“It’s my understanding that Mario has some sort of relationship with Pauline Keyes,” Delvecio said as we drove through the streets of Brooklyn to who knows where. A pock-faced man with a sour expression and an expensive suit sat across from us. He never took his eyes off of me.
“Some sort,” I agreed. “But not like he once had.”
“And do you?”
“To an extent.” This conversation was making me very nervous. I knew Pauline had been coming down hard against Delvecio in her speeches. There could be serious consequences if I answered any of his questions wrong. I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead.
“Good. I’m glad to hear that,” Delvecio said. “I was afraid I might have to make my proposition to Mario. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy. And maybe I just don’t know him enough but it seems he can be a little...hard-headed sometimes.” Though I couldn’t disagree, I knew Mario would be able to handle this encounter far better than I could and I kind of wished he was there instead of me.
“You boys really helped me out a few months ago,” he continued. “Sure, I returned the favor and you could say we are even. But why stop there? If we benefited so much from each other, why not look for more opportunities to do so? You scratch my back, I scratch your back. You know what I mean?” Unfortunately, I did. This is exactly why I told Mario I didn’t want to have anything to do with him in the first place.
“I think you’re going to like my proposition.” Delvecio said reassuringly, patting my shoulder as if he could tell I needed some encouragement. It didn’t help. “I want to help you keep Ms. Keyes safe.”
I swallowed hard.
“As you know, she has been chucking rocks at beehives lately. The bees are starting to get pretty agitated. They might start stinging, if you know what I mean.” He gave me a hard stare before continuing. “Unfortunately, she thinks I am one of those bees. But I’m not a bee at all! I’m more like a flower. Am I not like a flower?” This last question was directed to Sour Face.
“You are very much like a flower, Mr. Delvecio.” Sour Face responded in a gruff voice.
Delvecio turned back to me. “I’m a chef and an entrepreneur. But I guess when you’re rich and Italian and you live in New York City, people make assumptions, you know what I mean? Your business is booming. Pretty soon you’ll know what I’m talking about first hand, no doubt. Gangsters aside, you may have noticed Ms. Keyes has other problems. What she has in the way of charisma, she lacks in funding. Her opponent, Mr. Van Beuren, is a millionaire with an extensive and compelling ad campaign. I suspect his campaign is partially funded by some of the illegitimate businessmen Keyes is attacking. Because why wouldn’t they, right?
“I believe I can help on both fronts. Due to my reputation, unmerited as it is, I have been able to make some interesting friends. The sort of friends that can keep your friend safe from the real mob. The sort of friends that have the sort of information that can help Ms. Keyes take down the crime syndicates. Furthermore, I have the resources to fund a game-changer of a campaign. I guess that makes three fronts I can help out on.”
“But how would you….” I began. He knew as well as anyone that she was not so stupid as to accept an illegal bribe from a gangster.
“Through a Super PAC opened under your name, Luigi,” he answered. “And all I want in return is for her to get off my back. As I’ve already made clear, I am innocent and do not deserve this bad publicity.”
“I don’t know how to run a Super PAC,” I pointed out.
“No worries. We’ll take care of all of that. We just need to use your name. What you need to do is convince Ms. Keyes to back off. Tell her you're starting a political action committee with some well-to-do associates. Or don’t tell her that. I don’t care. Just get her to back off. If you do, my team will saturate television, radio, and social media with ads. We’ll make T-shirts and hats. We’ll host conferences with reputable speakers. All under your name. All for Ms. Keyes’ benefit. Are you catching my drift?”
How the heck was I supposed to get out of this situation? I’d prefer to get out in the alive sort of way. One option was to go along with his ideas. They were compelling in a way. I wondered if Pauline would sacrifice taking down Delvecio in order to take down the other syndicates. Probably not. In that case, the only thing I could think to do was bluff.
“What’s in it for me?” I said in my best attempt to sound confident. My voice was shaking as I said it. Dang!
“Well, excuse me!” Delvecio roared. “I was under the impression you cared about Pauline’s success and safety.” He drew out the last three words. Especially the last word. Yikes!
