He had passed this way before; he recognized the rough pattern of water stains that had rusted the side of this passage. Splinter lay his head wearily on the cool duct floor. For all his skills in navigating the tunnels below ground, these had him hopelessly baffled. He must have missed a turn, somewhere. Somehow.
No. He knew how. The hunger had distracted him. An excuse, but one that even Yoshi would not argue now. Splinter's vision kept blurring as he squinted through the darkness of the ducts. His pauses for rest were becoming longer and more frequent.
He centered, focused himself on the 'magic' of the ninja, too often dormant in the long months of foraging. Splinter pictured sunlight on a forest, the rich energy of loam rising through the sap-blood of trees to the veins of their leaves. As many leaves as stars, all shining in the fire of the sun, stirred by a living breeze. He imagined his body, warmed by the light, his spirit rising like water, his decimated muscles strengthened by the earth's channeled power. Splinter held the images a moment longer, than opened his eyes on the empty blackness of the trap he had created for himself. He pulled himself forward, his arms like growing vines, reaching. Letting his mind drift, separate, the master crept on, listening, scenting the stale breeze, not feeling when his fur was caught by the lines of the ducts. He didn't feel the dizzy waves roll and pass. The weakness of his limbs he denied. There was only one goal; only one purpose. He tried to reach out, sense his sons.
Too much. He had to concentrate - on concentrating.
A T-junction. Which turn to choose? Which way led to the vent? To escape? He had nothing to leave a trail with. Splinter relaxed for a moment, hoping to gain some guidance through a deeper meditation. But he rose a minute later, disappointed. He started to move left, imagining himself going west toward Japan, where life had meant more than mere survival. Then, the head of a loose bolt in the top of the junction tore a full tuft of fur from the back of his neck.
Splinter hissed, then smiled. Of course. He could follow the trails of his own lost fur. It would take time, but less time than these confused, random wanderings. He used the junction to turn around, then, sniffing, began to backtrack.
It had been more than an hour. Every few minutes his concentration wandered, as the hunger clamored for Splinter's attentions. It was as though he was being eaten up inside, since he couldn't eat anything outside of himself.
There was light ahead.
He'd been aware of a change in the air around him; a little fresher. Sweeter. Like sugar in an acrid tea. And the blackness that surrounded him had gone to grey some yards back. Three minutes, he guessed.
This had to be it. The last access panel to the outside he had passed had led to the back parking lot, but it had been closed. He had been a little to the right of where he had originally climbed in, so this must be the open duct. Splinter took a deep breath as he squeezed around the final corner.
Opened his eyes. Forgot his stomach.
Noon sun reflected off an early morning's dusting of snow. The light seared through the horizontal bars of the duct's opening, nearly blinding the rat with their beams. He crept forward, unbelieving. Yes, there was the light pole he'd dodged. There were the low bushes, the ones whose leafless bracken had been too low to protect him, last night. This was the grate. His escape.
And it had been resealed.
He was trapped.
Splinter scrambled forward, dropping the food bag, to claw at the bars. He slid his left hand to the far side of the duct, cutting the skin of his fingers. He bent the smallest finger and sought the screw he knew must be there. It was. His nail just skipped over it, though, missing the threads. He couldn't get the angle! Splinter tried switching hands, pinning himself between his bent elbow and the narrow walls.
He couldn't even get the fingers to bend.
Splinter clutched the grating with both hands, feeling the metal cut into his skin. He squeezed. Focused his energy. Pushed.
The ninja master yanked and shoved, wildly twisting and tugging at the door of his cage. It didn't even rattle. Splinter bowed his head between his bleeding hands and found he didn't even have the strength to hold back the shameful tears of defeat.
The tin pathways had become his prison, they would soon be his tomb if he didn't escape. He was so tired. The hunger... The Turtles were not yet prepared for life without him... And even should they survive, somehow, his Master would yet be left unavenged, his spirit doomed to wander for all of eternity.
That couldn't happen. Splinter gently lowered his hands and sucked their cuts, using the salty blood and the sharp, dry taste of the metal to keep him alert.
"I am ninja," he whispered. A voice rose, from his past. "The ninja is master of his surroundings. Master of himself. If I must come to my fate crawling, so be it. But it is not the way of the ninja to cower before a challenge, Shen."
