A rough hand dug into her scalp like a trowel, jerking her back with bruising force. The dark van rocked with every turn and pothole like a ship in rough water, but Alex could see enough to make out the faces of the three men towering above her.
“I love it when we catch them in the wild,” one of them snarled with grim enjoyment; close enough to her ear she could smell the sweet and sour haze of day-old rum on his breath. He cracked his knuckles individually like a villain out of a Sunday morning cartoon, the sound overly loud in the small space. Alex’s attempt to recoil earned her a hard, warning jerk back to center.
She didn’t know what was going on or what these men wanted. She didn’t know them. She didn’t know how this situation found her. One second, she was walking home from her office, going over source documents for her upcoming spread and working out who her chief editor needed to reach out to. And the next? She was being pulled into a van by three sets of hands like a scene out of a horror movie.
“I — I don’t–”
The first blow to connect came out of nowhere like a bolt of stray lightning and sank into Alex’s stomach, driving the breath from her lungs in a wheezing rush. She might have painted the filthy van floor with her partially digested lunch had a second fist not burst against the side of her head with the sound of a bat striking a melon. Shock kept the worst of the pain at bay, but there was a second heartbeat in her mouth from where she’d bitten her tongue and the faintest hints of copper creeping into her nose.
“Didn’t give you permission to talk.” Thick fingers dug into the soft skin below her jaw, choking off any plea of innocence or mercy. Alex was drawn closer to the speaker, a nondescript white male with a scar on his upper lip and cold brown eyes. “You know what you did, and you know why we’re here. Marco doesn’t like when his girls disobey a direct order, so tonight, we’re going to discuss a valuable lesson about what happens when you talk too fucking much.”
Marco…Alex’s panicked mind ripped through her memory, seeking the name in the frantic scramble of someone sliding slowly off a cliff. A client? A source? Someone tied to her most recent set of exposés for the Times? Only one came to mind, and it sucked the blood from her body, leaving her frozen to the bone.
Marco Falconi. Notorious crime boss. Oh, God. Oh, God, please not that.
“Don’t know… Falconi,” she managed to say through gritted teeth, but Alex might as well have been screaming into the wind. Thugs weren’t hired to listen to their marks. They were hired to follow orders.
“Sure you don’t,” came the condescending reply. The man in front of her looked at something over her shoulder and gave the silent command to continue with a jerk of his chin.
Something white-hot sparked against Alex’s lower back, sizzling like a Tesla coil. Her spine involuntarily snapped into a hard C that rendered her lungs incapable of letting out a scream as the electricity jumped from muscle to muscle. A taser. She’d just been tasered. Left to fall with the graceless thud of immobile limbs, the swing of a boot launched her into the wall of the van and brought the wolves to the kill.
From that point forward, it was difficult to determine where one fist ended and the other began. Or was that a foot? Hard to tell. Alex tucked into herself as best she could, curled on her side like a question mark, the hands she used to cover her head providing little protection against steel-toed boots.
Lost in the tight curl of self-preservation, time turned to molasses. Alex tried to cling to all those sensationalized How To Survive an Abduction stories circulated in popular magazines and taught to bleary-eyed school children at assemblies. Pay attention. Track the turns. Don’t fight back. Humanize yourself. The bitter truth was none of those things were remotely possible, so it came as a shock when the hail of abuse abruptly stopped like someone hitting pause during an action sequence on TV.
Hauled to her knees, head held aloft by her hair, Alex stared incoherently through her only working eye at the scarred man crouched in front of her. He sucked his teeth in appraisal, cocking his head as if to gauge whether or not her condition met his seal of approval. Somewhere down the line, his men must have fallen short because he reached around and brought something metallic into view, waving it teasingly to get Alex’s attention.
