The streets were sparsely traveled at this time but the few people Max encountered stared as if they had never seen anything like Bandit before. His parents had a few old pictures of some of the places they had seen in their travels, and this was like living in one of them. Except for that, and the astounding spectacles Shades had shown him in movies, he had never seen a real city before. The buildings loomed on all sides, utterly unlike anything in the Islands, seemed to grow out of the ground. There were no cars in the Islands— few vehicles of any kind besides boats— but they now passed him in both directions at regular intervals, and he could see what Mom meant when she called them land-yachts. Much like the Mall, everything here was built-over, with only a few trees, and little in the way of natural elements showing through; after five years of Paradise, and even his original home, there was nothing like this.
There was so much to see— a whole new world of it— it was hard to focus on his search.
In addition to the thrill of having a new place to explore, being reunited with Justin had lifted a previously growing weight from his shoulders. The longer they were separated, the more Max had feared for him, and seeing him again, alive, was the best thing to happen to him in a long time. Right up there with escaping from the Mall, and seeing Shades challenge overwhelming odds and win. Though he hadn’t known his friend for long, he could see that he was very independent, resourceful, and strong of will, and it was great to see him back to normal.
Or at least as normal as Shades got.
But for all of their recent triumphs, the question now lingered of what to do now that he was out of Paradise. After five years of solitude, broken only during its final months by Justin’s arrival, being back among people had done him a world of good, and Bandit seemed to be enjoying himself immensely now that he was no longer imprisoned in that hotel room day in and day out. Max had his doubts about this Kato, but he felt he could trust Justin.
And really wanted to know the secret of his mysterious keepsake.
Years ago, Robert had left the Islands with his brother, Angus, though Max was too young to remember the part about why, and explored all over the world. The Sixth Dimension. That name was seldom spoken there, but his parents were by no means the only ones who suspected that their little island was also part of that world. Back then, of course, he imagined teaming up with Dad, and with Lance and Cleo, setting sail on an adventure of their own, as he now sought to with Justin and Shades.
Thinking about it now, if felt like another life. Now, after all these years, he felt as if he had ended up in one of those tales, and it still felt that way. He found that time and distance could dull the pain in his heart only so much. It made him want to get out of his own life, find something new to do with it. To leave it so far behind him, it could never catch up to find him. No looking back, as he sometimes heard Shades mutter, and was perhaps finally beginning to take the hint himself.
…Every single day, as one of the songs on Shades’ Cam-Jam said.
As he pondered these things, Bandit pulled him aside into an alley. After a moment it became clear that his feline friend needed to take care of some business. He just stood there while his companion took a righteous dump, thinking.
By the time Bandit finished his attempt at pawing some of the loose gravel of the alley on it, he backed up from the wall a pace, as if noticing something he hadn’t sensed before. And apparently didn’t like the smell of. For a moment, Max also felt an inexplicable impulse to step away from the red brick wall before him. And as he did so, wondering what had spooked Bandit, he spotted something spray-painted on that wall in grungy green letters:
The building is hungry!
Those words stopped him in his tracks. He was sure he had heard them before somewhere. All he could come up with was his mother’s voice uttering that phrase and shuddering, leaving no doubt in his mind that there was something about it that Alida didn’t like…
“I can tell you didn’t just come from that door, or I doubt you would linger…”
Max wheeled around to see the speaker standing at the entrance to the alley. He was middle aged man in a long tan coat, with a bushy moustache and a fedora. Max looked back at the wall, noticing the emergency exit door for the first time. Acting as if he were hiding some great secret, the man looked up and down the sidewalk before entering the alley.
“How can a building have no exit, you might wonder?” the man continued.
“What do you mean?” Max asked, this stranger’s cryptic remarks having piqued his curiosity.
“Just that no one who enters the Harken Building ever comes back out,” he said, a little less cryptically. “Many have asked the question, a few brave souls have even investigated it, but no one has ever come back with the answer.” He leaned closer, saying, “That place has no exit. The door stands right there, but no matter how many people go in the front, no one ever comes back out of it. Those who enter are never seen again.”
“Who would go into such a place?” Max wondered why this sounded so familiar.
“Some,” the man answered, and for a moment Max was afraid he would tell him nothing more. Then, “Why, just this morning, I made a bet with these two guys that they couldn’t find the exit, and they accepted my challenge.”
Wondering if he would perhaps get to see more of this place that already so intrigued him, he asked, “So who were these guys?…”