Taking a deep breath, Splinter began backing up.
"C'mon, Leo. Go for him!" Michaelangelo crowed. "Watch it - "
"He's getting lazy with his right arm again," Don observed. Wood clashed beneath him and Mikey, lying along the narrow shelf of the silt chamber they trained in.
"Radical hit, Rapher!" Mike cheered.
Leonardo blocked Raph's next three wild blows with his half of the tonfa set they'd borrowed. He sent a kick to Raph's front that drove him back a few yards and earned Leo a few seconds for recovery. "Radical?" he asked, turning to his brothers on their safe perch above the sparring ground.
"Yeah. Radical." Mike grinned. "I heard some of those big kids say it topside last week, on our way back from Chet's Grocery. I think they were going to a New Year's party. Boy, was that a mint night!"
He paused to watch as Raphael went into overdrive, powering through Leo's surprised defensive, then stumbling on a strike that left him open to a tonfa across the shell.
"Whoa. Slow down, Raph!" Don called. "Go for his right side."
"Leo! Quit tryin' to be a cool lefty like me and kick his butt!"
The warriors below ignored their audience, getting into the sparring at a new level. It was fun not having the sensei around to referee. It made things more challenging, with actual risk involved. They could let go, only careful not to upset the candles that lit the wet brick walls.
"Yeah, Raph! That's it! Wear him down! Go Leo!" Mike settled back happily. This was even better than fireworks. He glanced at Don. "Hey, remember the fireworks Sensei took us to see?"
"Mikey - that was ages ago!"
They watched in silence for a minute.
"That was the first time we had pizza, wasn't it?" Mike asked.
Don shrugged. "I dunno, maybe."
"Seems like we always get the best food around the holidays, huh?"
"Yeah," Don said shortly.
"Like last week. Turkey. All those peanuts. And popcorn - you said you liked that popcorn, right?"
His brother shrugged again. "Good hit, Raph!"
"I even liked those onions. Where did Splinter say he got those? Was it the same place he got the french bread? Hey, remember all that bread he brought home from - where was it - Chinatown? Last year, the ones people left out with a coin in the middle? Hey, if we saved up enough of those, maybe we could get a whole pizza delivered to us! Wouldn't that be great?"
Leo paused, cautiously lowering his tonfa as Raphael stopped and stood watching Mike and Don.
"...all gooey with cheese," Mike said sadly, "and hamburger on top, and mushrooms. Maybe some veggies. You remember those big green things with, like, fuzzy tops?"
"Broccoli?" Don suggested.
"No, I hate broccoli."
"It was broccoli," Leo said.
"Yeah. A great, big pizza with humongous crusts, and spaghetti, and broccoli on top."
"Quit talking about it," he said, making the words slow and deliberate. Raphael thought it was neat the way someone could change a whole mood by changing the way they spoke. Splinter was always doing that to them, might as well try it himself.
Seemed like it worked, too. Mike shut up for once. Was looking around at the others, a little bewildered.
"You guys are hungry, too, huh?" Mike whispered.
Leo broke the silence that followed. "Maybe Master Splinter's back."
"Yeah, let's go," Don said, dropping from the shelf.
"But we didn't get a chance to spar yet, Donnie."
"I'm too hungry to spar. I want to go work on the tunnel, anyway."
"But it's not fair!"
Raph's eyes lit up. What a perfect opportunity. He strode over to the cement shelf Donatello had just vacated and, grabbing Mike's right arm and leg, hauled his brother to the floor. "There, now you've sparred. C'mon, pizza boy."
Mike reached up and grabbed Raph's shoulder before he could stand all the way up, then swept out his brother's leg. Rolling over on top of Raph, Mike pinned him with a knee. "Nope. Now I've sparred. Let's go, Rapheroni! Need a hand up?"
"Now we'll never get started on the tunnel," Don sighed, rolling his eyes at Leo. Leo nodded as Raph took the offered hand and dragged Mike down to the floor next to him.
