Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 9
Hasta, Ivan and Mr. Veeramachaneni battle a combination lock with a mocking sense of humor in order to get Juan free.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Ivan stumbled through darkness, batting at the cats that clung hissing to his back and shoulders. Something he bashed into collapsed with a great crash, and he fell on top of it as the cats screeched and jumped away.
Aching, dazed and disoriented, Ivan pushed himself to his feet and scoped his surroundings. The dark space was a storage room piled with shelves and boxes, one stack of which he had tipped over. Half a dozen cats arched their backs and hissed at him from various perches around the room. Their eyes shone bright green through his circled hand.
Then he spotted, leaning against the wall behind him, the window through which he’d stumbled.
He’d been looking behind that big dumpster when the cats slammed into his back en masse. Their momentum sent him staggering into the gap, where he fell through a sharp-edged shadow. And here he was.
He was just looking around for a way out when the door flew open. The cats flicked their tails angrily as a shadow surrounded by crazy rainbow light poked its head inside. “Ivan?”
“Hasta!” Ivan said, swaying on his feet.
She rushed into the room and flung her arms around him. She squeezed so tightly that he had a hard time breathing. “You’re okay!” she said. She pulled back and reached way up to touch the side of his head. “Well, you’re bleeding.”
Ivan touched his temple, which was still tingling from Hasta’s touch. His fingers came away bloody.
“Oh, Ivan, I’m so, so sorry. I never should have let you talk me into flipping you in here. What happened? Did we hear cats?”
Ivan’s stomach was cramping like nobody’s business. He put a hand out, dizzy, looking around for cats that no longer seemed to be there. “We?” he asked.
His legs suddenly buckled. Hasta grabbed his arm tight, while someone else shoved a crate into place behind him. Ivan sat down hard. “Mr. V.?” he said, squinting at the brown, mustached face peering down at him in concern.
“You just sit there and catch your breath,” Mr. V. said. “You’re bleeding in several places.”
Hasta’s father left the storeroom while she squatted next to Ivan, patting his hand. He put his head down on his knees.
“Ivan,” Hasta asked, “what happened here?”
He took deep, slow breaths. His dizziness had started to subside. “It’s a long story,” he said. “I take it we’re inside the bunker?”
Hasta looked at him worriedly. “Where else would we be?”
Ivan noticed brown powder spilling from an overturned box. His breath quickened. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
“Raw sugar, according to the boxes.”
A fresh cramp made Ivan double over again. “Not drift,” he said, trying to keep the dismay out of his voice. “I wonder what it’s for.”
“Maybe it’s an ingredient?”
Ivan nodded, grimacing. “Could be.”
Mr. V. returned with a couple of dripping hand towels. “I couldn’t find any first-aid supplies,” he said, “but these might help.”
While her father pressed the cold towels to Ivan’s wounds, Hasta filled him in on what had happened to her since they’d separated, right up to freezing Cory as she entered the bunker.
“Better check on him,” Ivan said. “When Mr. Sunshine silenced me, the spell wore off after a few minutes.”
“Be right back.” Hasta ran out of the room.
“Has your entire night been as hair-raising as this?” Mr. V. asked, squatting back on his heels.
Ruefully, Ivan laughed. He was glad for the cold towel pressed to his aching head. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it.”
Mr. V. patted him on the shoulder. “I suspect I’m glad of that. But I’m more glad my daughter has had such a steadfast and trustworthy companion tonight. Thank you, Ivan.”
It was kind of hard to talk around the lump that rose in her throat. “Yeah, Mr. V., of course. She’s a good man in a tight corner. I mean—well, you know.”
“I do,” said Mr. V., chuckling.
“What are you two laughing about?” Hasta said, reentering the storage room.
“Nothing,” said Ivan.
“Cory’s still frozen solid,” she said. “I tried pushing him over, but he won’t budge. Your turn, Ivan. Let’s hear your story.”
Ivan pointed to the tall rectangle leaning against one wall. “Apparently I came here through that,” he said. “I was out in some alley, following tracks in the snow, when I kind of stumbled through this portal. The cats came through with me.”
