Now Charlie and I are standing over a manhole at the foot of Dillon Gym, near the south of campus. The Philadelphia 76ers patch on his knit hat is hanging by a thread, fluttering in the wind. Above us, under the orange eye of a sodium lamp, snowflakes twitch in huge clouds. We are waiting. Charlie is beginning to lose patience because the two sophomores across the street are costing us time.
Just tell me what we're supposed to do, I say.
A light pulses on his watch and he glances down. It's 7:07. Proctors change shifts at 7:30. We've got twenty-three minutes.
You think twenty minutes is enough to catch them?
Sure, he says. If we can figure out where they'll be. Charlie looks back over across the street. Come on, girls.
One of them is mincing through the drifts in a spring skirt, as if the snow caught her by surprise while she was dressing. The other, a Peruvian girl I know from an intramural competition, wears the trademark orange parka of the swim and dive team.
I forgot to call Katie, I say, as it dawns on me.
It's her birthday. I was supposed to tell her when I was coming over.
Katie Marchand, a sophomore, has slowly become the kind of girlfriend I didn't deserve to find. Her rising importance in my life is a fact Charlie accepts by reminding himself that sharp women often have terrible taste in men.
Did you get her something? he asks.
Yeah. I make a rectangle with my hands. A photo from this gallery in-
He nods. Then it's okay if you don't call. A grunting sound follows, sort of a half-laugh. Anyway, she's probably got other things on her mind right now.
What's that supposed to mean?
Charlie holds his hand out, catching a snowflake. First snow of the year. Nude Olympics.
Jesus. I forgot.
The Nude Olympics is one of Princeton's most beloved traditions. Every year, on the night of the first snowfall, sophomores gather in the courtyard of Holder Hall. Surrounded by dorms crawling with spectators from across campus, they show up in herds, hundreds upon hundreds of them, and with the heroic unconcern of lemmings they take their clothes off and run around wildly. It's a rite that must have arisen in the old days of the college, when Princeton was a men's institution and mass nudity was an expression of the male prerogative, like pissing upright or waging war. But it was when women joined the fray that this cozy little scrum became the must-see event of the academic year. Even the media turn out to record it, with satellite vans and video cameras coming from, as far as Philadelphia and New York. Mere thought of the Nude Olympics usually lights a fire under the cold months of college, but this year, with Katie's turn coming around, I'm more interested in keeping the home fires burning.
You ready? Charlie asks once the two sophomores have finally passed by.
I shift my foot across the manhole cover, dusting off the snow.
He kneels down and hooks his index fingers into the gaps of the manhole cover. The snow dampens the scrape of steel on asphalt as he drags it back. I look down the road again.
You first, he says, placing a hand at my back.
What about the packs?
Quit stalling. Go.
I drop to my knees and press my palms on either side of the open hole. A thick heat pours up from below. When I try to lower myself into it, the bulges in my ski jacket fight at the edge of the opening.
Damn, Tom, the dead move faster. Kick around until your foot finds a step iron. There's a ladder in the wall.
Feeling my shoe snag the top rung, I begin to descend.
All right, Charlie says. Take this.
He pushes my pack through the opening, followed by his.
A network of pipes extends into the dark in both directions. Visibility is low, and the air is full of metallic clanks and hisses. This is Princeton's circulatory system, the passageways pushing steam from a distant central boiler to dorms and academic buildings up north. Charlie says the vapor inside the pipes is pressurized at two hundred and fifty pounds per square inch. The smaller cylinders carry high-voltage lines or natural gas. Still, I've never seen any warnings in the tunnels, not a single fluorescent triangle or posting of university policy. The college would like to forget that this place exists. The only message at this entrance, written long ago in black paint, is LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA,VOI CH'INTRATE. Paul, who has never seemed to fear anything in this place, smiled the first time he saw it. Abandon all hope, he said, translating Dante for the rest of us, ye that enter here.
Charlie makes his way down, scraping the cover back onto its place after him. As he steps from the bottom rung, he pulls off his hat. Light dances across the beads of sweat on his forehead. The afro he's grown after four months without a haircut barely clears the ceiling. It's not an afro, he's been telling us. It's just a half-fro.
