Deshawn Ryan came out of one hole in the ground and walked thirteen blocks through the rain to reach the next.
Around him, the city of eight million people was a chaotic but soothing serenade of engines and exhaust, voices and shouts, horns and machinery. For thirteen blocks he would enjoy the sounds of the city, and then he would disappear from it once more.
This was the rhythm of his days. Descend into the subway, ride through the tunnels below the city to reach his stop, climb back into the daylight, walk the thirteen blocks, and descend again into different tunnels.
Usually he enjoyed the walk. Today, though, he hustled with his head down as cold rain fell from a washed-out sky that had hung above the city for a week at least, it seemed. Bleak. The rain came and went, but for the most part Deshawn wasn’t aware of it: he was six hundred feet belowground. A hurricane could blow through and he might not know. The twin towers had crumbled and he hadn’t known until he and the rest of the sandhog crew were rushed to the surface, birthed into the chaos and terror of that day.
Life could pass you by down in the tunnels, that was for sure. The tunnels kept life going up above, but up above, people didn’t give much pause to consider all that lay beneath. So long as things worked. When the lights went out or the water stopped flowing or the gas cut off, that was when they’d remember what went on down below.
Once out of the subway tunnel and down his thirteen blocks of crowded sidewalks, everyone jostling with heads down or umbrellas held close, taxi tires spraying water on people with outstretched hands at the curb, he made a right turn and walked another half block to a place that looked like any of a hundred other construction sites in the city. Tall aluminum fences, caution and keep out signs, orange cones and reflective tape.
And cameras. Some easy to spot, others concealed.
A security guard let him through the gates. Inside were earth-moving machines, monstrous stacks of pallets, piled rebar, and wooden spools that stood taller than Deshawn and were lined with cable thicker than his forearm. There was so much crap stacked just inside the gates that the northwest corner of the lot didn’t draw your eye until you were almost up to the hole.The hole was twenty-two feet in diameter and looked both innocuous and dangerous, like an oversized manhole missing its cover.
The hole was twenty-two feet in diameter and looked both innocuous and dangerous, like an oversized manhole missing its cover. That was how it seemed, at least, until you stepped into the cage.
The cage of green metal bars always made Deshawn think of the suet feeders he’d seen up in the Catskills, the ones that drew woodpeckers and nuthatches and ambitious squirrels. It was suspended by a steel cable that ran through a crane and down to a winch.
His morning commute ended, like it did for so many other New Yorkers, with an elevator ride. His just went down instead of up.
There were three men already inside, and about fifteen crates of dynamite. Josh Dunham was manning the controls of the winch, and he saw Deshawn and waited for him.
“Good day to go belowground,” Josh said as the rain sheeted down. “Yeah, but that means I can’t keep a nice suntan like you.”
Josh laughed. He was an Irish kid who was so pale, he looked translucent. Forget sunburn; Dunham could get moonburn.
A lot of the guys were Irish. Plenty were Italian. Deshawn, the son of a black father and a Caucasian and Cuban mother, didn’t really fit the mold of the crew. The Irish guys and the Italian guys were mostly second-generation sandhogs. Some of them were third, and Matty Silvers was a fourth-generation sandhog. A lot of the old timers had turned it into a family affair. You were either born to go underground or you weren’t. You either appreciated the engineering majesty that was New York City’s Water Tunnel Number 3, or you didn’t.
Actually, you probably either appreciated it or didn’t really know that it existed. You just turned the tap and counted on the water to flow. Didn’t know that it was flowing down out of the mountains upstate, that nineteen reservoirs satiated the city’s thirst by funneling water through two tunnels that were tall enough to drive a bus through in some places. Two tunnels for now. Three tunnels soon. That mattered, too, because the first tunnel had been completed in 1917, and the second in 1935, and those old boys needed some maintenance. Water Tunnel Number 3 would allow for the old tunnels to be shut off, inspected, and repaired, with many areas being seen for the first time since their construction. Water Tunnel Number 3 would allow for a crucial supply of fresh water in the event of any collapse of one of the others. Water Tunnel Number 3 had also been under construction for almost fifty years now, and more than twenty men had already died building it.
It was almost finished, though. Almost.
Deshawn would be glad to be done. As he stepped into the cage, heard the door clang shut behind him, and listened to Josh Dunham holler “Headed down!” he felt a pang of apprehension that was coming to him more and more frequently these days. He didn’t understand it. He’d worked in these tunnels for thirty years, and for twenty-nine of them he’d never been nervous on the descent.
Lately, though . . .
The sound of the rain faded to a faint patter drowned out by the mechanical hum and groan as the winch lowered them. The crew fell silent. At one hundred feet belowground, the gray daylight was dimming rapidly above them, like a flashlight on dying batteries giving you one last memory of brightness. At two hundred it was full dark. The cable creaked, water dripped. Matty Silvers ripped a fart that echoed. Brian Bell told him to keep that pointed away from the dynamite. A few chuckles, then silence.
Four hundred feet. Five hundred. Cold air and moisture all around in the blackness. Deshawn’s hand on his flashlight but not triggering the light. Not yet.
Six hundred. The cable groaned, the cage shivered, and then they settled onto solid ground once more. The cage door opened, and ev- eryone filed out. You moved fast leaving the cage, because lingering at the base of the shaft was one of many good ways to die down here. If anything tumbled into the hole, it was at killing velocity by the time it landed. Once a sandhog had been killed by an icicle. Thing broke off, fell noiselessly through the blackness, and impaled him like a sword.
Electric lights were strung ahead, but not many of them. That was why you always carried your own flashlight and headlamp. You relied on yourself for light when you needed it. At least, you did if you wanted to last.
