This short-short was created for "Read with Me," a literary art installation in Occidental Park, Seattle, June 7 – September 30, 2012. This ARTSParks program, coordinated by Urban Art Concept, sought to illuminate possibilities for narrative in our daily lives. More than a dozen Pacific Northwest writers wrote site-specific pieces inspired by the park. Pajer's assigned site-object: a manhole cover.
A Professor Bradshaw Mini-Mystery
Manhole cover. The name said it all. This hole allowed a man to descend into the dark depths.
"You're stalling, Ben."
"I don't suppose you'd…"
"Would if I could." Henry put a hand to his bad back. "Besides, you're the great detective."
"I'm an electrical forensic investigator. This is not my realm of expertise."
"Nah, it's electric cables and gas pipes. Right up your alley."
"It's darkness, and cramped space, and rats, and spiders."
They stared at the circle of iron covering the vault beneath the street.
"You sure it's down there?"
"There was a witness."
Henry grunted. "Best get it done." He wedged the tip of the crowbar under the heavy cover and leaned onto the bar. "Heave it over, Ben!"
Professor Ben Bradshaw shoved the lid onto the asphalt. A dank foul smell rose to them. This section of Seattle was built upon the remains of old buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1889, plagued by underground springs, saturated by rain.
"I can't." Every inch of his being resisted. After a grueling week of investigation, Bradshaw feared his resistance would lead to failure. Soon, the repair work on a nearby water main was expected to flood the utility vault. It was now or never.
"You can." Henry lowered the lantern into the vault with a rope.
Bradshaw sat with his legs dangling into the gaping hole, grabbed hold of the iron ladder rungs, and descended, gripping tight to fend off vertigo until his feet touched cement.
As he lifted the lantern, a rumbling sound began to build in the old brick vault walls, rattling the gas pipes overhead.
"Ben! Come up! They flooded early!"
The rumbling escalated as cold water began to creep up Bradshaw's legs. He ignored the pressing panic and lifted the lantern.
Where was it! The vault shook fiercely now; the water rose to his knees as he reached up and between every pipe and fitting. Nothing!
He dropped the lantern and, as the light fizzled and faded, bent into the dark water using both hands to feel. His fingers met a soft lump. He instinctively flinched, but then forced himself to grasp it. He flung himself at the ladder and climbed until he stood dripping on Henry's feet.
"You get it?"
Bradshaw squeezed filthy water from Cloppy—a stuffed woolen horse his son had once loved but stopped playing with a decade ago.
"How'd it fall in?"
"The manhole cover was off when the Salvation Army wagon hit a bump and toys flew." It had been one of the most difficult investigations of his career, tracking the toy from his housekeeper's inadvertent donation to finding the witness to the toy's plummet into the vault.
"You're a sentimental old fool, Ben."
"You and me both, Henry. Let's go home."
Bradshaw stuffed the damp toy snuggly into his jacket pocket, and after replacing the manhole cover, they headed for the streetcar. Case closed.