She drives a beater Volvo station wagon that used to belong to her parents. She never locks the door. The radio was stolen years ago, a black rectangle with wires dangling from it. Now there is nothing to steal but gum wrappers and coffee cups. She ripped out the backseat to make room for her dog, a German shepherd named Hemingway, and the car is shagged over with his hair. It takes a few cranks to turn the engine over. She hears her phone buzzing in her purse and doesn’t bother answering it, knowing it is likely Brandon pestering her further. She doesn’t own a smartphone. She owns what her friends call a Flintstone phone, whatever the rep at Paradise Wireless offered her for free five years ago. It looks a little like a scarred bullet. The numbers are worn off the keypad. When she is having a conversation, other voices ghost in and out, due to some echoey distortion or a faulty antenna that pirates other calls.
She does not text. She does not Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any of that other digital nonsense, the many online whirlpools that seem to encourage boasting and bitching. She doesn’t care about your crazy cat, your ugly baby, your Cancún vacation, your Ethiopian meal, your political outrage and micro-complaints and competitive victimhood. She doesn’t want social media eroding her privacy or advertisers assaulting her with customized commercials. There’s too much noise and too little solitude in the world. Everybody should shut the fuck up and get back to work.
The Oregonian assigned her an email address, but she hates to use it, prefers to call or write letters. She likes things that are tactile. That might be one of the reasons she became a reporter: the memory of her father reading the newspaper at the kitchen table every morning until his coffee went cold and his finger pads blackened with ink. Last Christmas her sister, Cheryl, bought her an e-reader, and Lela held it with the tips of her fingers like something found moldering in the back of the fridge. She returned it and used the money at REI on a Gerber belt knife, a fleece headband, a pair of SmartWools.
Now she drives to the Pearl District, the semi-industrial area that has been, over the past fifteen years, slowly redeveloped. There are homeless men slumped on benches and pushing grocery carts, muttering to themselves. There are shelters and psychic readers and soup kitchens and tattoo parlors. But alongside the cracked windows and boarded-up doorways, there are lofts and theaters, Peruvian restaurants and French bakeries, bars and coffee shops, so many coffee shops, as if the city were under some narcoleptic spell. Old buildings of marble, cream brick, red brick are interrupted by new buildings of glass that jut up sharply. Bronze water fountains — called Benson Bubblers — burble on almost every street corner, making it sound as if it were raining even when it is not.
A man stands on a milk crate. He raises his arms to the sky and talks about damnation, hellish torment, the doom of the world. This is Lump. So named because of the warts that cover every inch of him. Even his tongue — she has noticed — carries a gray jewel of flesh at the tip. He wears layers of black, sweatshirts and jeans and jackets that have been scissored and torn and resewn in such a way that they appear like one ragged complicated cloak. The crows keep him company. One perches on his shoulder now — two others rest on a nearby sill. She once saw him on a park bench surrounded by twenty or more. They are his eyes, he says. Like spores he hurls to the wind to know the news of the city. She has used Lump as a source more than once. The street sometimes knows things before the rest of us.
The sidewalks are wet, the same dark gray as the buildings and the clouds above, the gray of Portland, its defining color. The sun tries to bully through but can’t manage more than a white splotch. This is early afternoon, and with the noon rush over, only a few people scatter the streets. A woman in low-slung jeans and knee-high leather boots walks a tiny dog. Two androgynous hipsters — one with blue hair, the other cardinal red, both of them skinny-jeaned and nose-ringed — lean into each other for a kiss. She spots a homeless teen— you can always recognize them, no matter their clothes, by their soiled backpacks — and a man in a black fleece talking excitedly into his Bluetooth headset. A bus knocks through puddles. Pigeons explode from a maple stripped of leaves. She heads to the north end of the Pearl between the Fremont Bridge and the Broadway Bridge, and finds a parking spot a block away from the Rue. Before she gets out of the Volvo, she pulls out a bottle of Adderall and strangles off the cap. She shakes out one pill. Then, after a moment’s pause, another. She drops them into the cup holder and crushes them with the butt of the bottle. She digs around on the floor for an empty fountain drink. She slides the straw from it. Bites it in half. Then uses it to snort the pills. Her eyes water and she sneezes. It would be easier to swallow them for sure, but she likes the brain-burning jolt she gets from sniffing them. She kicks open the door, checks her reflection in the side mirror, and wipes her nose before setting off. She drags her purse with her. It is fat-bottomed, made from canvas, the size of a small suitcase. She jokes that she could pull a lamp from it, a pogo stick, five dwarves, and a trampoline, like some demented Mary Pop-pins. Due to the shouldered weight of it, she has a habit of leaning to the left. She burrows through it now to make sure she has what she needs: pen, notebook, camera.