Deshawn had lasted for three decades. He could retire now and he knew it. His muscled-up body, which had once sliced through high school defensive lines, was a constant chorus of aches. He was tired. He had savings, had a pension. He didn’t need to keep at the job.
But he wanted to see it through. Wanted to say he’d been here when it ended, when they finally opened up the valves and ran billions of gallons of cool Catskill water through these massive tunnels, and a half century of work was done. Lives had been lost down here, and too many limbs to count. Yeah, Deshawn wanted to say he’d been here when they opened it up and the whole damn job was done.
Lately, though . . . lately he was in a hurry. Not because of the fatigue or even the pain. No, it was his mind. His focus. He’d get to thinking about his daughter, who was with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection Police but stationed a hundred miles outside of it, guarding the reservoirs upstate, and then his mind would drift. Take him back to that strange weekend when he’d made the trip to see for the first time where, exactly, the water for his labors came from.
He would remember Gillian’s mother then. Kelly Mathers. Skin almost as pale as Josh Dunham’s, but with a glow. Eyes so blue they seemed like ice over water. But she had a shine about her, too. A pulse of energy, fully charged. And the passion? Damn, how he could still re- member that. Passion wasn’t even the right word, maybe. Intensity. Her body lean and firm, powering against his, the way she’d swell with heat and the muscles in her thighs and ass would start trembling under his hands . . .
There’d been something different about that girl, no doubt. He’d known it from the first, but hadn’t understood the depth of the differ- ence until too late. For twenty years now, he’d been wondering if he got his daughter out of the house in time. She never should have been left in that place, but that was exactly what Deshawn had done, overwhelmed by the sheer terror of responsibility that her tiny presence carried into his world. The need in her eyes. The scrutiny in them, like she knew he’d disappoint her.
I took her back, he thought, defensive and defiant, the same thought he’d had every day for two decades. Yeah, he took her back. As if the first nine years of Gillian’s life hadn’t mattered. Even after her mother died in the car wreck, he’d left his daughter in that strange house in that strange town. Entrusted her to her grandmother, making excuses that it would be temporary. If the grandmother hadn’t vanished, though, would he have ever come for his daughter?
You did. That’s what matters now.
He had gotten her the hell out of that madness, and she’d turned out so well. He was so damned proud of her. An accomplished young police officer; how could you not be proud of raising a woman like that? He’d found her the right tutors, the right schools, the right path.
As he walked through the cool concrete tunnel toward his day of blasting and hauling bedrock stone, the only thing he wasn’t sure of was that last part. Maybe he’d helped too much. Urging her to join the DEP police had made sense once, because it was the only department where Deshawn had contacts. She’d be guarding the city’s water supply, just like her old man. They’d both liked that idea.
At least he had until she’d requested the assignment upstate.
The academy was in Kingston, but he expected she’d be sent back to the city. The relocation to the Ashokan Precinct in the Catskills was un- anticipated. The notion that she’d requested it was concerning. Did she have some desire to explore her old hometown, to remember old stories? He hoped not. He hoped he was the only one who’d—
The voice came from over his left shoulder, back in the dim light of the bare bulbs that were hung along the concrete walls. Soft but not a whisper. Just low.
He stopped and turned toward the sound, expecting it was Matty Silvers back there, warming up to rip on Deshawn’s beloved New York Jets or share some dumbass joke or another.
It wasn’t Matty, though. The man who’d called his name was sitting astride a massive timber beam that held back the threatening press of loose dirt. He was at least fifteen feet in the air, way up above Deshawn’s head, and water dripped from his old leather boots and plinked off the timbers below. He was dressed in worn dungarees. A crushed-down, filthy felt hat rested on his head. He was young, no more than twenty-five, maybe not even twenty yet. Nearly a boy. Serious eyes, though, and they were locked on Deshawn’s.
“You gotta listen,” the kid said. “We keep tellin’ you things, and you gotta start listening to them.”
Deshawn was about to respond when he remembered that all the walls here were concrete, that no wooden timbers had ever been hauled down into or up out of this stretch of Water Tunnel Number 3. Then he hit the switch on his SureFire flashlight and sent two hundred lumens in the strange kid’s eyes.
The kid was gone. The light bounced harshly off the bare concrete walls, not a wooden timber in sight, and Matty Silvers lifted a hand and swore.
“The hell you doing, Deshawn? Tryin’ to blind me?”
The others stopped and looked back. Deshawn lowered the light, feeling their eyes on him but also feeling the prickle of fear along the back of his neck, something between a premonition and a memory, a tingle that reminded him of the weekend fling he’d had nearly thirty years ago in a quiet Catskills village, when a blue-eyed beauty traced his flesh with her fingertip.
“Yeah,” he said. “Figured I’d blind you, give you a chance to play quarterback for the Giants. Seems to be their only requirement.”
Matty snorted and raised a middle finger and someone else gave a chuckle, which was more than the line deserved, and then they were all in motion again, just a group of men walking along to work, six hundred feet below a city that was famous for all of its crowded buildings reach- ing to touch the sky.
Nobody else aware that Deshawn Ryan, who had more experience than any of them, was hearing voices that weren’t there, seeing things that couldn’t exist.
Maybe I shouldn’t stick it out. Maybe I should start pulling my pension. They’ll finish this thing with or without me down here, and the way my mind’s been drifting, it could be time to go.
Deshawn kept the flashlight beam pointed at his feet and walked on beneath the city
THE CHILL © 2019 by Scott Carson. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Atria. All rights reserved.