“That’s right. Follow the birdy. Now, I hope you learned a valuable lesson,” he sneered, joined by his comrades in a slithering snicker as he tapped Alex’s nose with the tip of a wicked-looking knife. “Falconi had orders from HS to bring you back in, but that mouth of yours got my brother caged for five fucking years for breaking Community law. And for what? Because you saw something you shouldn’t and thought going to a priest would save you? Well, don’t worry. We’re gonna send a message to the Good Father once we’re through with you. And since you’re so keen on confession, as one poor sinner to another, let me help prepare your body for what comes next.”
The new smile that spread across his pockmarked face was a shark’s grin. “I baptize you in the name of the Father.”
Alex grunted wetly in a stunted attempt at gasping when the man grabbed her by the shoulder and sheathed the knife to the hilt in her side.
The sharp crack of his forehead against the bridge of her nose hit mute on her senses, leaving only blinding white behind.
“And the Holy Spirit.”
The door to Alex’s right slid open with the low rumble of wheels gliding along a track. Bitter cold swept into the van and dug talons into her throat as Alex was dragged to standing, the heels of her unshod feet dangling over the edge. Instinct brought her hands up too late to grab the frame of the sliding door as it slipped past in slow motion.
The fingers around her throat dropped away, and Alex plummeted like a stone.
Her next sensation was the gut-sucking swoop of falling, the stagnant, sick-smelling musk of the van replaced with the razor-edge sharpness of winter air and frost. Alex had enough time to think “Oh Go–” before the left side of her body struck a rough, sloped surface with an ugly crunch that wiped cognition from her mind and–
Thrashing with no end and cold.
Alex broke the fast-moving water’s surface but couldn’t force her lungs to drag in the air she needed, snowmelt mixed with high volumes of out-of-season rain wrapping every muscle in groaning rust. Slapping the black water in a futile effort to stay afloat, she caught sight of the departing van, an island swept away in a squall, as she went back under, taking half a lung full of water with her. When she surfaced again, the mouths of twin circular pits rose from the drain canal. Backpedaling of any kind was useless against the pull of the current. Alex was a body dragged behind a car, the water pulling her beneath the concrete lip giving way to an undertow that tightened its grip and sucked her down into darkness that had actual matter. Alex felt her body crest the ledge of another drop only to fall once more, spat out and recaptured in the same dizzying breath as the night closed its fangs around its newest victim without so much as a scream.
The heavy iron door protested when Lee pressed her shoulder to the metal, rusted hinges squealing piggishly in the cold. She winced through the noise that felt like an ice pick driving into her ears. No one usually guarded this entrance to the Underground, but the sound was still abrupt and alarming for such a quiet night.
Poking her head through the crack she’d made in the mausoleum doorway, Lee found the coast clear in either direction and replaced her concentrated frown with a mischievous smirk. She’d made excellent time. Hood drawn, she ducked into the darkness of Trinity Church Cemetery and struck out due east through rows of dated and weathered headstones, checking her watch to be sure she still had time to meet her liaison and get back without her absence noticed. Mother would blow a tempest otherwise, but as Laurel Ulrich liked to say, “well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Mindful of the time but eager to savor this rare moment of independence, Lee forced herself to slow to a casual stroll and soak in the season. There was something undeniably healing about the breeze rustling her hair and tasting the metallic hum of New York on her tongue. Something wild and thrilling and natural. Especially during winter. Winter was a magical season. Fall was a close second, with its prismatic colors and earthy smells, but winter was full of frost and ice, foggy breaths, and snow. In the Underground, there were no seasons. Nothing to break up the days save for repetition, chores, and the tolling of the clocks. No sun. No moon. No stars.
It was toward the black heavens Lee turned her face, letting the wind swirl crystalline and cold in her lungs. Squatting, she gathered a handful of snow off the top of a headstone and held it to her nose. Icy fractals tickled her skin, making her laugh when she snorted and sent the whole fistful flying. She must have been a sight to anyone unlucky enough to glance into the gloomy darkness of the cemetery. A black hooded figure cackling into the winter air. New York’s very own urban cryptid. How fitting.