He takes a few whiffs of the stale air, then produces a container of Vick's VapoRub from his pack. Put some under your nose. You won't smell anything.
I wave him off. It's a trick he learned as a summer intern with the local medical examiner, a way to avoid smelling the corpses during autopsies. After what happened to my father I've never held the medical profession in particularly high esteem; doctors are drones to me, second opinions with shirting faces. But to see Charlie in a hospital is another thing entirely. He's the strongman of the local ambulance squad, the go-to guy for tough cases, and he'll find a twenty-fifth hour in any day to give people he's never met a fighting chance to beat what he calls the Thief.
Charlie unloads a pair of pin-striped gray laser guns, then the set of Velcro straps with dark plastic domes in the middle. While he keeps fiddling with the packs, I start to unzip my jacket. The collar of my shirt is already sticking to my neck.
Careful, he says, extending an arm out before I can sling my coat across the largest pipe. Remember what happened to Gil's old jacket?
I'd completely forgotten. A steam pipe melted the nylon shell and set the filler on fire. We had to stomp out the flames on the ground.
We'll leave the coats here and pick them up on the way out, he says, grabbing the jacket from my hand and rolling it up with his in an expandable duffel bag. He suspends it from a ceiling fixture by one of its straps.
So the rats don't get at it, he says, unloading a few more objects from the pack.
After handing me a flashlight and a two-way hand radio, he pulls out two large water bottles, beading from the heat, and places them in the outer netting of his pack.
Remember, he says. If we get split up again, don't head downstream. If you see water running, go against the current. You don't want to end up in a drain or down a chute if the flow increases. This isn't the Ohio, like you got back at home. The water level down here vises fast
This is my punishment for getting lost the last time he and I were teammates. I tug at my shirt for ventilation. Chuck, the Ohio doesn't go anywhere near Columbus.
He hands me one of the receivers and waits for me to fasten it around my chest, ignoring me.
So what's the plan? I ask. Which way are we going?
He smiles. That's where you come in.
Charlie pats my head. Because you're the sherpa.
He says it as if sherpas are a magical race of midget navigators, like hobbits.
What do you want me to do?
Paul knows the tunnels better than we do. We need a strategy.
I mull it over. What's the nearest entrance to the tunnels on their side?
There's one in back of Clio.
Cliosophic is an old debating society's building. I try to see each position clearly, but the heat is clogging my thoughts. Which would lead straight down to where we're standing. A straight shot south. Right?
He thinks it over, wrestling with the geography. Right, he says.
And he never takes the straight shot.
I imagine Paul, always two steps ahead.
Then that's what he'll do. A straight shot. Beat a path down from Clio and hit us before we're ready.
Charlie considers. Yeah, he says finally, focusing off into the distance. The edges of his lips begin to form a smile.
So we'll circle around him, I suggest. Catch him from behind.
There's a glint in Charlie's eyes. He pats me on the back hard enough that I nearly fall under the weight of my pack. Let's go.
We start moving down the corridor, when a hiss comes from the mouth of the two-way radio.
I pull the handset from my belt and press the button.
Gil?… I can't hear you…
But there's no response.
It's a bug, Charlie says. They're too far away to send a signal.
I repeat myself into the microphone and wait. You said these things had a two-mile range, I tell him. We're not even a mile from them.
A two— mile range through the air Charlie says. Through concrete and dirt, not even close.
But the radios are for emergency use. I'm sure it was Gil's voice I heard.
We continue in silence for a hundred yards or so, dodging puddles of sludge and little mounds of scat. Suddenly Charlie grabs the neck of my shirt and pulls me back.
What the hell? I snap, almost losing my balance.
He runs the beam of his flashlight across a wooden plank bridging a deep trough in the tunnel. We've both crossed it in previous games.
He gingerly presses a foot down on the board.
It's fine, Charlie says, visibly relieved. No water damage.
I wipe my forehead, finding it soaked with sweat.
Okay, he says. Let's go.
Charlie walks across the plank in two great strides. It's all I can do to keep my balance before landing safely on the other side.
