- Pages: 448 Pages
- Series: Nightbreaker
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Viking Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780593621462
An Excerpt From
T hese days, the only time I have to kill monsters is after school.
It’s also the only time I can do it unnoticed. So that’s how I’ve ended up here, lying spread-eagle in the middle of the subway tracks, bleeding out in the darkness with no hope of backup.
I can still see the remains of the shortcake I brought to bait the Deathling out of the corner of my eye, the pretty white frosting and jellied strawberries splattered along the grimy rails like a smashed-in skull.
I try to stay perfectly still as the Deathling sniffs at me. It reeks of sewage and sulfur and piss. The sound of its labored breathing grows louder and louder until its snuffling wet lips brush against my ear. It takes every ounce of control to stop myself from cringing away from those endless rows of teeth.
Since we were children, the rules when it comes to Deathlings have been drilled into our brains.
The first: When curfew bells begin to sound, it’s time for all to be homebound.
The second: Don’t eat sweets below the streets.
And finally: Never let yourself be caught.
Simple as that. Three rules of survival that any kindergartner could recite to you. Three rules I could have followed. Maybe today will be the day I finally learn my lesson.
My grip tightens on the gun clenched in my fist as I wait for my chance. I’ve only got one nitro-novae bullet left. I can’t waste it.
I can only imagine how exasperated Maura will be if I survive to tell her this tale. My older sister’s voice fills my head: How in the name of Lady Liberty do you always get yourself into these messes, mèi mei?
It all started this afternoon. I stuff my Inhuman Anatomy IVtextbook into my locker and exchange it for my skateboard and my gun. I tuck the weapon into the inner chest pocket of my blazer right as the bell rings and students flood the hallways of Financial District Preparatory.
I barely beat the rush to the elevators. My ears pop as we descend.
22 . . . 21 . . . 20 . . .
At 1, the burnished gold doors open to the school’s lobby with a ding, where a burly security guard sits behind the desk. “Have a safe nightfall,” he bids each of us as we scurry out.
I weave down Rector Street through rush-hour traffic on my board, veering recklessly between bright yellow taxicabs and buses crammed with people. Their windows reflect the overcast sky, pale gray with wisps of clouds and smog. Slews of bicyclists clog the gaps between each lane, each space barely the width of their handlebars. With the subways shut down, the perpetual war over parking spots, and constant traffic gridlock, most people would choose death by side-view mirror any day.
I make it to the shops in one piece. The owner of the local bakery hovers by the entrance, her weary eyes grimly supervising a construction crew installing a new steel storefront gate lined with spikes. The previous one lies discarded to the side, so severely dented and mottled with teeth marks that it would sooner be showcased at the MoMA than successfully fortify a window. I duck inside, inhaling the sweet aroma of freshly baked cakes and pastries. If only it were less irresistible, maybe the storefront gate wouldn’t have needed a replacement.
“Didn’t think you’d make it,” says the lady at the till, handing a large white box secured with ribbon over the counter to me. I’m the only customer left. “We were just about to burn it.”
Before I can reply, a dissonant CLANG! CLANG! CLAAAANG! shatters the air.
Something shifts. Like a sudden icy chill sweeping the streets, everyone flurries into motion. The cashier tucks a leftover croissant into my hand and ushers me out onto the sidewalk, where the construction crew hastily tightens the final screw, throws their gear into a gray van, and screeches off. Around me, the city hunkers down, doors locking, shades shuttering, windows going dark.
I should hurry back to my dorm, too. To safety.
But I have something to take care of.
Picking up speed, I skate back to Rector Street, the box cradled in my arms. As I swerve around the corner, I almost crash directly into a pair of enforcers. One of them hollers after me.
“Stop right there!”
Reluctantly, I skid to a halt.
They wear identical dark green uniforms. The taller of the pair pushes a cart on wheels while the other brandishes a shovel at my face. One sniff of the overwhelmingly pungent smell of coffee beans wafting from the cart makes me wrinkle my nose.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the one with the shovel demands. “Don’t you hear the bells?”
I widen my eyes as if just noticing the warning trills echoing throughout the whole of Manhattan. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. It’s just that I left my textbook in my locker—”
“You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to retrieve it. You simply can’t be out and about this close to curfew.”
“You’re right. I just really need it, I’ve got the final exam next week—”
“Hold on.” Their eyes narrow on my chest, exactly where my gun is hidden.
My heart races. I thought I’d hidden it well enough, but—
“You go to a Prep League school?”
Relief gushes through me. They must have been staring at the crest embroidered across the front of my blazer pocket. I jerk my thumb to the doors down the street. “Yep, FD Prep. Right over there.”
“You training to be in the Syndicate?”
I straighten. “Yessir.”
The enforcer nods with approval, and a little envy, too. “Keep it up. Lord knows we need more of you in the force.”
“Hope we’ll see you get to compete in the Tournament, eh?” jokes the enforcer with the shovel, elbowing his partner with amusement.
“Well, actually—” I begin.
A tormented moan drifts out of the sewer grate behind them. The enforcers whip around, batons drawn, the color draining from their faces. Despite the chill down my own spine, I merely roll my eyes and use the opportunity to slip away.