Sticking to the older parts of the cemetery furthest from West 153rd St — disobedient she might be, but stupid Lee was not — she lost herself in the crunch of her boots in virgin snow and the company of so many silent dead. In hardly any time at all, she was moving into the newer burial sites where the mausoleums lost their beautiful Gothic architecture in lieu of modern, static buildings with hard edges and ruler-straight lines nestled among young trees barely worth their weight in firewood.
Slowing as she reached the West 155th St cemetery entrance, Lee performed a fast glance across the yard between headstones in either direction to be sure no one occupied the street other than the rows of parked cars. Sensing she was safe, she broke into a sprint and vaulted over the ornate wrought iron fence ringing the property, hands and feet barely touching the black metal. Years of playing subterranean Tarzan meant few obstacles could truly hinder her. If I fit in, I slip in, she chuckles to herself.
Successfully free of the cemetery, Lee straightened with a self-satisfied tug of her jacket and veered to the left, following the high stone wall opposite her toward the low bridge cutting under Riverside Drive. Blackness awaited her, but so did the person lingering just within the bridge’s arched underbelly. She could make out his silhouette each time he pushed off the wall and walked forward only to double back and disappear again like a toy soldier keeping watch.
Lee was more than ninety-nine percent sure this was her man, but to save herself the chance of a very awkward encounter that could potentially end in screaming, she reached into her pocket and retrieved a tiny flashlight. Tucked tight against the webbing between her thumb and forefinger, she clicked the side button three times and waited.
One heartbeat. Two. Three.
The figure didn’t move for another four seconds before the darkness was broken by a tiny prick of blue light flashing in answer to her silent question. Yep, that was him. Lee audibly exhaled her relief in a plume of white fog and jogged to safety, happy to be out of sight.
“Evening, your Eternal Spookiness,” the man said with a lopsided smile, balancing a cardboard box on his hip like he’d done this before, which he had. Several times. “You’re punctual as always.”
“Greetings, my Midnight Minion,” Lee said in return, signing with her hands. “I’m always on time. Mother’s rules.“
“Oh, I like that one. Midnight Minion,” he said, tasting the world with a grin that showed off crooked teeth. “Might get that embroidered on a jacket. Hella cool.”
“You’re welcome. Midnight Minion sounds better than Francis anyway.” Lee barely dodged a good-natured shove, laughing as she danced out of reach.
“Asshole,” Francis muttered. “Might just stick to calling you Wolfman from now on instead, yah ugly bastard.”
“You walked into that one, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I do have a face only a mother could love. So what did you bring me?”
“I should take my box back and make you wait, but I don’t want to carry this shit another ten blocks.” Francis passed the box to Lee and took the opportunity to light a cigarette now that his hands were free while she dug through the contents. “I got what I could for your order. Copper wiring. Solder, plus a new kit. Circuit boards. Microwave transformer. Oh, and those L-bends you needed. Found a few at the shop. No luck on the flanges or valves. I’ll keep looking.”
“You are a treasure,” Lee said, transferring the contents of the box into the backpack she’d hidden under her jacket.
“Damn straight I am,” Francis mumbled around the cigarette, the coals at the tip glowing orange when he sucked in, tinting his brown eyes momentarily gold. “Think this will last you longer than four days?”
“Oh, not likely.” She gave a helpless shrug. “Two days tops. I’ve got plans for everything.”
Francis blew out a lung full of smoke and tapped away stray ash. “Well, try to make it last. I can’t make another trip for at least two weeks, and I don’t know if Luke’s available yet.”
Lee made a noncommittal noise and signed without looking up. “I can always call Jerry.”
Arms elbow-deep in the box of scrap, Lee heard Francis’ distasteful snort. “I mean if you want to. God knows why Mother keeps him as an Insider.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, and he’s competent enough to get the job done. Anyway, thanks again for the late call.” Lee stood and slung the backpack over one shoulder, the contents clanking as they settled. “Oh, and here.”
From the depths of an inseam pocket, she dug out a velvet bag that jingled when tossed between them. Francis caught it smartly with one hand, curiosity plain. Upending it, his palm filled with yellow circlets of various size, some adorned with precious stones, some intricately crafted.
