…and what they said at the bar

June, 2017 — Denver, Colorado

The Star Bar is in a neighborhood that seems to be half given over to cracked parking lots, with the remaining fifty percent equally split between low-rent apartments, warehouses, “party” stores, and bars. If you approach the Star in the evening, it stands out among its neighboring structures for two reasons. First, because its outer walls lack graffiti. This seems supernatural until you realize that the the simple white paint on the brick and corrugated metal surfaces is inexpensive enough to reapply weekly if necessary. Even artists whose greatest aspiration is the creation of colorful gang spoor like to see their work last longer than an average of three and a half days.

The second reason that the Star stands out is the brilliant sign from which it takes its name: a five-pointed red sheriff’s star, outlined in white neon, and with the word Star written in the center in flowing script fashioned from the same slender neon tubing.

The care with which the walls and the neon sign are protected is your first clue that the place might not be quite as much of a dive as you would assume from the neighborhood. But it’s not until you get inside that you see how very much not-a-dive the place really is.

Inside, the Star Bar is a haven of polished wood and burnished iron and copper lit by wide fireplaces and large gigapixel displays on the walls. On the displays are slowly changing images of the West as it was a hundred years ago, and may still be in places far away from Denver. Long tables line the open areas, with leather couch seating on one side and benches on the other. Heavy wooden tables are nestled in more private recesses, and it is in one of these areas that Walt Lanman finds Mike and the other four clowns who, once upon a time, made up Ross Construction—a name to be reckoned with in the sorry, decrepit old midwest.

“Hey man!” large young Russel grins and slaps Walt on the back hard enough to lean him forward as he takes one of the wooden seats around the long table. “Where you been?”

“I thought you sailors would like me better if I took a shower first.”

Across the table, Don snorts and reaches for his beer.

“Hell of a nice room, Mike,” Walt nods to Ross. “Thanks. It’s been a while.” A girl stops by and Walt orders his usual whiskey.

“Well,” Ross smiles, “that’s what we’re talking about. One thing there’s no shortage of is money, if we can deal with the job.”

“Okay, sure,” Don says, continuing the conversation that was already under way. “Of course I could use the money. But I can’t say I care for a client where we have to be meeting and talking at bars because they’re a bunch of goddamn spies!

“Well, if you don’t have anything to hide you don’t have anything to worry about,” Larry smiles at him from across the table. With Larry you never know but that a comment like that might actually be meant exactly as he said it.

“It’s a government project,” Mike speaks up. “HomeSec or whatever. Yes, I expect they will have a microphone or two listening in. You just have to expect that sort of thing nowadays. I’m not paranoid about it,” he inadvertently glances at Walt, “I just wanted us—all of us—to be able to talk freely this first time. After this, I don’t think we have to meet this way every time.”

“So look, guys,” Russel leans back and makes an expansive wave with his big arms. “It’s a job, right?” He laughs, looking around the table. “I mean, okay, big tunnel. Yeah. I got that.” He leans forward to make a let’s be reasonable gesture. “But did you guys all suddenly like get rich without telling me? Because, man, I for one could use a fuckin paycheck, you know?” He picks up his beer but then pauses before drinking from it. “And this looks like a big damn paycheck. Right?”

Walt laughs.

~

“Get serious, Russel” Walt says quietly. He looks around the table. “Are we really talking about whether we can make money, but we’re not going to talk about what we actually just saw? Doesn’t anybody want to know what hell we’re getting into here? Are you gonna jump into a chipper because they tell you there’s good paycheck in it for you?”

He sips from his whiskey and looks at Mike. “And you know that’s the real question.”

At five and a half feet Walt is physically the smallest of the team, but he has a kind of physical and spiritual intensity that more than compensates for his size. He’s not the only one of the gang to have seen military service, but Walt is old enough to have seen action back in the early 90s, in the first war in Iraq. He’s a wiry guy who served with an artillery group during that conflict—which many people now believe was the precursor to 9/11, 10/11, and finally the War—and it sometimes seems like he still has the tan he must have picked up in the desert almost thirty years ago now.