Mr. V. crossed to the black rectangle and touched it tentatively. “Came through it how?” he asked. He looked behind it. “This is just a stiff sheet of plastic.”
Frowning, Hasta joined him. Ivan turned on the crate to watch. She reached out to touch the rectangle. Her hand sank into its black surface. “Cold on the other side.”
Mr. V. stepped back in surprise, one hand to his chest. “Curiouser and curiouser,” he said.
“Where was the alley?” Hasta asked. “How’d you end up there?”
“Oh, God,” Ivan said, thinking where to start. “I was in this tiny room. A closet, really.” Just mentioning it made him feel claustrophobic again. “When I couldn’t get out, I went to sleep, and there you were, on that plain. Juan was there too, and I went and traded weapons with him, and then . . . I don’t know. I woke up in another room, a bigger room, in some old burned-out building, and . . .” He sat up straight. “Juan. I almost forgot about him. I think we switched places. Hasta, I think he might be upstairs!”
Mr. V. helped him stand while Hasta bolted from the room. Ivan leaned on the older man as they exited the storeroom and walked next to bizarre collection of bead curtains. Mr. V. led Ivan up a staircase while rattling sounds came from above. The second floor, much darker, was also filled with bead curtains, and these were swaying.
“Juan! We’re coming!” shouted Hasta from somewhere in the midst of it all. He heard a loud pounding. “Ivan, he’s in there, but there’s a big lock on the door! I can’t open it.”
Ivan was having a hard time staying upright, but he didn’t want all three of them blind inside the beads. “Mr. V., stay here and watch the stairs. Holler if you see anything.”
The rattling, dancing beads confused and disoriented him as he made his way toward Hasta. His stomach burned and his hands shook. A couple of times he had to stop to let a dizzy spell subside. The light grew dimmer the deeper Ivan went. He was practically on top of Hasta before he could see her.
“Stay with me, Juan,” she was saying to the metallic surface in front of her. “We’ll figure it out. Oh! Ivan, here you are. Give this a try.”
Just like in the architectural plan he’d seen, there was a square room here, about four feet wide. There wasn’t much gap between it and the beads, so he and Hasta had to stand close the heavy metal door to see it.
Ivan could hear Juan’s voice faintly from inside. “It’s really hot in here!” Juan was saying. “Not like before.”
Ivan could turn the doorknob with ease. The problem was the combination lock hanging from a thick plate that secured the door. Hasta tugged at the lock body. “I can’t make it budge,” she said, panic in her voice. “Not even a little.”
The markings on the dial looked odd. Ivan scoped it. Around the rim, where the numbers should have been, the lock read:
NICE TRY HASTA VEERAMACHANENI
“Okay, that’s creepy,” Ivan said.
“What’s going on out there?” Juan said from inside. “Ivan, is that you?”
“I’m here, dude! I know it sucks in there, but we’re going to get you out. Just hold it together.” Ivan felt guilty for being the one outside. “Rub the mesh on the wall. It helps.”
“I’m cuffed,” Juan said. “And gloved.”
“Oh, right,” Ivan muttered.
He tugged at the lock while Hasta kept Juan talking. Ivan tried and tried but, like Hasta, couldn’t get the lock to yield. Each attempt made him feel a little more sick to his stomach.
He scoped the dial. Now it read:
IVAN ALEKSANDR BABICH YOU SUCK
“This lock is starting to piss me off,” he said. “And our best picker’s on the wrong side of the door.”
“What are we going to do?” Hasta said. “Maybe the combination’s written down somewhere.”
Ivan stared at the lock. His head hurt, but he noted the slender U-shaped shackle from which the lock body hung. “Maybe we need to rethink our approach,” he said. “Stay here with Juan. I might be a while.”
He set out in what he hoped was the right direction and emerged from the beads about twenty feet from where he’d entered. Mr. V. hurried over.
“What’s happening?” he asked, putting a hand out to help support Ivan. “Where’s Juan?”
“He’s okay, but he’s trapped. We need tools.”