“You robbing jewelry stores now?” Francis’ eyebrows climbed into his thinning hairline as he lifted one of the rings into the weak light.
Lee grinned, showing the length of her upper and lower canines. “I’d never have to wear a mask. Who would believe the Wolfman just robbed them? But no. You’d be amazed what washes up in the Underground. See what you can pawn. Night!“
Lee should have turned on the balls of her feet and spirited her Topside spoils back to the Underground. She should have whisked herself away like a good little gremlin, skittering under her rock with a cackle because no one was the wiser to her mischief, and she’d gotten away with breaking the rules. Again. She should have done a lot of things that didn’t include departing from Francis in the opposite direction of the cemetery and heading for the river. But tonight wasn’t merely a night for secret rendezvous and package drops.
Tonight was about breaking records… and working on equipment.
Lee liked to think of it as a lonely game of chicken she played with her nerves. Since the start of her secret Topside adventures years ago, she hadn’t walked more than half a mile out in the naked open, and even that took working up to. Tonight, with the bite of winter stoking the fires of her bravery and a new trail mapped out, she intended to double that.
Maybe even triple.
Lee followed the tunnel under the bridge until it spat her out at the mouth of an enclosed catwalk terminating in a set of stairs, then jogged down to the street below, taking the steps two at a time. West 158th Street ran parallel to the Henry Hudson Parkway, but parallel wouldn’t take Lee where she needed to go. Straight was the desired course, under the looming parkway ramp that resembled the flight deck of an aircraft carrier from her position below it to the shore of the Hudson River on the other side.
Keeping her hood high to hide her unusual face when nearing puddles of weak streetlight, Lee hung back from the edge of the curb and let the sporadic bursts of traffic flow by until the street was clear. Sliding her arm through the remaining strap on her backpack, she stepped off onto asphalt and thanked her lucky stars for sharp hearing. The rev of an engine and the chirp of tires was all the warning she had that a car without headlights decided to ignore the red light and blow through the intersection. The dark van roared past like a cannonball, missing her by inches.
What the hell!? I’m right here!
Not for the first time, Lee wished she had a voice to scream with. Instead, she settled with kicking dirt in the van’s direction while flipping up a middle finger and swearing loudly enough in her head God might have flushed and hit mute.
Asshole, she fumed, watching its tail lights trail off. A curse upon you and your household, you ignorant bastard. Hope your ball sack gets ingrown hairs.
A hearty shake and a few steadying breaths later, Lee regrouped and jogged across the street, not stopping until she reached the Hudson River Greenway. Here, the jungle of steel and concrete receded like ocean surf, ushering her to the edge of smooth, dark water cleaving the land in half: New York on one side, New Jersey on the other.
Standing on the border between states, it wasn’t hard imagining she was looking at another kingdom. The opposite shore was a Tetris landscape of black buildings studded in gold and white. A sparkling, industrial mountain range that felt a world away from someone who stole glimpses of Topside through grates and manhole covers like a crow might steal crumbs.
Tonight, however, she would feast rather than salvage.
Heart taking flight, Lee hit start on her imaginary stopwatch and began walking in the direction of the George Washington Bridge. Her hope was to stake her misbehaving victory more than a mile away.
A mile my mother would take in flesh if she ever found out I was doing this.
Lee snorted a burst of white fog at her exaggeration. Like it or not, she understood the reasoning behind her mother’s rules. For the protection of her daughter and the people she governed, Undergrounders didn’t go Topside. There was no need to leave the sanctuary when they had Insiders who would get Undergrounders whatever they needed.
For thirty-two years, Lee chewed and swallowed the same stale, dry rhetoric that left her starving for something new. Anything new. And for eleven of those thirty-two years, she listened and obeyed until the precocious preteen finally worked up the courage to climb beyond her synthetic sky of concrete and cabling. Only then did she discover a world full of wonder, mystery, and technology.