Here. Charlie hands me one of the water bottles. Drink it.
I take a quick drink, then follow him deeper into the tunnels. We're in an undertaker's paradise, the same coffinlike view in every direction, dark walls tapering faintly toward a hazy point of convergence in the darkness.
Does this whole part of the tunnels look like a catacomb? I ask. The hand radio seems to be buzzing patches of static between my thoughts.
Like a what?
A catacomb. A tomb.
Not really. The newer parts are in a huge corrugated pipe, he says, moving his hands in an undulating pattern, like a wave, to suggest the surface. It's like walking on ribs. Makes you think you were swallowed by a whale. Sort of like…
He snaps his fingers, searching for a comparison. Something biblical. Something Melvillian, from English 151w.
Charlie looks back at me, fishing for a laugh.
It shouldn't be much farther, he says, when he doesn't get one. Turning back, he pats the receiver on his chest. Don't worry. We'll turn the corner, pop them a few times, and go home.
Just then, the radio crackles again. This time there's no doubt: it's Gil's voice.
I stop short. What does that mean?
Charlie frowns. He waits for the message to repeat, but there's no other sound.
I'm not falling for that, he says.
Falling for what?
'''Endgame. It means the game's over.
No shit, Charlie. Why?
Because something's wrong.
But he raises a finger, silencing me. In the distance I can hear voices.
That's them, I say.
He lifts his rifle. Come on.
Charlie's strides quickly get longer, and I have no choice but to follow. Only now, trying to keep up, do I appreciate how expertly he runs through the darkness. It's all I can do to hold him in the ray of my flashlight.
As we near a junction, he stops me. Don't turn the corner. Kill your flashlight. They'll see us coming.
I wave him on, into the opening. The radio blasts again.
Endgame, Charlie. We're in the north-south corridor under Edwards Hall.
Gil's voice is much clearer now, much closer.
I begin toward the intersection, but Charlie pushes me back. Two flashlight beams jerk in the opposite direction. Squinting in the darkness, I can make out silhouettes. They turn, hearing our approach. One of the beams falls into our sight line.
Damn! Charlie barks, shielding his eyes. He points his rifle blindly toward the light and begins to press at its trigger. I can hear the mechanical bleating of a chest receiver.
Stop it! Gil hisses.
What's the problem? Charlie calls out as we approach.
Paul is behind Gil, motionless. The two of them are standing in a trickle of light coming through the gaps in a manhole cover overhead.
Gil places a finger over his lips, then points up toward the manhole. I make out two figures standing above us in front of Edwards Hall.
Bill's trying to call me, Paul says, holding his pager toward the light. He's clearly agitated. I have to get out of here.
Charlie gives Paul a puzzled look, then gestures for him and Gil to step away from the light.
He won't move, Gil says under his breath.
Paul is directly beneath the metal lid, staring at the face of his pager as melted snow drips through the holes. There is movement above.
You're going to get us caught, I whisper.
He says he can't get reception anywhere else, Gil says.
Bill's never done this before, Paul whispers back.
I pull at his arm, but he jerks free. When he lights up the silver face of the pager and shows it to us, I see three numbers: 911.
What's that supposed to mean? Charlie whispers.
Bill must've found something, Paul says, losing patience. I need to find him.
Foot traffic in front of Edwards mashes fresh snow through the manhole. Charlie is getting tense.
Look, he says, it's a fluke. You can't get reception down he-
But he's interrupted by the pager, which begins to beep again. Now the message is a phone number: 116-7718.
What's that? Gil asks.
Paul turns the screen upside-down, forming text from the digits: BILL-911.
I'm getting out of here now, Paul says.
Charlie shakes his head. Not using that manhole. Too many people up there.
He wants to use the exit at Ivy, Gil says. I told him it was too far. We can go back to Clio. It's still a couple minutes before the proctors switch.
In the distance, tiny sets of red beads are gathering. Rats are sitting on their haunches, watching.
What's so important? I ask Paul.
We're onto something big — he begins to say.
But Charlie interrupts. Clio's our best shot, he agrees. After checking his watch, he starts to walk north. 7:24. We need to get moving.