“I do,” I conceded with downturned eyes and a weak, defeated voice. Dang! Why did I have to suck so bad at bluffing?
“Good. So, we have a deal?” he asked.
Suddenly there was a screeching of tires and me and Delvecio were lurched forward into Sour Face’s seat. The limo driver had hit the brakes. For a half second I thought I saw a woman through the windshield. Was she trying to hail the car? A loud thud indicated we did not stop soon enough. The driver jumped out of the car, presumably to check on the girl. I jumped out after him, followed by Delvecio and Sour Face.
About ten feet in front of the car, illuminated by the headlights, was a young woman with platinum blonde hair in a teal sequin dress sprawled out on the asphalt. The driver rushed to check her pulse. Hearing the sound of several people running, I turned my head to see three men in suits in hot pursuit of - well, I wasn’t quite sure. But they were heading our way.
“There she is!” one of them shouted. “She’s been hit.”
“That’s Delvecio!” another one said. “He’s trying to get the flash drive.”
All three men pulled out guns. Delvecio and his two boys also pulled out guns. Then I noticed the girl on road move. She wasn’t dead after all. She reached into her purse, pulled out a red spotted mushroom, and tossed it my way. She moved so fast, I almost wasn’t ready to catch it. She was not acting like an individual who was just hit by a car. But then she went back to playing dead. Her movements were subtle enough that nobody else even noticed them in the commotion. Delvecio and gang had taken positions behind the car, with gang number two on the opposite side. This all happened in the span of three racing heartbeats. I jumped to my belly on the road at Delvecio’s feet, behind the car, terrified of getting shot. From my viewpoint under the car, I could see feet shuffling, trying to get to the girl, it seemed. But every time they would make a move in that direction, Delvecio would fire his gun. I had no idea if Delvecio knew the significance of whatever that girl had but he wasn’t about to let something go that an opposing gang wanted that badly. Whenever he tried to maneuver closer to the girl, they would fire their guns.
“You hired her, didn’t you?” the other gang accused. “And now that she has the flash drive, you no longer need her. Figures.”
How the heck was I going to get out of this? I know what you’re thinking: eat the mushroom, stupid! But you have to understand, I was caught in the crossfire of six gangsters. My brain was incapable of common sense. It was too busy sounding an alarm in my head - YOU’RE GOING TO DIE! YOU’RE GOING TO DIE! YOU’RE GOING TO DIE! I’m not totally sure, but I think I may have been mumbling those words through trembling lips as I grovelled on the asphalt. And anyway, it’s not like eating a mushroom to save yourself is exactly common sense. All I had were suspicions that it was the red and white mushroom that gave Mario the superhuman ability to flip around that construction site like he had. I didn’t have any facts. However, after several gunshots, it finally did occur to me that testing out the mushroom may be a viable option. I bit down and swallowed. Several seconds passed. Nothing happened. Dang! A few more seconds. Wait a minute, what’s this? My body slowed it’s trembling. My mind began to focus. Confidence began to swell up within me. Suddenly I wasn’t terrified of being shot. Rather, I was mad. Furious even. What made these gangsters think they could get away with doing whatever they wanted at the cost of the innocent? This could not go on! Not if I could help it.
I got into a crouching position, grabbed the bottom of the limo, and flipped it on its side, causing the opposing gangsters to jump back. I then pushed the upturned car towards the gangsters, running with it. I pushed it over the sidewalk, knocking over trash cans and newspaper dispensers, and pinned the three attackers between a storefront and the car.
Delvecio, Sour Face, and the driver all stared at me with a mix of astonishment and relief. But I was not on their team. And it was time I let them know. Just as a smile began to form on Delvecio’s face, I slapped the pistol from him with my left hand and slapped his face with my right hand. Before anyone could react, I turned and grabbed Sour Face and slammed his ugly head into the bottom of the upturned car, knocking him out. Before he could fall, I threw him into the driver, incapacitating him. I then turned back to Delvecio, grabbed his jacket, and pressed him against undercarriage of the limo.