A grin crinkled Lee’s face at the memory of her early tinkering years and what her nimble fingers birthed from nothing but Topside scraps, imagination, and a sturdy grasp of basic engineering. Heating. Radio communication. Lifts and pulleys. The foundation for so much. And as her knowledge grew, so too did her ambition. That was the root of her emergency delivery this evening. She was so tantalizingly close to completing what she hoped would be a continuous power source capable of detaching the Underground from New York’s electrical grid.
Trailing alongside the Hudson, Lee let her thoughts wander with the slow crawl of the icy current. Tonight’s plan was simple with a complex outcome. She had a little over two hours to make the trek from Trinity Church Cemetery to the George Washington Bridge. Her aim wasn’t necessarily the bridge itself but a forgotten section of antique sewer channels buried at the base of the bridge where the steel legs of the hulking suspension tower bit into the earth.
Lee knew from map study that a system of channels had been laid in the 1800s to help alleviate flooding when the aqueducts were assembled. Some of those early channels tangled with more modern pipes, and a few, in particular, had been equipped with floodgates controlled by wheel valves. If she could find the valves in question, Lee could open the gates and redirect a healthy amount of river water to the Underground where her slumbering machine would finally receive the power it needed.
The hike from the cemetery was uneventful but no less thrilling. Enthralled with the landscape, Lee detoured quite a few times to entertain herself on playgrounds or roll across empty soccer fields like an animal freed from its concrete paddock. Topside was so different. Lee’s world was hard, dark, and cylindrical. Rarely were there places big enough for a body to run in any direction without hitting a wall or dropping into a pit. Topside was massive, and standing beneath the George Washington Bridge only helped drive that fact home.
Like Jack and the beanstalk, she marveled, bending backward to take it all in. If the beanstalk was a double-decker highway bridging landmasses.
Boots crunching softly in the sandy gravel, Lee circled the base of the bridge’s suspension tower and the two-layer chain link fence standing sentinel around its enormous feet. The outer layer was straight and tall, meant as a basic deterrent. The inner fence rose higher than the first but reared back at the top like a cresting wave to prevent intrepid adventurers from climbing up and over with ease.
Poor idiots never planned for me.
A second walk-around confirmed there was no additional security, which was a needed stroke of luck. Lee intended to get her machine operational two years ago, but then 9/11 brought the city to its knees and any hope of accessing such a vital travel artery went up in smoke. Security on all bridges doubled. She didn’t blame them.
Cinching the straps of her backpack tight against her shoulders, Lee raced up the first fence with the same animal ease that had taken her over the cemetery fence and perched at the top like an urban gargoyle. Target in sight, she waited until perfectly balanced before launching for the high crest of the second fence and catching it with both hands. Dangling midair, Lee swung sideways and hooked her heel over the lip of the crest, anchoring her hold. From there it was just like any other day in the pipes: pull and roll.
And just like that folks, Leanna Farrow sticks the landing, she crowed upon righting herself on the other side, clapping rusty flakes from her palms.
With the felonious act of breaking and entering now behind her, the journey forward was a matter of threading her way into the steel bones of the suspension tower, finding the right hatch, and slipping back into a darkness Lee was more than intimately familiar with. It was home as much as her skin, and she neither feared it nor truly loved it. In shadow she may have been raised, but all creatures craved light to some capacity. Which was why the moment she slipped past the security door, she flipped on her headlamp and went to work.
Down a narrow flight of stairs into something akin to a bunker ribbed with cabling and pipes reminiscent of that particular raptor scene in Jurassic Park — thank God the only monsters Lee had to worry about were herself and Goliath — she found the hatch in question in a forgotten corner. It shrieked as she lifted it and froze halfway up, forcing Lee to shimmy over the lip into the room below on her stomach.
The drop was blessedly short, and her return ascent would be much easier thanks to the iron staples embedded in the wall. Silver dust motes danced dream-like in the beam of her light. The cramped chamber was suffocatingly silent, the stale air musty from years of stagnation. Lee felt a pang of nostalgia flare in her chest that fled in a sudden gust of grin-inducing triumph when she glimpsed the farthest wall.