They made their way down the stairs, out the back door, and across the yard through the crusty, freezing snow drifts. Ivan was tempted to send Mr. V. alone and sneak a taste of drift from the packet in his pocket, but knew that was a bad, bad idea.
The work truck from the cemetery was still out in the alley, with snow piled to the running boards. The rows of toolboxes lining the truck bed were locked, but Ivan had no trouble opening them. Ivan grabbed a hammer and chisel from one, but it was Mr. V. who found the grand treasure.
“Eureka!” he said, his breath steaming in the increasingly frigid air as he held aloft a pair of bolt cutters.
They hurried back inside and upstairs. Ivan led the way through the bead thicket.
“Stand back, Hasta,” said her father. Ivan tipped the lock body up while Mr. V. fitted the short blades of the bolt cutters around the shackle. The handles of the tool were about two feet long, with a compound hinge near the blades to multiply their force. With a grunt, Mr. V. squeezed the handles together. The blades sheared the shackle in two with a decisive snap, and the lock body clattered to the floor. “Thus I untie the Gordian knot,” he said.
“Ha!” said Ivan, freeing the shackle from the latch. Apparently Mr. Sunshine had forgotten there were other ways of attacking a problem besides magic. “Combination lock, you suck!”
Hasta yanked open first the outer door, then the wire-mesh door behind it. Juan stumbled out and fell toward Hasta, who flung her arms around him.
“Oh, Juan, are you okay?” she cried.
“Hands, hands!” said Juan urgently.
Beads rattled as Hasta staggered under Juan’s weight. Ivan and Mr. V. each sprang forward to take one of his shoulders. Once Juan was safely upright, Ivan helped Hasta unlock the cuffs from his wrists and tug the quilted silver mitts off his hands.
Hasta hugged him tight again, and Juan hugged her back. Ivan tried to quash a pang of envy. Despite his incarceration, Juan was in good shape. He looked pale and sweaty, and much of his curly hair had straggled free of its ponytail, but otherwise he seemed well. Ivan, on the other hand, felt like a used crash-test dummy.
“You’ve been through quite an ordeal, Juan,” said Mr. V., patting the boy’s shoulder. “How do you feel?”
Juan stared down at Hasta with a big smile. “I feel great, sir,” he said. “Arms and shoulders are a little sore, but otherwise I haven’t felt better in a long time.”
Ivan turned away to hide the sneer he felt on his own lips. You mean I’ve never felt better, he thought.
But then he felt a hand on his upper arm. He turned, and Juan crushed him in a big hug.
“I’m not sure quite what happened here,” Juan said quietly, “but I know you made it happen, man. Thank you.”
Ivan coughed to clear his throat. “Yeah, dude, no problemo.”
When Juan let him go, Hasta raised her fist toward them both. “Three musketeers,” she said.
“All for one, and one for all,” they said, bumping fists. The electric tingle that ran up Ivan’s arm made him feel better than he had since landing in Mr. Sunshine’s trap. His stomach cramps subsided, and he almost felt okay.
“Okay, you goofballs,” said Hasta, grinning up at them both, “we need to hit the road before anything else bad happens.” She gestured for them to come along and plunged into the beads.
“The road?” asked Juan, following. “Where are we going?”
“Mount Rushmore,” Hasta said, her voice somewhat muffled.
“No way!” Juan said.
Mr. V. offered Ivan his arm. “Need a hand?”
“Thanks,” said Ivan, surprising himself with a smile, “but I actually feel pretty okay right now.”
“That gladdens my heart. After you, then.”
Ivan and Mr. V. were soon following Hasta and Juan down the stairs. Despite the journey ahead, there were smiles and quiet laughter all around. Ivan felt almost giddy.
At the bottom of the stairs, Hasta and Juan turned left and stopped short. Ivan nearly ran into Hasta from behind.
The two agents were standing together twenty feet away. “You didn’t think I’d be clever enough to pick your trail back up again here?” said the smaller one, with a feral snarl. “That really hurts my feelings.” √
To be continued…