Mike glances at Walt, and shifts in his seat.

“Look,” Mike says, “you know the government has probably been working on things like this since the War.”

“You think that was done since the War?” Walt asks incredulously. “Mike, you really think that shit got done in the last seven years?” He raises his eyebrows. You really cannot bullshit Walt. “That tunnel goes from Front Range to frikkin’ Denver. That’s, what, eight miles? And it’s not the only one. Not by a long shot.”

“Oh, and how’d you know that, Einstein?” Russel speaks up before Mike can reply.

Walt gives him a sardonic look. He has always been patient with Russ. “Because I looked down through the crack when we were stepping out of the elevator. While you were staring with your mouth open at the big pretty tunnel. I don’t know if there’s other tunnels beneath the one they showed us, but I do know that elevator shaft we were in goes way the hell deeper.”

“No shit!” Russel looks back at the older man like he has just demonstrated the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes. He nods, contemplating, and takes a big gulp of his beer.

“So what’s your point, Walt?” Don asks. As usual, Don has a beer like most of the guys. Also as usual, he’s barely touching it. “So maybe they started it before the War—so what? It’s a government project, and they can use us. That’s good enough for me! Like Russ says, it’s a paycheck, man. I’m sure we could all use it.”

“My point is, Donald,” Walt replies, “that we don’t know what the hell we’re getting into here. Has anybody noticed they’re in a hurry to get this done? That’s why they’re hiring people like us in the first place, right?” Walt takes a quick angry sip of his whisky and sets the glass down so he can use both hands to illustrate his concerns. “I mean, look. They must have started this thing, what, ten years ago easy! And that’s just from what we glimpsed so far. We don’t know how much bigger this thing might be. And yet they kept it secret all this time. Think about that. Any of you guys ever heard a whisper about this? And look at the size of it!”

“There was the hum,” Mike hears himself say.

Walt stops talking and just looks at him.

Mike takes a deep breath and looks around at his guys. They’re all big boys now, and quite capable of looking after themselves. Nevertheless, he’s the boss. He’s the guy who finds the work, and he’s the guy who invited them out here. So they’re his guys.

Moreover, he knows Walt is right: this deal is weirder than what he has been willing to think about. If he knows anything that might affect their decision, he has to speak up.

“People out west here,” he says slowly, “I mean sometimes. And some people, not everybody. They’ve been hearing this hum. Like from underground. It’s something I read about once. The authorities never seem to be able to explain it, but it also seemed like none of them ever looked real hard.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Quentin speaks up, just audible above the noise of the bar. Quentin is almost as tall as Russel, but not as large-framed. He’s always the guy on projects who will do whatever heavy calculating or internet research that needs to be done. It’s always struck Mike that Quentin is the kind of guy who, in a different world, would have liked to be an engineer or a doctor or something.

“A couple percent of people would say that they heard something from time to time. Which is just what you would expect for the kind of noise they were reporting. It was a deep note, like C2 or so. Sixty-five Hertz. Most people wouldn’t be able to hear that, if it were faint.” He frowns, and sips from his glass of red wine before setting it down again. “But that was in Taos, New Mexico.”

“Frikking Taos?” Walt says. “How the fuck far away is that?”

“Two hundred miles or so,” Quentin replies calmly. “Maybe two fifty. But a tunnel boring machine of that size has to make a good amount of noise, and the low notes would travel the greatest distance. Also, we don’t know how far some of these tunnels might go.”

“But anyway,” Quentin frowns thoughtfully, reaching slowly for his glass, “wasn’t that way back in—was it the early nineties? I remember reading about that in a magazine or something.”

“Oh,” he says, stopping as he touches the glass. He leans back in his chair.

“What?” Mike asks.

Quentin frowns. “That’s why they did it near a large airport, and a major city. People around here—they’ll never hear anything. Or they won’t think much of it if they do. There’s an airport. Of course you’re going to hear things. They probably planned the complex so that just the shallow parts of it are in this area. A lot of it could be further south, under the mountains. For—security, presumably. What could be better, if you have tunnel-boring capability like that? When they were building the earlier parts further south, that’s when people down in Taos were hearing that hum. Low-frequency sound could carry a long way through solid rock.