"Start grabbing candles, Donnie, they'll follow the light soon as they wear each other out." And it won't take long, if their tummies feel the way mine does, Leo thought. He lifted a candle down from the shelf by the entrance to the silt chamber and stared curiously at the wax that dripped onto his fingers. Didn't the starving castaways in pirate stories sometimes eat wax? He glanced at his brothers. Now all three of them were rolling around, the tonfa forgotten in favor of semi-tag team wrestling.
Leo set the candle back, hoping the hard times never forced them to come to that. Oh well. Splinter was probably already back in the lair, waiting for them with plenty of food. It would be a celebration! Until then...it was time to even up the odds a little bit. Leo gave a happy warcry and plunged into the fray.
Back at the kitchens, Splinter went into deep meditation. This was a true separation of spirit from body, and it was absolutely necessary. A full menu of foods was being prepared from the freshest and best of ingredients. This was not 'Back-alley Restaurant Dumpster' fare, nor even Chet's Grocery. Before he relaxed, Splinter sucked his wounded palms one last time, then carefully brushed the sides of the shaft above the ovens. The condensation from the steam that had risen clung in beads to his fur, and after a few more minutes, Splinter was ready to focus again. Around midnight, when everyone had gone, he would slip down, eat what food he could and pack the rest. After that... He would leave that up to Yoshi.
There would be janitors. Late night patrons. A dining room, then lobby, clerks...and open hallways. Splinter remembered well - their first weeks in America had been spent in this hotel. He thought of Shen's tea ceremonies, of the patterns of steam against a single flame.
Consciousness - altered.
"That's it!!!" Don grabbed Raphael in a surprise hug. "We did it!" He stood back to survey their project, sweeping the messy area with their cracked flashlight. The battery-powered light was precious, only used for special jobs when candles just weren't strong enough. "What did Mikey say before? Radicand?"
Raph shook his head, grinning. "Radical." He ran a hand over the mortared bricks and stones they'd fitted so carefully. "When this stuff dries, nothin's gonna be able to get through."
"Definitely. I hope Splinter doesn't mind that we just went ahead and finished."
"He won't. Let's go get the others so they can see!"
"No, you go ahead. I'll keep an eye out for any leaks."
"But what if - " Raph caught himself before finishing. There's no such thing as loud-monsters, he thought sternly.
"What?" Don prompted.
"Aw, nothing. I'll be back."
Raph turned to the wall behind them and climbed into the pipe entrance there. It was ten minutes back to the den, going this way. He had to get through the pipe, walk all the way around to access the big tunnel, then get to the intersection that led to the entrance of the den. When Splinter came back and they'd all eaten, he and his brothers could start breaking in a door, where the little holes at the bottom of the wall between the rooms were. Ten minutes would go down to two seconds. They'd found this other room because of those holes in the aging brick. Splinter said rats had probably used them at some point, before they'd moved in. Raph couldn't wait for this work on the lair to be done. Change could come so fast, sometimes, it was like a power. Sometimes it didn't come fast enough for him, though...
Raph hit the big pipe and started for the den, knowing that Splinter would be there. They'd all been surprised to find the lair empty and silent when they'd finally gotten back from the sparring chamber. Now it was after supper time. Raph was tired enough to go right to bed after they ate what Splinter had brought home. It had been a long, hungry day.
He almost fell over Mike, who was sitting at the corner of the intersection. Just sitting, slumped against the tunnel wall, watching the far bend at the end of the left turnoff. Splinter always came back that way.
Mike swiped at his face and looked up. "What?"
"Are you okay?"
This was different.
"Is Splinter back?"
Mike didn't answer. Raph went cold to the teeth.
"Where's Leo? Is he all right?"
"He's inside, putting out the candles. Waiting for you two to get back. Where's Don?"
Raph sighed. Why was Mikey acting so weird? He'd have to figger it out later. "We finished the wall. I told him I'd come back with you guys."
"Well, go get Leo. But I'm not coming. I've gotta watch for Sensei."
Very different. Raphael shifted from one foot to the other. He looked down the sewer to their door, but Leo didn't appear. "Mikey, you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, go 'head. I'll see the wall with Splinter when he comes back."
Raphael held for a second, then moved. He was too tired to argue, and he had another twenty minute round trip to go. It occurred to Raph when he reached the lair that he could be the one to watch for Splinter while Mike and Leo went to see Don, but something kept him quiet.