Besides the enforcers, the sidewalks are totally deserted. Void of life. No traffic roars up Battery Place. No more cars crawl along Greenwich Street. The streetlights flicker from green to yellow to red, directing nothing and no one, but they, too, will soon go dark.
Rector Station is but a relic. The lampposts, the dark green railing, even the station placards are nothing but remnants from a past known only to the people who still remember this city for what it once was—like me. And those who fight to restore it. To put an end to the nights reigned by terror and scarlet-stained streets.
Like the Syndicate.
An aggressive barricade streaked with graffiti greets me at the top of the stairs. I duck underneath it without hesitation and head toward the steel doors sealing away the underground from civilization.
WARNING! CERTAIN DEATH AHEAD! TRESPASSING FORBIDDEN!
Even without the bold black letters screaming in your face, no one in their right mind would actually ever try to break through these doors. No offense, but if a Deathling can’t break through them, neither can you.
I flip open the keypad and punch in a series of twelve digits. It flashes red. I frown and try again.
From above, I hear the rattle of wheels against concrete and the voices of the same enforcers. I punch in the code again, but it still doesn’t work.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” I hiss.
They’re closing in. If they catch me . . .
Frantically, I punch in a totally different code. Come on, come on, please work—
The keypad flashes green, and the door slides open. I tumble forward. As soon as the door shuts behind me, I slump against it, breathing hard. Something patters against the other side. I hear the enforcer plunging his shovel into the cart, tossing shovelfuls of my least-favorite Deathling repellent down the stairs as if filling a grave.
I push myself onto my feet. The ceiling lights sputter, gleaming sickly white against the glazed tiles. DOWNTOWN. TO SOUTH FERRY. I run my fingers along the cold railing as I skim down the stairs, my footfalls hushed. Like a clammy fist, the air settles against my skin, cool but muggy. Rector is one of the smaller stations near the southern tip of Manhattan, past the final express stop, so only two tracks run through the station for the local trains: one uptown, one downtown.
At the turnstile, I place the glossy white box on my skateboard and give it a nudge. It rolls under the bars. None of the turnstiles are operational, so I brace my hands on the scanners on either side of me and vault myself over. There’s no one at the booth to stop me.
With my gun in one hand and the box in the other, I step onto my board and cruise down the subway platform. My rubber wheels roll silently along the smooth floor tiles, carving a fresh trail through the blanket of dust.
Halfway down the platform, broken overhead lights plunge the station into darkness.
I dangle my right foot over the side of my board until the bottom of my boot grazes the floor. I come to a stop right where the shadows begin to flirt with the dwindling light.
I allow myself a moment to stand at the edge of the bright yellowdo not cross strip. To remember the warm draft gusting my face as the trains careened through the tunnel. The din of the crowd, of millions of New Yorkers and tourists alike teeming along the platforms. The loudening roar of that metal beast, reverberating in my bones. The strap of Maura’s backpack clenched in my small fist as she covered my ears with her hands, barely muffling the earsplitting shriek of wheels sparking against the rails.
Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
But the last time anyone rode the subway was fifteen years ago. Before the Vanishing.
With a sigh, I prop my skateboard against the wall. I jump off the edge of the platform, landing in a crouch on the filthy tracks. I take care to avoid the pools of foul brown muck, as well as the third rail—the strip of steel running between the tracks that used to conduct electricity to the subway cars. The Transit Authority cranks up the amperage during the day to double what the trains used to run on—more than enough to fry me to a crisp. Or, more importantly, fry the Deathlings that roam the underbelly of New York City.
Carefully, I set down my precious cargo and pull the ribbon. As it tugs free, the box falls open, revealing a freshly baked strawberry shortcake. With surgical precision, I place the cake between the electrified rail and the track closest to me. Half in light, half in shadow. I check to make sure I didn’t get any frosting on my fingers. Then I boost myself back onto the platform and jog over to my stakeout spot—a barricade of three hulking, city-issued black trash cans that I pushed together last week.
Hunkering down, I triple-check my gun magazine. N.N. bullets are very hard to come by, and I used half the cartridge the day before yesterday. Specially manufactured by Syndicate weaponsmiths, a single bullet could make all the difference in the face of a hungry Deathling.
Now, the first thing to know about Deathlings is that they will eat you. But only at nightfall, when they come out to hunt after the sun’s gone down.
The second thing to know about Deathlings is to start running as soon as you smell their signature rotten-egg scent, because by the time one of them is close enough for you to see, rotten eggs will be the last thing you ever smell.
The third thing to know about Deathlings is that they love sweets. Anything sweet, really. Belgian waffles. Churros. Banana pudding. However, I’ve learned that there’s nothing a Deathling loves more than cake.
As the saying goes, Where cake dwells, here be Deathlings. Or something like that.
I keep my eyes glued on the pitch-black void at the end of the subway tunnel. Count the seconds between every breath, forcing my pulse steady and calm. Not even five minutes have passed when, sure enough, that unmistakable stench wafts into the air. My nose scrunches, but otherwise I remain stone-still.
Like a vulture to a stinking carcass, the Deathling arrives.
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