“Now they’re almost done, so they’re working more on the parts that are close to the surface—but those parts they designed to be near a major airport and urban area, because if the shallow parts were out in the boondocks, people out there would really hear them. It would be hard to gloss over.”

As everyone is digesting that idea, Mike takes a breath. “Well,” he says, “that reminds me of something. When the guy—the tour guide or whatever he is. Same one you guys met. When he first showed me around he said that there was cracking on the upper levels. Which sure makes it sound like not only are there more tunnels deeper—there’s more yet underneath them that don’t have this problem.

“No shit.” Walt looks at Quentin and Mike, the wheels turning in his head.

“All right,” he says, glancing around the table. “Okay, listen, this is all making sense.” Walt leans forward with his elbows on the knife-scarred wood of the table. “They started this damn thing maybe thirty years ago. Maybe more! And it’s big. They been hiding it for a long time.”

“No way,” Larry speaks up. He’s been content to just listen thus far, but this idea out of Walt seems to upset him. “There is no way that people can keep a secret that big, that long.”

“And who told you that bullshit?” Walt says. “The people who want to keep the secrets? How long were the Japs working on nukes, and nobody knew it until two years after Fukushima?”

“Well,” Larry gestures dismissively, “the Japanese—”

“How many people worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, and nobody knew about it?”

“More than a hundred thousand,” Quentin says. “And they spent two billion dollars back then. In today’s money, over thirty billion.”

“Well, there you go,” Walt opens his hand toward Quentin. “And isn’t that just a perfect example? All they have to do is say National Security, and everybody today just rolls over, right? They can spend as much money as they want, shut up as many people as they want. Get guys like us to do the work and not talk about it afterwards.”

“That’s still no reason we shouldn’t take the job,” Larry says, though he softens the statement with a smile. Larry has gained more weight in recent years, and his hair is thinning, but he’s still willing to counter what he sees as Walt’s inordinate love of deep dark conspiracy theories. “Still not seeing the point here Walt.”

“All right, look,” Walt glances at his whisky with a little regret, still apparently needing both of his hands to be able to get his point across. “So, they been working on this a long time, right? And it’s big. We don’t know how big. Now they’re getting close to finished, working on the parts close to Denver. But now what are we seeing?”

“A chance for a good job?” Larry smiles back.

“We’re seeing that they are in one hell of a hurry,” Walt frown, taking advantage of the interruption to get a quick drink.

“Look,” he says. “They got cracks in the walls, but only in the ‘upper levels’. The new ones. Why? They must gave got some people running the big tunnel machines who didn’t quite know what they were doing. And why’s that? Because they still got all the good people, but they’re all working on other parts of the project!

“Don’t you see it?” Walt leans forward insistently. “Look at the fact that they’re even hiring us! We got no security clearance, do we? They’re not even going through the motions! They just say ‘Come on in boys, get to work. Here’s a bunch of money.’

“What I say is—I want to know what these guys are so scared of.”

Larry leans back in his seat thoughtfully, his habitual smile fading. Russel attempts to come to his rescue.

“The dot-gov guys are always nervous about something, Walt,” he booms happily. “You oughta know that.”

“No, look,” Walt says. “When I was a kid, Reagan wanted to put MX missiles on rails all over out here. In the west. Hell, for all we know that was part of the cover for this project! Well, it was a big deal back then. Big money, lots of arguments in congress, and it finally got voted down.

“Well, I’ll tell you guys,” he looks around the table. “This is way in the hell bigger than that. This is bigger than anything we’ve ever heard of before. What I’m saying is—the War ended. Didn’t it? And we won, right? Foreign Command has pretty much the whole damn world, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Don mutters, “as long as they remember whose damn side they’re on.”

“Yeah, okay,” Walt says. “But what I’m saying is—why are these guys in such a hurry? If they got more tunnels below what we saw, and some of ’em go halfway to Taos? Guys? That means this ain’t a couple of tunnels that we just saw. This is a city.”

