Downtown - The world of finance


Larry's announcement that we would have to hitch a ride to Con City took the tourist group by surprise. It is essential, therefore, to address a fundamentally important aspect of tourism in Con County. Namely, that no matter how you choose to explore Con County, you will not be able to avoid hitchhiking.

The reason for this is simple. All forms of transportation in the county are unreliable. Trains are late and buses have a tendency to break down. At such times, one must hitch a ride in order to continue one's journey.

For this reason it is also important to understand the rules of hitchhiking in Con County. These are rules set down by generation after generation of unfortunate travelers who learned the hard way how not to hitch a ride in such a dangerous land.

The rules of hitchhiking in Con County are in fact so important that the law in Con County forbids these rules to be written down anywhere in any form. For this reason no more shall be spoken of these rules here.




*



We left Ghost Town on foot, leaving unnecessary luggage behind, and made our way to the highway where we hoped to hitch a ride to Con City. With little hope of catching a bus, we split into two groups. Larry accompanied Helga and the Australian cousins, while I stayed with the French couple and Stavros.

Larry's group was the first to catch a ride after a good half hour of failed attempts. They were picked up by a middle-aged gentleman in a green five-seater pickup truck who was transporting watermelons.

The rest of us fared much worse, having had to wait another hour before a car stopped for us. Stavros remarked that the problem was that we only had one woman in our group, to which Gabrielle gave him a hard stare.

Eventually a white Cutler Eagle stopped beside our group. Its driver was a bald man in a white suit and a blue shirt. He spoke in a Russian accent and offered to take us to Con City.

Gabrielle rode shotgun while the rest of us sat in the back. It was a very clean and comfortable vehicle, though its interior was plain. A tiny pewter katana hung from the rear view mirror as the car's only decoration.

The driver was a man of few words, though he did indulge Gabrielle when she asked him about the katana decoration.

"Swords are the purest weapons in the world," the bald man said. "Modern weapons have no place in the lives of those of us who wish to have a pure soul."

"Is that why your umbrella case is shaped like a katana?" she asked, pointing at the white umbrella beside him, which had a handle just like a katana.

The driver glanced at the umbrella and gave Gabrielle a half smile.

"It belonged to my grandfather," he said, and turned his attention back to the road.




*



When the skyline of Con City came into view it was early afternoon. By the time we reached the Downtown it was late evening. Traffic in Con City is always dense, but this day the police were conducting a search, randomly stopping vehicles and checking their trunks, though they only seemed to target lone drivers and they left us alone.

In the Downtown the bald man dropped us off and we thanked him for the ride.

"May your lives be prosperous and lead you into Entropy's warm embrace," he said, and he drove off towards Oldtown.

We took a subway train to the hotel. Gabrielle and Philippe were shocked by how crowded the subway was in Downtown Con City, having never experienced quite such a thick crowd on the Paris metro. Stavros was not bothered by crowds so he just shrugged.

Our rooms were booked for us at the Crimson Majestic Hotel. Sixty stories tall, the Crimson Majestic is a luxurious hotel in the heart of the Downtown, mostly known for almost always being out of vacancy. Technically the hotel did have vacancy, what with the tourist group reduced in size, but the hotel would rather keep up the illusion of being overbooked for the sake of its reputation.

Larry was in the lounge, resting in a couch with a cocktail in hand.

"I thought you'd never get here," he said in greeting. "It's about time. I could use some help with Helga."

At Philippe's request, Larry provided a more in-depth explanation.




*



The driver that had picked up Larry's group turned out to be a German man called Jürgen. He and Helga were getting along so well that Paul had a jealous fit in the car, and eventually started insulting the driver. Finally Jürgen had enough and stopped the car, and told everyone to get out. Paul then punched the man and dragged him out of the car, beat him senseless, threw him in the ditch by the road, and sat into the driver's seat.

Helga was outraged by Paul's actions and threatened to report the incident to the police. She and Paul spent the entire drive to Con City screaming at each other, which felt like an eternity to Larry due to the amount of time they spent stuck in traffic.

When they finally arrived at the hotel with the stolen pickup truck, which they promptly stashed in the hotel's underground garage, they had to lock Helga in her room to calm her down. She would not listen to either Larry or Paul, however. Larry figured a woman might be able to fare better with her, but Mara was not interested in calming down Paul's ex-girlfriend for some reason. Which left only one person in the group to do the job.




*



Gabrielle was speechless. She had no idea how to calm down a rightfully enraged woman, though she did understand that the tour would end if Helga involved the police over the incident with Jürgen. Fortunately for her, Stavros volunteered to negotiate with the fuming sculptress.