She can hear a MAX train rattling down a nearby street, and she can smell the mossy funk of the Willamette River, and she can see up ahead the cavernous space where the Rue once stood. She slows her pace. She wears a pair of hard-soled Keens, and they clop the pavement and make her realize how quiet the street is. In the times she visited this place before, she noticed the same, the quiet, as if some mourning shawl surrounded the block. But now it is a construction zone and ought to be filled with the steady tock of hammers, the boom of dropped pallets, the growl of backhoes and bulldozers.
A crow caws. She looks up to see five of them watching her, roosting on telephone wires, appearing against the gray sky like notes on an old piece of sheet music. She gives them a wave and wonders if they’ll pass the message along to Lump.
Now she stands before a temporary wall — made from tall sheets of plywood — that surrounds the acre lot. There is a Dumpster, two pickups, and a trailer. When she cocks an ear, faintly she hears what at first sounds like whispering. Or feathery breathing. She listens another moment and the sound clarifies into digging. The shush and clink of shovels, the heavy plop of dirt filling wheelbarrows.
When she wrote the article about the Rue — about its famous tenant, Jeremy Tusk — she rounded up some of the old neighbors, the ones who were willing to talk. They said they noticed the sounds long before they noticed the smell. The sounds of what turned out to be saws drawn along bones, cleavers severing joints. Some guessed Jeremy a hobbyist, a woodworker toying with some project. When the police kicked down his door, they found four plastic storage bins full of hydrofluoric acid with as many bodies bathing in them, dissolving slowly. More were stored in the fridge and freezer. Ten skulls grinned on the bookshelves. And a lampshade glowed on a side table and a jacket hung in the closet and curtains hung from the windows — all stitched from tanned flesh. There were designs chalked and painted on the floors and walls and ceiling. Black and red candles burned down to nubs. Gemstones, eggs, antlers, daggers. A crow mask and a deer mask and a wolf mask sitting on a shelf. He ritualized murder, communed with a darker frequency.
Lela walks the length of the barricade, past rain-smeared posters and black-and-white tangles of graffiti. Someone has spray-painted what looks like a hand, a red right hand, with fangs coming out of the palm, across the door. A padlock hangs loose on the latch. She slides the tooth of it out. She creaks open the door — with the same slowness and care that she opened the fridge in Jeremy’s apartment so long ago. It was still there, as though waiting for someone to plug it in, fill it with a gallon of milk, a bag of red apples. The interior released a smell so profoundly rotten, she felt fouled for days for having drawn it into her body.
Inside the construction site, she discovers a roughly hewn crater, several stories deep. The walls of it are cut flat and striped with concrete and stone and gravel and clay that looks like the firm red muscle of a heart. At the bottom of the pit, grayed by shadow, a dozen men lean on shovels or kneel with trowels and whisks. They are digging, unearthing, working around mounds of varying heights. An archaeological dig. This happens often. Construction begins and one of the workers discovers a shattered pot or seed cache or an atlatl dart, and a team of UO scholars drives up from Eugene to excavate.
Every mound glints with whites and yellows and browns, as if shellacked. It is then she recognizes the bones. They poke from the dirt, tangles of them, puzzles of ribs and femurs and skulls. She is looking at a graveyard, and she is looking at it now through the eye of her camera. She has drawn it from her purse, and she has thumbed the cap and twisted the focus without even thinking. It is ingrained in her, a part of her muscle memory, her constant need to document what she finds compelling.
Though it’s dark at the bottom of the pit, she turns off the flash. She doesn’t want to be noticed. Not yet. The camera clicks as she takes shot after shot, but none of the men turn toward her, focused on their task.
One of them — small, appearing almost like a child except for his old man’s face — wanders among the burial mounds. He looks so delicate and different from the other blockish men. She guesses him their supervisor. He is as bald as an infant, and what little hair he has springs in downy tufts around his ears. He says something — in a language she does not recognize, his words sharp with consonants — to one of the workers. Something reproachful that makes him hand over his trowel and step away from the mound.
