struggled gainst it, but felt it attach its edges to the ground, holding them inside.
All eyes traveled through the path the net shot from to see O’Beefe standing there with a Creamsicle-colored plastic pistol pointed @ the trapped guards, O’Beefe’s mouth & eyes in the same optimistic shapes as usual.
“What do you think you’re—”
O’Beefe tilted his pistol nozzle @ Lance & silenced him with a net shot, trapping Lance to the ground just like his henchmen.
O’Beefe looked up @ Autumn, whose eyes were so wide, they were ’bout to fall out their holes, & said, “I forgot to mention something when I introduced myself. ’Course, everything I said was true; but there were some true things I neglected to say, such as that my favorite food is raddish bagels. Part o’ journalism is deciding what truths are worth telling, & which are better kept ’way from the public, after all.
“Well, the truth I neglected to mention was that, in addition to being an internationally-illustrious journalist”—O’Beefe twisted round & formed his tilted pose with the arm aimed up in the sky ’gain—“I am also an internationally-illustrious thief, myself.
“You’re also probably wondering ’bout where the mutated rat came from,” O’Beefe said as he paced. “You may recall me being attacked by a bunch o’ rats or burning my hand on dripping acid, leaving no burn mark whatsoever. Well, those were admittedly full-on, Heavens to Margaret, aggregately lies. These were just ruses so I could collect the acid & rats in superbly concealed containers. I knew from my research that the acid had radioactive powers and, in addition to the rat, would make a perfect ingredient to a stalling tactic I might need. Betcha didn’t expect that twist, now didn’t you?”
After a second o’ stunned silence, Autumn finally replied, “Why bother with such a convoluted setup? Why not just pretend you needed these elements for proof or research or something? You’re a journalist. Neither I nor Edgar would have thought anything o’ it.”
“&…” Edgar butt in, “& wasn’t going through all that just to make a rat that would… distract people kind o’ much? Surely there were simpler ways, right?”
O’Beefe shrugged. “We all think differently, I guess. I just never thought ’bout any alternative way o’ doing this. This way just seemed obvious.”
“& what ’bout the light fixture falling on your head?” Autumn asked. “How was that part o’ your plan?”
“O, that was just an accident. Truly hurt like the darwin, too.”
He stood back & readjusted his bowtie. “& now, with you 2 out o’ the way, I’ll record the tale o’ my amazing find o’ the legendary Chamsby treasure, & I’ll leave you all to keep the tale o’ how you might ’scape to yourselves.”
Lance, however, had a few mo’ words to say to O’Beefe as he proceeded to scoop nuggets & jewelry into a leather sack:
“This is robbery! You can’t just take my rightful treasure! I have property rights!”
“Doubleyew, you are a lollipoppingly perceptive man, Sir Chamsby. Have you thought ’bout becoming a journalist?I hear The Pacific is looking for up-&-coming journalists, so long as you give them your rent money every month.”
“Those Marxists? Never!” Lance said with his arms crossed & his face akin to a pouting child.
“I’ll tell you what, Sir Chamsby,” O’Beefe said as he began filling a 2nd bag: “I’ll give you 1 jewel, just to be fair & balanced.”
Lance, who still had his arms crossed & face pouting, said, “I get to choose which jewel.”
“O, I think I know exactly what you want…”
O’Beefe stopped & pulled his arm out the pipe to reveal a large, rainbow-colored egg-shaped jewel.
Autumn stared @ them both with wincing confusion for a second ’fore her memory uppercutted her.
That’s the opal that witch in the mask wanted. Damn it, it probably must be worth almost as much as the rest o’ that loot combined. “For my art projects,” my esophagus…
Lance stared @ the opal with frozen wonder, himself. O’Beefe tossed it to him, & Lance scrabbled for it as it fell to him. He continued clawing for it when it landed in his hands till he managed to squeeze it through a net hole.
With the opal safe in his hands, Lance felt safe ’nough to glare @ O’Beefe & say, “This is still theft, even if not as bad as the ponytailed Marxist’s.”
“I’m not a Marxist.”
O’Beefe nodded. “I put her down as a democratic socialist,” he said as he pointed to his notepad.
Lance’s face scrunched together as if he ate a giant lime or sniffed rotten meat. “That’s almost worst.”
“Anyway, I think I’ve collected all the treasure I need,” O’Beefe said brightly as he walked back to the pipe entrance with five bulging bags hanging over his shoulders. ’Fore he began his descent, he turned to Lance 1 last time with a playful stern look, as if he were going to lecture Lance on not shitting on the carpet.
“Now, you take care o’ that outrageous opal there, Sir Chamsby. We wouldn’t want it to fall into dangerous hands, now would we?”
Autumn thought she could see O’Beefe’s glasses shine in the light—which was odd, since O’Beefe wasn’t wearing any glasses.
O’Beefe faced the pipe entrance ’gain & snapped his fingers. The turtle in the cloud returned with O’Beefe’s red kart still attached to its fishing pole.
“Return me to the race track, Sir Turtle Cloud Turtle Sir,” O’Beefe said as he climbed inside. “This time I’m gonna aggregately win that feather cup.”
The turtle silently floated downward, till neither it nor O’Beefe was present anymore.
After a full minute o’ silence—during which Lance continued to struggle futilely in his net & his minions sat round reading Heathcliff—Autumn said, “Well, how the hell do we get out o’ here, now?”
“Hey, boss, could you do that heat trick with your head ’gain to cook us some tea,” Agent Razzmatazz asked. “I’m thirsty.”
“Hey, stop hogging the book, Agent Purple Mountains’ Majesty.”
“I didn’t. I’d never. You did.”
“Sir Chamsbyyyy, Purple Mountain’s Majesty’s not sharing…”
“If it’s his book, then he shouldn’t have to share if he doesn’t want to,” Lance said. “You should’ve bought & brought your own Heathcliff book. This is the only way the invisible hand will teach you.”
“Aww, come on, invisible hand…”
Autumn laid her cheek on the cold metal mandible, lids limping, & sighed.