We took the elevator to the seventeenth floor and Larry gave Stavros the key to Helga's room. He went inside alone while we waited patiently. Helga yelled with Stavros for about a minute, but then the conversation became silent. Five minutes later the door opened and Helga stepped out, asking which way Paul's room was. Larry pointed the way while Stavros came out of Helga's room with a wide smile.

"Piece of cake," he explained upon seeing our baffled expressions. "An enraged woman is nothing in comparison to the Greek stock market."




*



In the morning all was well. Helga and Paul shared a table at breakfast as if nothing had happened while Mara sat smirking in the corner with Stavros. Larry and I ate with the French couple who were most displeased by the bread at the hotel but did not want to cause a scene.

We started the tour of the Downtown at the University of Con City, located in the northern part of the district. Hosted on a small campus containing modern and tall buildings, the University of Con City is famous for its liberal approach to science and its outstanding track record in acquiring research funding. One of the major departments of the university, formerly known as the Department of Pseudoscience, is called the Department of Bullshitology. Its Head of Department, Professor van der Bishop, brings in outrageous amounts of money to the university every year. Thanks to his uncanny ability to convince funding agencies to support his research, the University of Con City is richer these days than ever.

The abundance of modern buildings we could see on campus spoke volumes of just how well funded the university was. The tourist group was hardly impressed by the fancy buildings though. The tall ugly concrete wall that surrounded the campus reminded Helga of a different wall, and she showed no interest in setting foot inside the campus.

She was, however, very much interested in the Con City Art Gallery. Located close to the river, the Art Gallery is a modern steel and glass building, focusing on modern art, such as the famous ice paintings of local artist Warren Baker. Helga was more interested in sculptures, but in this she was disappointed, as the only sculptures in the Art Gallery at the time of our visit were steel statues of humanoid skeletons, which did not impress Helga in the least.

Our next stop was the old harbor of Con City, situated by the river a ten minute walk from the Art Gallery. One of the few buildings that partially survived and were successfully renovated after the Great Flood of 1903, the harbor displays a nice touch of 19th century architecture.  As a harbor it is completely out of use these days, functioning as a maritime museum, but it used to handle trade up and down the river. Since no one in the group seemed too interested in old boats, we moved on to the train station, which was right beside the old harbor. Con City Central is the other end of the Brickton to Con City line, but unlike Brickton Central, this station still sees plenty of use due to the north-south line that goes through the city. So much use in fact that Con City Central gave the group the impression of a perfectly ordinary train station and therefore they showed no interest in setting foot inside.

Two blocks form the station we found the current office building of Con City's largest news outlet, the Con City Times. Famous among other things for its editor-in-chief, the poet Howard Pretentious, who is known among his peers as a bloodthirsty psychopath prone to making unreasonable demands of the journalists on his staff (and that's if he can be bothered to read the text he is supposed to be editing at all), who is the main reason many journalists who write for the Con City Times work freelance rather than as full time members of staff, including the author of this tourist guide. Gabrielle and Philippe, who had heard plenty of stories about the antics of the infamous poet-editor, did not want to go anywhere near the offices of a journal run by a maniac who should be in a straitjacket, and the rest of the group could find no good reason to argue, hence we moved on.

With the less than stellar tour showing no signs of improving, Stavros made a suggestion to take a look at the finance quarter of the Downtown where all the banks are located. "If nothing else, we'll find something to eat there," he said. So we made our way towards the part of Con City which made it the most important settlement of Con County.




*



Con City was built in 1792 at the site of the present day Downtown, functioning as a port city. Shipments of goods mined and produced in Brickton were brought here, at first by coach and later by train, and loaded onto ships to be sold all over the country.

Con City functioned as the trading town of the county, thus enough money flowed through it that the construction of a north-south train line through Con City was commissioned in the 1840s, using steel produced in Brickton. Had Brickton officials seen the importance of that railway, they could have refused to supply the steel and built a train line through Brickton instead. Alas, the leadership of Brickton in those days was hardly any more competent in matters of commerce than Mayor Stanley Greekhorse is today, and so Con City became the center of commerce instead.

With the establishment of the north-south train line, the income of Con City grew every year. Although almost the entire city was destroyed in the Great Flood of 1903, Con City was built again, pretty much from scratch, in 1904 using the fortune the city had made in the preceding decades. The year of the rebuilding marked the beginning of a new era for Con City, so much so that many people mistakenly believe Con City had not even existed before the 20th century.

The city grew into a megalopolis by the end of the 20th century. Today its population slightly surpasses twenty million people, and the Downtown's finance district handles enough money to buy a third world country every day. The banking business and the stock market to this day offer the most popular career paths in the entire county, leading to a massive number of students graduating from the University of Con City with a degree in finance year after year.