The small man leans in and blows away a puff of dust. Then, with surgical precision, he removes what appears to be a skull, maybe human, though it seems too long. Some dirt falls from its hollows when he holds it up for everyone to see. Then he carries it to a table made from a sheet of plywood laid over sawhorses. Here it joins an arrangement of bones.
She has visited two archaeological sites for stories. A weeklong OMSI camp, themed around Lewis and Clark, that dug into a section of Fort Clatsop. And a summer class with UO that excavated a Paiute village in Christmas Valley. In both instances, the sites were gridded with string. The archaeologists were exacting about measurements, the precise location of every obsidian flake and broken bone and fibrous sandal found within the grid. She was expecting Indiana Jones, but it felt more like the slow disarrangement of a 3D jigsaw puzzle.
That isn’t the case here. No grid. No map. No sifting screens. Not even a ponytailed grad student in cargo shorts drinking from a Nalgene bottle covered with National Park stickers. Here instead is trouble — of this she feels certain.
Whoever Undertown is — whatever they’re building — they don’t want their project shut down by this discovery. So they must have erected high walls around the site in order to take care of it secretly. Actual walls that matched the privacy of their digital walls.
She snaps several more photos, wishing she brought the long lens, wishing she could get closer. There is an underground exit at the corner of the pit. A black hollow framed by a brick doorway. Maybe an entrance to the tunnel system that runs beneath Portland. She doesn’t notice it until someone — a black-bearded man — steps from it and calls to the others. They pause in their work and he waves to them, and one by one they set down their tools and follow.
A staggered ramp runs from the top of the construction site to the bottom. Lela tromps down it without hesitation. She tries to keep her footsteps quiet, but the ramp is loose on its scaffolding and the boards boom below her. At the bottom of the site, the air is cooler. There is a musty, almost sulfuric taste to it. The noise of the world falls away completely except for a muffled growl of a jet somewhere overhead.
She goes first to the table. It is clotted with dirt and busy with yellow-brown bones. She snaps a photo and reaches for the skull. Its deformity is clear now — too long and thin, almost snouted — what she imagines a baboon or warthog might look like beneath the skin. The teeth are as long as her fingers. Lines run across the bone, sometimes straight, sometimes curled, sometimes arranged into what appear to be pentagonal patterns. It reminds her of the beetle-bitten wood found on a tree when you peel the bark damply from it.
She hears the small man before she sees him. “No,” he says in a high, raspy voice. “No trespass!” His face is tight with anger. He stands in the doorway to the tunnel, the shadows thickly surrounding him. She is already backing away, already retreating up the ramp when he calls over his shoulder. She doesn’t recognize the language he speaks — could it be Latin, like something out of a Roman Catholic service? — but the meaning is clear as the other men kick their way up the stone stairs.
She’s talked and fought herself out of plenty of dangerous situations. She’s been threatened with a knife, a gun. She’s been undercover in a heroin den — a graffitied room with two soiled mattresses and a lava lamp — when an addict started feeling her up and paused his hand at the battery pack for her hidden camera. When he asked what it was, she said, “An insulin pump. I have diabetes,” and then offered to tie off his arm while he shot up.
Sometimes you talk and sometimes you fight and sometimes you run. She runs now, pounding up the ramp. It elbows, ten feet off the ground, onto its second level. Here she skids to a stop.
Down below, the small man is speaking rapid-fire in another language, making his hand into a blade and cutting the air in her direction. The men pour out of the tunnel and head toward her, some of them gripping trowels in their hands as though they were knives.
She doesn’t realize until now that she still holds the skull in her hand. She sets it down on the platform. Then twists off an anchoring clamp and hefts the bottom ramp. It scrapes half off the scaffolding. She kicks it — once, twice — and it loses its purchase and falls to the ground with a whoomp of displaced air that sends a cloud of grit into the approaching men.
She scoops up the skull, her finger hooking an eye socket, and considers hurling it down as well. Anything to stop their progress. She pauses her hand. She has photos, but the skull is hard evidence. Something tangible to share with police, professors. She shoves it into her purse and sprints the rest of the way up. The camera thuds against her chest. Her eyes water from wind or nerves, blurring her vision of the workers fumbling with the fallen ramp and the black-bearded man clanking up an extension ladder toward her.
From The Dark Net. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Copyright © 2017 by Benjamin Percy.