A cold wind whipped through the underground station. A section of fluorescent lighting along the curved roof flickered at intervals, plunging the track and the grimy billboard advertising the latest horror flick below into thick gloom.
The Six train screeched to a gradual stop, a handful of passengers disembarking onto the deserted platform and scattering like ants. The doors closed and the graffiti-covered tin can pulled away, rumbling along the track to loop back and terminate uptown.
Perched on a narrow, metal flip-down seat, Ivan Wolf nudged Kylan Moore with a sharp elbow, tipping his chin toward the lone figure at the farthest end of the platform, where the raised tile sloped down to the track, cutting off at the pitch-dark tunnel.
Kylan raised his eyes from the cell phone he’d recently acquired and hacked his way into, slowly turning his head in the direction Ivan had motioned. He stuffed the phone and his hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket, not saying a single word to Ivan as he stood up. The seat flipped closed behind him, and he strolled along the platform. The faulty, sickly-white strip light went out, throwing a triangle of shadow and unknown possibility between him and his destination.
This time, the light didn’t come back on.
Standing in front of her now, he gave the girl a singular look. It had been the same song and dance on and off now for the last six or so months. Tonight, though, Kylan had places he needed to be, so his time with her would be brief. He might not even see her again until Saturday if he hadn’t returned by morning. And in his world, making it through one day to start another wasn’t always on the cards. Every new sunrise was a gift he wasn’t sure he wanted but was positive he didn’t deserve.
He had blood on his hands and black in his heart.
Smoky brown eyes stared back at him in defiance, her pink, pillowy mouth set in a stubborn line of determination. Skylar wasn’t a girl Kylan should be messing around with. But Kylan rarely, if ever, did what he was supposed to. If Skylar was good, light, and innocent, then Kylan was her opposite in every way.
But that was old news, and Kylan had made his peace with it at the exact moment he’d found Skylar huddled in the pedestrian underpass two blocks from his apartment, shivering on the piss-stained concrete, surrounded by junkies’ tossed needles, crack pipes, and other disease-riddled trappings.
He’d asked her if she had somewhere to go that night. She’d shaken her head with tears in her eyes, and that was that. She’d went home with him. He kept the interrogation sparse and got the same from her in return. Ask no questions, get no lies. A strict motto he survived by daily.
He suppressed the urge to ask her why she’d showed up here with a screwface when no one was holding a gun to her head, and she was free to fuck off whenever she felt like it. Skylar was on the defensive, he got that. Didn’t mean he had to like it. Some nights she just looked downright ungrateful.
He severed the icy standoff, turned around and made for the exit, knowing she would follow him, just like she did every Thursday and Saturday night. Somewhere in the distance, Ivan brought up the rear, the heavy bass from the rap song he’d been listening to pulsing through the Beatz headphones looped around his neck penetrating the echoing silence. Water dripped from a leak in the ceiling. Drip, drip, drip, the icy rain bounced off the tile, deepening the puddle that spilled out across the concourse.
It flooded down here during the worst storms, and now the air was permanently damp with mildew, black mold and slimy moss claiming chunks of the walls and dank, winding stairways.
All three of them climbed the out-of-order escalator, Kylan taking the motionless, stainless-steel steps two at a time, eager to get the fuck out of there. There weren’t many places in the city he could go without being recognized by someone, and he intended to keep Skylar away from those associates for as long as he had blood in his veins and oxygen in his lungs.
“Did you have to wear that?” he asked her, trailing a disparaging look down her tight, skimpy cheerleading uniform. The white skirt hit Skylar mid-thigh, the cropped, long-sleeved sweater displaying a strip of smooth, milky skin below her pierced naval.
“I had cheer practice after school,” she said flatly, keeping her eyes to the ground.
Kylan scowled beneath the black face mask tucked into the neck of his hoodie. “Next time put on a jacket.”
“Yes, sir,” Skylar grumbled, her focus on the toes of her white sneakers.
They exited the station onto the street. The foot traffic was heavy, and Kylan ducked his head deeper into his bandana, pulling his jacket close with his fists in the pockets. They walked in single file, Skylar in the middle of him and Ivan. It wasn’t far to Kylan’s apartment. They walked for three blocks in the pissing rain, veered off into an unlit alley, and climbed the fire escape to the top floor of the nondescript brownstone, their collective footsteps clattering off the high building walls.
Pulling a Smith & Wesson from inside his sock, Kylan pressed the side tab, released the blade with a quick flip of his wrist and prized it under the window’s seal. With a wider gap between the ledge, he jimmied up the sash window, lifted one leg inside, and then the rest of his body. He pushed the blade closed, shoving it back inside his sock.
When it was Skylar’s turn to wedge her body through the half-open window, Kylan offered her his hand, making a tight fist around her slim fingers and locking his muscles to take her weight and pull her to the other side.
Darkness blanketed the apartment as they made their way through it. A neon sign from the Chinese takeout across the street faded in and out of color, casting the modest living room that overlooked it in a murky shade of swamp green.
Kylan pressed an infrared button on the TV, a bluish glare settling over the cluttered room. Gradually, the beaten furniture materialized from the flickering screen light. A large pizza box sat open on the low coffee table with two stale crusts and crushed soda cans from last night’s dinner.
Ivan slumped down into one of the armchairs, head dropping back onto the worn cushion. He kicked his feet up onto the table, crossing them at the ankles. Skylar had dumped her gym bag in Kylan’s room, returning to the living room empty-handed.
Kylan tugged down his mask, so it hung stacked around his neck. “You turn the location services off on your phone?” Last thing he needed was five-oh banging his door down with a pissed off Daddy Bear from the burbs leading the brigade with pitch forks.
Skylar nodded in the darkened room. “Yeah.”
“Good.” He had maybe an hour before he headed out for the night. Enough time to order food or make a run to the store if Skylar was in the mood to tackle his box-sized kitchen. “You hungry?”
Skylar shook her head. “Are you leaving?”
His eyes on the delicate column of her throat, Kylan watched her swallow. Her fingers slotted together over her tiny skirt as she stared at him. He scratched the corner of his mouth with his thumbnail. He didn’t want to leave her alone, but he also didn’t have a choice.
He nodded in answer, sliding his gaze away from the look of quiet disappointment he’d slathered over her face.
He ordered a medium vegetable pizza before he left, taking the old, greasy box and soda cans and throwing them in one of the overflowing dumpsters in the alley. He instructed Ivan to pick up the pizza, drop it off to Skylar and then meet him at The Cage. “And check the locks,” he reminded him. “She doesn’t open the door for anyone.”
Ivan nodded and then took off in the direction of Monroe’s Pizza joint.
Pulling up his face mask, Kylan tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and sauntered through the rain with his hood up. The city had only been Kylan’s home for the last two years, give or take a few months, but he knew its hidden corners and side streets like the back of his hand. Kylan’s memory was a museum of imagery. The fastest routes out for a quick exit. The dead-end roads and the busiest streets to avoid. Like the shadows that hugged the dirty back alleys, he was part of the night, and that was how he liked it.
A little after ten forty-five, Ivan jogged around the corner on East and Seventh, slowing when he saw Kylan waiting outside The Cage. Kylan turned and took the steep stairs down to the entrance of the strip club, nodding at the stony-faced bouncers bordering either side of the heavy black door and letting himself in, Ivan on his heels.