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!"