Must have been the disappointment. He felt a need to run.
"They did a nice job, Mikey. Too bad ya missed it."
"'S okay. I'll see it tomorrow."
Don glanced at Raph. What's up? his eyes asked. Raph shrugged.
"Well, until then, I guess it's bedtime for us," Leo said.
"I'll stay here."
Donnie moved forward. "Mikey, what's going on?"
"I'm watching for Master Splinter."
"You'll see him when he comes in to the lair," Leo said. "Come on. You can't sleep out here."
"I don't want to sleep."
"That's dumb, Mikey," Raph snorted. "We're all tired, we got up wicked early. Let's go," he ordered.
Mike wheeled on his brother. "I said, I'm stayin' out here! Leave me alone!"
"Why?" Raph demanded.
"Cause he doesn't have to come back to us!!!" Mike shouted. "I gotta be out here so I can catch him if he goes by!"
They froze, stunned.
"What?" asked Leo. "What are you talking about, Mikey?"
Mike spun away from the glare of the flashlight.
"Mike - "
"He never said he had to come back," their brother cried. "Maybe it just got too tough for him. Maybe he got so hungry he just forgot about us."
"Master Splinter wouldn't do that!" Raph barked.
"No - but I told him, I told him to ---" Mike's voice broke up. "Said to bring back good stuff, and maybe he got mad, and -"
Leo bent down and grabbed his brother in a bearhug. "No, Mikey, Splinter wouldn't do that. It's not your fault."
"Then why isn't he back yet?" Mike sobbed out, as Don and Raph joined him and Leo. They were getting sewer water all over themselves. "He's never, ever gone this long."
"Maybe he got stuck in traffic?" Don tried.
"He wouldn't get caught anywhere, not by anyone," Mike said. "Sensei's way too good for that."
Raph agreed, nodding in the glow from the fallen flashlight. "He'll be back. He'll be back, Mikey. Something came up. Hell, he might even be testing us. So we don't want to disappoint him, right?"
"So, he'll be pissed if he comes home and we're not all in bed, right?"
"Come on, man," Don reached out a hand to catch Mike's. "It isn't your fault. We were talking about pies and stuff, too."
"Forget about it, Mike. Quit beatin' yourself up, or I'll do it for you." Raph wrapped his arms around Donnie and Mikey's shoulders and started up, pulling them with him. "I'm tired. Let's deal in the morning, okay? You comin', Leo?"
"Hey. Somebody's gotta clear the way for you three goobers."
He moved, limbs stiff, a clumsy shadow that dropped to the top of the ovens. He stumbled, caught himself at the edge. Splinter stared weakly around the darkened kitchen, then slid over the side and headed for the two huge sinks across the tiled floor. The first sink was almost big enough to sit in. Splinter jumped for the counter beside it, missed and almost fell backwards. He glanced around and spotted a metal stool nearby, glinting in the dim lights. He dragged it to the counter and climbed it like a ladder. Reaching the top, the rat lay flat with his head over the deep metal basin, and reached for the faucet.
He gulped the fresh water gratefully, his noisy swallows overridden by the rush from the spigot. Wonderful, beautiful, delicious water... Splinter pulled back, swiped at his dripping whiskers, and ducked in again. A minute later he sat up and paused to let the dizzy swirls pass. His stomach was roaring with renewed hunger. Splinter couldn't remember ever feeling so starved. He left the water running. A back guard. If anyone came in, they'd shut off the faucet and he could hide. The rat slid off the counter and walked carefully to the back of the kitchens. His legs kept trying to buckle.
At the back wall stood three sets of tall white doors, twice as high as the rat. Signs on two of them read 'REFRIDGERATED', and Splinter knew they held cold foods, like delicious milk, meats, perhaps even frozen foods. But he passed them by and reached for the handle of the third set of doors. He wanted foods that would carry to the sewers easily, and wouldn't need to be packed in snow somewhere above the frostline...
The handle was a strong one, set horizontally against the door. It swung easily down at the rat's touch. He pulled, and the heavy, insulated steel opened toward him.