“I will NOT be intimidated by you!” I spat into his face. “And you will not mess with Pauline! If you even attempt it, so help me!” I slammed his head against the car, leaving him unconscious on the road with his cronies.
I nearly jumped when the blonde woman in the evening gown came up behind me. OK, I did jump.
“Come on!” she said. “You’ve got to get to the warp zone before Gadd. If he gets there before you, you won’t be able to go through. The other coin is missing.”
“Wait,” I said. “What are you talking about? Who are you? What’s a warp zone?”
“My name is Rosalina. The warp zone - you know - where the pipe is - in the sewer in the Bronx where you chased Gadd last time. Hurry up. Call you brother. Have him meet you there.”
“Why? What’s going on? I don’t under...hey where are you going?”
She had already turned her back on me and started running. She stopped for just enough time to say, “I’ve got to delay Gadd. Hurry up!” With that she resumed her run. As she ran, light shimmered around her and she vanished. Did my eyes deceive me? Where did she go? She was gone. Disappeared into thin air!
A growing crowd was forming around the scene. Some of those people saw the girl vanish. They were equally curious about how I just flipped a car on its side and beat up a bunch of thugs. I could hear sirens in the distance. This Rosalina girl said if I didn’t hurry up and get to the - what did she call it? - warp zone? - that I might miss my opportunity to ever enter it again. I didn’t have the slightest clue why it mattered to her but it mattered to me. I was not about to miss my chance to cross into another world and prove to myself that I’m not insane. The cops would have a lot of questions that would certainly delay me. Better not stick around. I took off running as fast as I could. Actually, it was far faster than I could. I must have been running thirty miles an hour! As soon as I was out of site of the crowd, I stopped and hailed a taxi.
I called Mario from the cab. Knowing that I didn’t have time to waste arguing or over-explaining anything, I started off with the magic words: “Mario, I need your help.”
“Alright, I’ll leave as soon as I can,” he said after hearing the basics. “Just give me a minute to change.”
“No. There’s no time,” I insisted. “She said Gadd will close the portal.”
“You said she was blonde?” he asked. An odd question, I thought. “Like really blonde? Almost white? Straight hair?”
“Like the waitress at Delvecio’s who gave me the pasta with the same type of mushroom she just gave you?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember…. Wait! Oh my gosh! Yes! What the heck? I think that was her! Come to think of it, she’s the same girl who helped me find the professor after the Donkey Kong incident.”
“Hopefully, she’ll show up in the sewer and explain things. Anyway, I got Daisy’s contact card. You want me to send it to you?” I could tell from Mario’s voice that he was running. Good.
After hanging up with him I called Daisy.
“Hey Daisy, this is Luigi.”
“Where did you get my number?” She complained. She’s so pleasant, I thought to myself, sarcastically.
“What do you know about that coin you were wearing around your neck today?” I asked, ignoring her question.
“Why? What do you know about it?”
“I know your old professor is looking for it.” I was only guessing but if I was right, this should get her to talk.
“You said you didn’t know where he is,” she said.
“Things have changed.”
“Where is he?”
“I’ll tell you as soon as you tell me about the coin.”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Ok. Fine. I’ll talk to you later then. I’ve got to meet Gadd in a few anyway.”
“Wait! Why are you meeting Gadd?”
“What do you know about the coin?”
“Alright, fine! A couple months after Professor Gadd went missing, they had an estate sale and were selling off all his stuff. I bought the coin necklace there.”
“Why?” I asked. “Of all the things he must have owned, why that? Why anything, for that matter?”
“I don’t know. I liked it. What do you want me to say? I don’t know anything else. Now you tell me where Gadd is and why you’re meeting him.”
“He’s on his way to the sewers near the Bronx Zoo. If you come to Crotona Avenue, behind the new LaGuardia High School they’re working on, I’ll have a manhole cover open. Bring the coin.” Rather than listen to her complain about meeting in the sewers or ask a million questions, I hung up the phone.