He stops for a breath, and looks around again, knowing that nobody is going to interrupt.

“It’s a big city, that they have gone to a lot of trouble to keep secret. And when people with a big secret city underground—when people like that are hiring and spending like there’s—um—no tomorrow? Well, I think it might be a real damn good idea to find out why.”

“I think you’re absolutely right,” Mike says instantly.

Walt looks at him slowly, as though he’s nervous about moving too quickly. Like he might move if he had just discovered a rattlesnake in his boot. His eyes narrow.

Walt has had many years of practice at being suspicious about the world, at seeing conspiracies behind every world event. That, together with the work of his day-job (construction work, specializing in semi-highrise steel and pumped, air-entrained concrete) is how he spends most of his time.

Mike Ross, on the other hand, has spent his time managing.

“I couldn’t agree more,” he says, smiling cheerfully back at Walt.

“With which part?” Walt asks suspiciously.

“Well, you said we have to find out why they’re in such a hurry, right? Which I guess means we’re taking the job. I mean,” Mike continues without giving him a chance to react, “we’ll sure never know if we turn it down, right?”

“Oh, Jesus,” Walt shakes his head. “Why do I even talk to you guys?”

Larry and Don both laugh at his evident disgust, although Larry probably has to mentally blip out Walt’s taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain. Over the years, he’s had a lot of practice. Even Quentin smiles at Mike’s sophistry. Mike just looks around the table with practiced innocence.

“Cool beans!” Russel exclaims, and slaps Walt on the back hard enough to threaten the smaller man’s grip on his whisky. “So we’re doin’ it? Let’s drink to it!”

~

Mike gets back to his room late and fumbles a little with the door lock before he gets it right. The room is only semi-dark. The shades are all open as he left them, and the lights of Denver shining up through the unusually mild air of this March night make the room’s ceiling glow in colors.

He stares out at the city for a few seconds, then takes his phone out of his jacket pocket and sets it on an expensive-looking side table. He frowns at the phone for a moment, then turns away. A small part of Mike Ross’s mind knows that about the last thing he needs right now is another drink. But that part gets pretty handily outvoted when he realizes that the room has a minibar, and the minibar has little bottles of booze in it like they have in the airplanes. He opens the door of the little refrigerator and smiles at the line of little bottles of vodka and whiskey.

Five minutes later two of the little bottles are empty and his cellphone is still sitting across the room waiting. Looking at it, Mike nods and pushes off the minibar’s counter to walk across the carpeted room.

There’s no reason not to call. It’s earlier there anyway, isn’t it? The phone is one its second ring when he realizes that, no, it’s later there. It’s earlier here. But that doesn’t matter.

So of course, it goes to voicemail.

Fine.

“Hey, Lin,” he says, hesitant at first. “I, um—well, we—it looks like we’re taking the job!” She didn’t want him to come out here, but then it has become pretty damn clear that she wants a lot of things, and many of them contradictory. Once the first statement is out, the alcohol buzz finally does its job and lets him speak.

“And listen,” he says quickly, as though she might hang up even though she’s not there, “this is the job we’ve been waiting for.” The job he’s been waiting for would perhaps be more accurate, but this isn’t a time for that kind of accuracy.

“This is the big one, baby,” he says in a rush. “This is the one that’s going to get us back on our feet.”

Earlier today he made a show of having the guys talk at the bar instead of in the room, since he’s pretty certain there will be listening devices in here, and he knew what kind of things Walt, at least, would have to say about this job. But for this conversation—he couldn’t care less. Let them listen. There’s probably nobody on the other end of the damn microphones anyway.

“So we’re—the guys and me talked it over and we’re taking it. So, um, they’ll be getting their guys together. And—I’ll send you something as soon as I get paid, okay? It’s gonna be good.”

He finally stops babbling and closes the phone. For a while he wonders if she might have been there listening, and might decide to call back. But of course she doesn’t.

Eventually he lights a cigarette and walks back to the window, to look down at the big city.

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