Her maps hadn’t been wrong.
Three of the four gray walls were bare save for one holding an overabundance of wheel valves. Digging out a copy of the area’s blueprints from her pack, Lee squinted at her scribbled instructions and approached the valves. Judging by the layer of dust and corrosion coating the faded metal, no one had touched any of these in quite some time. All the better.
Taking the first wheel in both hands, she braced her shoulders and fought to turn it. Old and weathered meant exactly that, and the metal pulled against scabs of rust and disuse as it was turned counterclockwise three times before Lee moved on to the next and repeated the action. A part of her expected to feel a deep groaning of cogs and pulleys echoing through the floor like in the movies. The room, however, remained tomb-silent. Only when she went to inspect her channels would Lee know if her adjustments worked.
Blind faith isn’t only for the religious, but I pray to whatever lives in the sky that I didn’t just unleash a demon into the city’s sewer system.
Winded and damp with sweat, Lee checked her watch and gave the air an enthusiastic victory punch. Forty-five minutes to check and see if her gamble paid off. Plenty of time.
Thirty minutes and one dodged subway train later — it grazed her by a hair’s breadth, but at least it missed this time — Lee wove through a maze of cool-colored, semi-wet tunnels and hated every second of it. The stench was a direct assault on her entire physical person. Without a source of fresh air, the rotting sewage and mold flowed like a putrid onion beneath her feet in a brackish trickle. But this olfactory overhaul was nothing new. Living underground meant living with dirt under her nails. Well, more accurately claws and not exactly dirt either.
Bent at a forty-five-degree angle against the sharp slope of the ceiling, Lee hurried toward the roar of flowing water. Another fifty feet and the tunnel abruptly dropped away into a cylindrical shaft two stories deep and studded with dozens of openings like holes in Swiss cheese. Some were bone dry. Some dribbled like the one she stooped in. But one gushed water with the force of a water main break.
Was it the right one? Lee counted. Counted again. Couldn’t believe her answer was correct and did the math a third time, but everything lined up. It was all here. She’d done it.
Oh my God, YES!
Excitement inflated her chest with carbonation, making it difficult to grab the length of rope hanging on the hook at her shoulder. Her mind kept screaming, “IT WORKED!” in loop at the same time as, “Grab the dangling umbilical cord and climb down, you idiot!” but Lee got the rope on her second try, passing through a fine mist drifting from the foamy torrent on her way down. The roar of the water and its accompanying echo was deafening at the bottom of the shaft, drowning out her jubilant shrieks of success. After two harrowing years of setbacks, she was finally making headway.
I have so much to do! Lee spun in place, hands against her temples in an attempt to keep her excitement contained to the borders of her skull. I have to check the channels! I have to look at it all! The gauges. The pipes. They need to be fitted to the machine. I have to calibrate everything. Oh my God, this is actually happening!
The water pouring from above collected in a deep cistern near the back of the shaft and followed the four-foot-wide channel into another arching tunnel almost as long as a football field. Readjusting her pack, Lee followed the channel to the end of the corridor and back, pretending to check the flow but really just marveling at how this whole venture had worked in her favor. Who would have–
A loud splash startled her, the beam of her headlamp following the tight twist of her torso as she sought the source of the noise. She didn’t see anything amiss, but it wasn’t uncommon for the grates or stones from above to come loose and fall. Rust and rot ate through everything, and New York was infected with a terminal case of both. If a grate or, God forbid, a piece of concrete had chosen this moment to break loose, Lee needed to find and remove it immediately or risk hampering her vital flow of water.
Hurrying back down the channel, Lee swept a critical eye between the ceiling and the churning line of dark water. She was so engrossed in her search for fallen debris, she nearly missed the body slide past. If it hadn’t been for the ghostly half-moon flash of a face, Lee would have written the figure off as flotsam.
Was that a body!?