After getting dropped off at Crotana, my first objective was to figure out how to get the manhole cover open. I did not bring a crowbar. When Mario was shrooming out, he was able to open it with his fingers. Would I? Yes! I slid my finger in the notch and lifted. It tipped up easily. No way! This whole mushroom induced superpower thing was fantastic! Now I needed to make sure cars didn’t accidentally drive over the hole. That could be disastrous for the driver and I didn’t have any cones. Not seeing any cones around I could steel, I pushed a dumpster in front of the manhole. I know, putting a dumpster in the middle of the road is not exactly safe either but at least it was more visible.
I dropped in the hole. Now I just had to remember which way to go. Hopefully Rosalina was able to stall Gadd. If she wasn’t, would the pipe be gone - vanished like last time? I ran around bend after bend. Doubtful I was going the right way, I turned around and ran down other paths. Getting lost in the sewer would not help my cause.
But then I saw it - an old, green, metal pipe, large enough to walk through, sticking four or six feet out of the wall. I ran to it, sloshing waste-water over the new outfit Mario bought for the commercial. I looked into the pipe. Oddly, the pipe ended at the wall. There, four or six feet into the pipe, was the same brick surface that made up the walls of the sewer. A dead end. Not what I expected. Did that mean Gadd had already gone through? How curious.
I examined the outside of the pipe. For the first time, I noticed round indents set into the rim of the pipe. Six of them, equidistant from each other. Each of them had a large gold coin in the indent. That is, each of them but one. Gadd’s words to Mario as well as Rosalina’s words to me were starting to make sense. Did the coins work as keys to open the portal? Gadd must have thought me or Mario had the coin that Daisy now had. Though, why he thought we might have it was beyond me. Too many questions. Hopefully, I’d be getting answers in the next few minutes.
On the other hand, maybe I’d get those answers now. I heard sloshing behind me and turned around to see Professor Gadd as he turned the corner. He froze as soon as he saw me.
“I knew it!” he said. “I knew you had the coin!”
As he walked closer, I saw that he had a bleeding gash across his eyebrow and a bruised cheek. What did Rosalina do to stall him? I could also see he was carrying a satchel. Light was emanating up from within the bag.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said honestly.
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you? About to go through the warp pipe. Just like you’ve been doing for a while.”
“I’m here because Rosalina told me to come. But I don’t have any coin.”
“Who’s Rosalina?” Dang! I was hoping dropping that name would get me somewhere. “And how did Mario get ahold of one of our mushrooms if one of you doesn’t have the coin?” he asked.
“I think he got the mushroom from Rosalina. Look, I’m not a bad guy. I’m not up to any trouble.” I raised my hands to show that I was harmless. “I don’t even know what’s going on. I think you know more than I do. I have some weird, vague memories of following you through this pipe. Once. Just once. Mario told me you said something about a minus world. What’s that?”
He walked cautiously toward me, eyes flicking now and then to the pipe. I assume he was trying to figure out how to get to it without letting me in. After a moment, and to my surprise, he answered me.
“A minus world is a world that no longer exists. It is a span of time that happened and then was erased.”
“I don’t get it.” I said.
“Of course you don’t. What do you know about this?” He removed a gold coin from his jacket pocket.
“Is that like the coin you think I have? I don’t know anything about it,” I admitted, “except that I know someone who has one just like it.”
That got his attention. “Who?” he demanded.
“If you wait a minute, you’ll see. And then we can all go through the pipe together.” Crap! I could tell from his eyes that that was the wrong thing to say. As curious as he was about who had the coin, he was more concerned about people using his portal. He reached into his satchel, pulled out a mason jar which was glowing with a blinding light, and smashed it on the ground. A floating orb of light almost too bright to look at, floated up from the shattered remains of the jar. He reached his hand into the light. Suddenly his whole body began to glow softly. It was as if his hand absorbed the mini sun thing.