This, of course, is also the reason why Con City boasts the largest number of unemployed bankers in the entire world.




*



Stavros's suggestion paid off in dividends as we found a very nice fast food restaurant right next door to the central branch of the First Free Bank of Con County. With multiple varieties of bread on offer, even Gabrielle and Philippe found something to their liking. Paul wolfed down a massive sandwich filled with beef, which put a wide smile on Helga's face. Mara ordered the same sandwich but was unable to finish it.

After the meal Larry suggested to put an end to the tour of the Downtown. "There's nothing to see but skyscrapers," he explained. "The city has much more to offer. Let's just move on to Oldtown."

The group agreed, except Stavros, who was eager to explore the finance district better. We agreed that we would meet at the hotel and left the fast food restaurant.

Within seconds of stepping out the door a loud commotion drew our attention to the bank beside the fast food joint. The alarm was ringing and loud gunshot-like noises blasted past the racket.

Five men wearing black ski masks burst out of the front entrance. Four of them carried assault rifles and large bulging duffel bags. The fifth one also had a duffel bag over his shoulder, but he held a machine pistol in one hand and had his left arm wrapped around the neck of a woman in a business dress. He held the machine pistol to her temple.

One of the men let loose a burst into the air with his assault rifle. If he hoped to disperse the crowd in the street with this act, his plan backfired, for the crowd panicked and people got in each other's way so much the crowd became even thicker than it had been.

Consequently, the panicked crowd also blocked off our escape from the area. It did not help our situation that the staff of the fast food restaurant locked and barricaded its door behind us.




*



"Just stay down and don't panic," Larry suggested, as he crouched by the wall and looked for a way out. As we followed his lead, sirens blared from beyond the crowd and soon numerous police cars parked in front of the bank. The mass of pedestrians was stuck between them and the bank robbers, but the police officers solved this problem by standing on top of their cars.

One of these men was a police officer in civilian clothes. He wore a cheap suit, held a megaphone in one hand, and a gun in the other. The gun was a Hunterson .44 Elephantslayer, a high caliber handgun which, while not exactly standard police issue, was lately an authorized law enforcement sidearm in Con City.

"This is Sergeant Jack Westwood of the Con City Police Department," he said into the megaphone, while aiming his massive gun at the bank robbers. "We have you surrounded. Release your hostage and surrender, or we will shoot you dead."

"Fuck you, copper!" the bank robber with the machine pistol yelled, pressing his weapon hard against the hostage's head. "Beat it or I'll blow this bitch's brains out!"

"Go ahead, blow her brains out," Sergeant Westwood said. "Then you'll have no hostage and we can shoot you dead. Works for me."

This gave the bank robber pause. He spent a good deal of time thinking, then yelled at his cohorts.

"Shoot this cocksucker!"

What happened next went by with a blur, though according to later recollections it took at least five minutes. The bank robbers opened fire, the police opened fire, the panicked crowd panicked even more. Some of them got hit by the assault rifle rounds of the bank robbers, which sent injured people to the ground. Lots of uninjured people hit the ground as well, covering their heads from the inevitable stampede of running pedestrians. This reduced the density of the crowd, allowing it to slowly disperse.

With the police officers now having a clear shot at the bank robbers, they jumped behind their cars and used them for cover. The bank robbers were locked out of the bank by the resourceful bank staff and were stuck with no cover and only one hostage. A massive shootout ensued in which two of the bank robbers were gunned down by the Hunterson Elephantslayer and another two by standard issue police firearms.

When only the bank robber with the machine pistol was left standing, the police officers ceased fire and aimed their guns at him. He lowered the machine pistol and released the hostage.

"I surrender!" he yelled. As soon as the hostage stumbled two feet past him, Sergeant Westwood shot him in the chest with the Elephantslayer. No one complained that he had omitted to instruct the bank robber to drop his weapon.

With the conflict over, we stood up from our crouching position by the wall of the fast food joint and took a deep breath, hardly believing we had survived. Mara's silent sobbing alerted us to the fact that we had in fact not all escaped unscathed.

She sat leaned against the wall holding Paul's body. Her cousin had been shot in the temple by a stray bullet we had not even noticed.

"It's my fault..." she whimpered. "If only we had stayed in there for another five minutes... If only I had finished my sandwich..."

Beside her, Helga stood in silent shock, staring at her dead boyfriend. Stavros put a hand on her shoulder and said a few silent comforting words to her. Helga turned to him and smiled, wrapped an arm around his waist and walked away with him.

"Well, that concludes our tour of the Downtown," Larry announced. "Now you've seen everything there is to see in the center of Con City: skyscrapers, boredom, and mayhem."

It was not altogether surprising that Mara scraped herself off from the ground and punched Larry's lights out.




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