Plunk. He groaned. These shoes had come in the mail just yesterday, after weeks of waiting, and he hadn’t treated the leather yet. Not wanting to appear petty, he took a few more steps into the water, submerging the tops of the boots and feeling the flood of cool water over his feet. At least this was storm drainage, he thought, and not sewage, a common but fortunate misconception that was probably the main thing keeping vagrants and vandals out of this place. It was a popular place for graffiti artists, but you never really saw anyone setting up camp in here, unless it was a particularly dry season and there as virtually no runoff from the lakes. But they’d had a wet winter, and it wasn’t over yet, so the tunnels ran with about 10 inches of chilly, fresh water at all times. Pretty clean, too, although he wouldn’t trust any of it to get near his mouth not knowing who or what might be doing its business upstream.
The beam of his flashlight swung in wide arcs, putting on a show for the small group that gathered loosely a ways behind him. It wasn’t the like the kind of group you’d draw at a crime scene, hungry for scandal and a glimpse of some poor sucker’s fate, but everyone wanted to at least hover casually nearby in case there was something gruesome to find in there. Someone had called in a big bird, must have been injured, they said, that flew into the tunnel screeching and causing a racket. This tunnel entrance was right on the edge of a park, so all the parents and nannies were extra worried about their kids seeing something dark happen, even if it was just a hurt or dying bird. These kids up here were far too coddled, spoiled even. If they couldn’t handle seeing a bird die then they sure as hell shouldn’t grow up anywhere near this city.
Grimacing, he slunk in farther, gritting his teeth. His flashlight hit a rise in the water, ahead and to the right. From here it could be some vandal’s hoodie or a mildewed towel. He glanced behind him. The group was tighter now, peering past him. Some of them had seen it too.
“You gonna go check that out?” yelled a woman. White lady, in her late 30’s or early 40’s, tight leggings and a tank top with neon running shoes. Her hair was down and shoulder length, and she held a pair of white earphones in her hand, the cord snaking back to the cell phone she wore in some contraption that kept it clipped onto her hip. He stared at her in response, and then slowly moved his head back to face the depths of the tunnel. They knew there was something in there too, so he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t seen anything and go back to the car, maybe pick up another coffee and get back to listening to NPR in the campus parking lot. There was a huge debate on today between the head of the local hospital and the guy spearheading the plans for a new basketball arena, this colossal structure that was going to bring in hundreds of thousands more people to a city that was already past its tipping point population-wise. He forgot most of the details, really, but he had snorted when he heard the old medical guy call the young financier’s plans “absolutely bonkers.” He wanted to hear how the rest of the thing went, and if they were really going to get as fired up as it seemed like they were starting to get when he got the call about this damn bird.
As he got closer to the thing, he became more and more certain that whatever it was, it wasn’t living. Light from his flashlight glinted off a surface that he now saw was slick, too slick to be a ratty old piece of clothing, and the substance was dark and oily, like a rag soaked in motor oil or fresh paint. He was only a few feet away now, the preservation of his boots a long-lost dream that he’d since resigned himself to, and though he hadn’t seen the thing move he knew that he’d need to get closer than he was comfortable with in order to see what it was. Glancing back ever few feet, he saw that the crowd wasn’t bored yet, and only looked at him with more intensity than ever now that he was nearing their point of interest. Vultures. People were insatiable nowadays, for drama, for grotesqueness, dumping all those social media pages and constant news streams down their throats trying to quell this bottomless pit of hunger for distraction from their own unfulfilling lives.
Walking up to it, he moved faster, assured now that it wasn’t going to fly up and surprise him. And he was right- it was fabric. Somebody’s clothes. The jacket was black and soaking wet, and the water made it look slick and leathery despite it being only heavy canvas. Using two fingers, he delicately pinched the thing, and feeling its weight against the draw of his wrist grabbed it harder. He lifted it up, as water drops cascaded into a stream and hit the shallow pool beneath. The curly writing on the tag inside the neck made it look like a women’s jacket, with size M printed clearly underneath the brand name. A glint alerted him to the jacket’s lapel, on which was pinned a small gold hexagon. The hexagon had a symbol inside, something that looped a few times but wasn’t easily identifiable as any brand or anything he knew of. Maybe a sorority or a girl scout club or something. What interested him more than the jacket, however, were the rubber boots left lying underneath where it had been crumpled up. The feet were small, like a petite woman’s shoes, but the boots themselves must have come up almost to the wearer’s knees. A dark green that matched the cold, dank interior of the tunnel, they lay on their sides collecting water as it trickled down the tunnels to the park’s creek. Sopping jacket in one hand, he picked up a boot and dumped out its contents, which glugged out like an overturned water cooler. The things were completely overkill for the type of weather we got around here, he thought. They were fit for a crab fisher or someone who actually worked in these tunnels, not some 100 pound crust punk girl that he was imagining these belonged to. Well, maybe one of those street kids that actually had their parents’ money, judging by how nice that gold pin looked. The thought of stealing the pin briefly occurred to him, and then quickly flickered out, a remnant spark of his younger days. He had no use for someone’s fancy pin, he knew that, but god if he didn’t used to get such a kick out of stealing things for the hell of it.
Out of some unexpected compulsion he peeked inside one of the boots, shining his Maglite into the dark rising cavern of its leg. His intuition was right and it wasn’t empty. Something dark and wet clung to the insides, like dead leaves, and against his better judgment he reached in to pull one out. Its softness was surprising and he nearly recoiled when he wasn’t greeted with the mushy mass of decomposing plant matter he originally anticipated. Clasping it by its stiffest point he imagined what it might be, hoping it was just a twig covered in moss and not a dirty syringe, and just in case it was making certain to keep his fingers away from its pointed end, and silently cursing the nosey neighbors behind him for making him go through a pile of what almost certainly amounted to nothing but some homeless kid’s clothes, getting him exposed to god knows what bodily fluids and sticking his hands into dirty shoes, the entire thing was disgusting. This was the worst part of his job. He originally set out to do this to protect wildlife and make sure the right plants were growing in the right places, and maybe once in a while to yell at someone for not picking up their dog’s shit, but not this kind of stuff, responding to the whining of the local community with their luxury baby strollers that cost more than his car and their farmer’s markets and their peanut allergies and their almond milk, or almond butter, or whatever they were eating now. It was about damn time he bought that piece of land in Oregon, and if he couldn’t buy the one he’d had his eye on he’d buy another one. There was enough land in Oregon to go around, at least for now, if he could get there before everybody else in the Bay Area remembered that there are places to live outside California that are less crowded and less polluted than this place.
He pulled the thing out. It wasn’t a needle, and it seemed to glow in a way that wasn’t aided by his flashlight. It was white, but a pearly kind of translucent white, and thicker around than he’d expected. It was nearly as big around as a Number 2 pencil. The plumes were matted down beyond distinction but, he realized as he ran his fingertip gently up the dark protrusions, it looked to be a massive feather. Quickly, he stuck the feather into his back pocket, the one that faced away from the crowd at the mouth of the tunnel. Dropping the boot, in one move he picked up the jacket again, felt around the collar until he felt the cool metal of the pin, removed its back, slid the pin out, put its parts back together and slipped it, too, into his back pocket.