He charged toward the pipe. Little did he know, I was superpowered myself. I didn’t glow but I was strong and fast. I jumped in his way to stop him. To my suprise, energy coming from his body repelled me back, off my feet, into the wall behind me. Before I could get up, I saw him place the coin in the empty slot and jump into the pipe. Getting up was difficult. That energy blast did a number on me. All my bones and muscles ached. I limped toward the pipe. The very coin he just placed vanished. Almost immediately after, the entire pipe vanished. Dang! Dang! Dang! This couldn't be happening! Did I just miss my one and only opportunity to get into that other world? Even though Daisy apparently had another key, the pipe was gone. “Dang! Dang! Dang!” I yelled as I dropped to my knees in the waste water and pummeled the floor with my fists in a desperate tantrum. Defeated, I crawled on hands and knees, uncaring of toxicity and germs, to the wall, and leaned against it. I had failed.
Some twenty minutes later I heard more sloshing in the distance. People were calling my name. It was Mario and Daisy. They arrived at the same time.
“I’m over here,” I said weekly.
Following my voice, they found me. What a sight I must have been, sitting in the sewer, soaked through with sewer water, chin resting on my chest.
“Oh my gosh! Are you OK, Luigi?” Mario asked.
“It’s gone,” I said. “He went through the pipe and it vanished.”
“Professor Gadd?” Daisy asked.
“What happened to you? Are you alright?” Mario asked again. Now he was close and inspecting me.
Daisy gave me a cursory glance and turned her attention to the nearby area, probably looking for clues that might indicate what transpired. As she stepped closer to the area where the pipe was, it partially reappeared. She froze. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Actually, I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was looking at. It was like seeing something in the light of flashlight. Only the front of the pipe could be seen. The rest of it kind of faded away into nothingness. Daisy looked at us. She took a step forward. More of it illuminated. To test the phenomenon, she took a couple steps back. It disappeared.
“I think it’s your necklace,” I said as I pushed myself back into a standing position.
She held out her necklace. Sure enough, it made visible part of the pipe.
“What in the world….I….How….?” She was stammering.
I saw that five gold coins were still in place.
“It’s the warp zone,” I said. “It’s the way to the other world.”
“Another world?” Daisy asked. Under any other circumstances, that would be ridiculous, but seeing a large, metal pipe appear and disappear made anything seem possible.
“If he didn’t want us to go through,” I said, “he should have removed another coin.”
Mario and Daisy looked at me, wondering what I meant.
“Place the coin on your necklace in the empty slot,” I said.
She took off her necklace and placed it in the slot. Suddenly the entire pipe became visible and solid. The wall that blocked the inside of the pipe when I first arrived was not there. Water that was dripping from the end of the pipe started to move backwards into the pipe.
“Now what?” Daisy asked.
“Now we go through,” I said. All three of us looked at each other, wondering who would go first.
“Wait for me!” a woman’s voice said behind us. It was Rosalina. How did she get here? She didn’t even make any sloshing noises.
“Who are you?” Daisy asked. Rosalina didn’t respond. She walked between us and put her hand on the pipe.
“You are coming too, right?” Rosalina asked me and Mario.
“After you,” I said.
She entered the pipe. We could see her take a few steps before she started to slip forward. And then it was as if she started to fly into the darkness beyond. Mario and Daisy’s eyes were wide as saucers. My turn. I stepped into the pipe and turned towards the others. “See you on the other side.”
I took a few steps forward. It was just like I remembered. In fact, my memory of the last time became more vivid as gravity started to pull from somewhere in front of me. This time my foot slipped on the wet metal and I fell on my back. I didn’t hit hard because gravity had now shifted such that it was like I was falling down the pipe. I fell through complete blackness. My stomach was in my throat. The fall was longer than I remembered. Then all of a sudden the gravity reversed and I was thrust against it by momentum only. I felt like a human-rocket being shot into the air, feet first. Of course this meant that I was about to exit into the other world. Tiny drops of water pelted me as dark and blurry images instantly replaced the previous total blackness. I had emerged into a stormy night. Thanks to the mushroom, I had enhanced agility and was able to flip my body in the air and land on the sill of the pipe.
Rain assaulted me and thunder crashed. This was not what I was expecting. The light of a lightning bolt momentarily revealed a most horrific sight. Dozens of reptilian monsters carrying crude weapons surrounded the warp pipe. Every last demonic-looking eye was on me. Furthermore, Rosalina and Professor Gadd where in the grips of those heinous beasts.
“Get him!” one of them yelled.