The Kimberly Hotel has three permanent storage trailers leading from the kitchen wing into the rear deliveries lot. When they were added along with new microwave technologies in 1971, the hotel's overnight bedroom rates rocketed from forty dollars to over seventy-five, in order to compensate for the insurance hikes that had followed. The rates would have been even higher, had the contractors not suggested an air lock and a tight security system, to prevent any break-ins. The security system prevented anyone outside the kitchens from breaking into them via the trailers, by installing handles and hinges only on the indoor side. The general manager had been pleased. And luck had helped keep the Kimberly insurance rates down. Only one person had ever gotten himself stuck in the cars during the six years since installment. That had been a careless busboy, who had neatly trapped himself for the half hour between breakfast and brunch.
Splinter was about to become the second.
The rat peered into the darkness beyond the half-opened doorway, then spotted the box of switches on the far left of the wall. He snatched an empty plastic milk crate from the floor and slid it into place beneath the switches, climbed up and hit them all. Sure enough, a crack of light shone from inside the trailer he had chosen. An incredible scent was drifting out, harsh as the light to the Master's whirling senses. He stepped down from the switchbox and started toward the door, reached back and dragged the crate with him. He positioned it where it could prop open the door...just in case.
Splinter stepped inside, and felt a kind of delirious shock. He hadn't been prepared for this. He had discovered a treasure trove! Both of the long sides of the box were lined with wide metal racks and shelves. Tall, multi-leveled trolleys split the trailer down the middle, their stacks reaching all the way to the 8 foot ceiling with its naked lightbulbs. Every available horizontal surface was packed with food! The place smelled like a bakery - no, a whole marketplace of goods! Splinter stood trembling before it, taking the dream in, then turned to the closest shelves, on his right. Tall white sacks of flour were crowded on the tiers. Just to their left were bags of sugar, the bleached American kind as well as sweet brown cane. Beyond them -
"By the gods," Splinter whispered, too hungry for a longer prayer. Row after row of loaves of bread, clad in thin plastic bags, were stuffed in beside a full shelf of warm breakfast rolls and donuts, ready for reheating the next morning. The Kimberly Hotel had a reputation for being prepared. They had to be, at ninety-nine dollars a night.
The rat set about making them a little less prepared.
He clutched the food bag a little tighter by its damp and slightly chewed top. He was not going to return, so horribly late, from such a paradise without bringing his sons a hint of the treasures he had risked his life for. He seized plastic jars of peanut butter, a half sack of sugar, some cans of soups and vegetables. They would need to find a discarded can opener or churchkey sometime soon. He dropped in some tea bags, using them like packing popcorn -and yes, for Donatello he tucked a bag of popcorn kernels at the bottom. There was room for boxes of dried egg noodles, macaroni, and a bag of brown rice he spotted in the far corner. He debated replacing the filled food bag with one of the larger flour sacks, but this bag was already heavy. Why choose to risk freedom for greed? There was still room for bread...
Splinter knew he couldn't hold out any longer. He darted back to the trays of breakfast rolls, head spinning. He clutched one pole and stood a few seconds, riding out the waves of dizziness. Heaven was before him, the stacks and stacks of bread just waiting for him. Here was warm, filling, delicious food. He dropped the bag and snatched a shaking pawful of buns, stuffing all three into his mouth at once, hardly chewing in the haste to fill his stomach.
It was a quarter past twelve.
A cheerful whistling filled the kitchen outside, its happy little echoes darting and lilting over the milk crate and into the food trailer, which suddenly went from quiet to absolutely silent. Splinter set his fifth roll back on the tray, snatched up the bulging food bag, and bolted to the corner behind the door's hinges. He hesitated on the floor, hastily chewing, but then the whistling drew nearer and slowed. Splinter climbed the shelves and lay flat, ready to leap down and put the intruder quickly to sleep.
The guard, however, didn't enter the trailer. He stopped whistling just long enough to mutter about the lazy kitchen workers, and kicked the milk crate out of the doorjamb. He then slammed the trailer door shut and pulled the handle back up to its locked position.
He whistled his way to the sinks, spun the tap off, then snuck another sip of bourbon from his inner jacket pocket. The guard moved on.
Oh no! Sensei's trapped! Find out what happens next at
Or, if you can't bear to look - follow the semi-intoxicated guard