The building seemed like the other houses in the row, the same old-timey stones and narrow windows. But this was where they’d meet their guide to the tunnels under the city.
Chelsea tried to take in the wonder of New York, but the sheer amount of people kept overwhelming her. Even though nobody seemed to notice them, she felt eyes on her. Somebody, somewhere, was watching. There was no way to be alone in this city.
She took a deep breath and fiddled with the fringe on her duster. “Wish my dog was here.”
Jess chuckled from the sidewalk, her giant purple mohawk stiff in the warm evening breeze. “He really hunts with you?”
“I try to leave him out of it when I can, but he’s literally destroyed my car to get to me. I’m glad I could leave him at Andy’s. But I…” She sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t people well, and Bentley helps.”
Jess nodded. “Understood. The general public sucks. You get so used to hunters, ya know?”
As yet another whistle came from across the street from a group of young men, Chelsea rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”
Her assigned partner grinned. “Doesn’t help that Charlie’s always late. That’s why we told him to be here forty minutes ago. We literally have to work his sorry ass into our plans. But I hate waiting.”
Chelsea forced a smile. She had spoken to Jess only a handful of times, but Andy was the one running this hunt and him she trusted completely.
“Want to go over the plan again?”
Chelsea shook her head. “Andy covered it.”
Jess looked her over, studying her in detail. “Andy said you’d only been hunting for about a year…”
With a hunt about to start, Chelsea decided to assume that Jess was only trying to make conversation and not pick a fight. Though with some hunters, it could be hard to tell the difference. “And?”
A grin broke Jess’s concentration. “Most newbies like to go over the plan.”
“Andy covered it. And again while we ate. And once more on the ride over.” She rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t that difficult to begin with. We just stand there wait for the mole people to come to us.”
A loud laugh, deep and boisterous, rolled down the street as Jess clutched at her stomach. “He worries.”
Squeaking breaks announced a stopping cab, and Jess tensed, head up, and hand in her pocket. Chelsea shifted on the step, ready to draw her ax.
A tall, broad man stepped out of the cab. The baggy, stained jeans and ripped t-shirt seemed to perfectly accent a face made to draw gasps; Wide eyes, high cheekbones, and a dimpled chin, carved lovingly into deep brown skin under a multitude of dark braids. He looked around, worried, and then caught sight of Jess.
He hurried across the street, only to double back when the cab driver honked and yelled. Apologies fluttered from his lips as he pulled money out of his pocket. Before he could pay, a quarter fell from the wad of cash, and Charlie dove to get it, throwing his bills into the air.
Jess sighed. “Charlie’s good people.”
Chelsea thickened her natural Georgia drawl. “He’s the type of person we tend to say ‘Bless your heart’ around, huh?”
The only answer was a chuckle as Charlie ran up, gasping for breath and stuffing bills into his pocket. His large dark eyes were full of worry and a pout graced his full lips. “I’m so sorry. But only five minutes late. Traffic was murder.”
Jess smiled. “It’s fine, Charlie.”
He headed for the door, pulling a key card. “I heard back from my agent. I have a gig next weekend. So if you need to get into the tunnels, I can’t help.”
Curiosity overcame some of Chelsea’s nerves. “A gig?”
Charlie waved the card at the discrete panel beside the handle and let them in. “I’m a model. Well, I want to be. This is my first shoot.”
Hunters were a strange lot from a variety of backgrounds, but this was odd even by hunter standards. “You’re a monster-hunting model with access to sewer tunnels?”
Charlie laughed, a warm sound that invited you to join. “My uncle works in sanitation, and got me a job. I’m part-time in the administration offices. This is his card.” He waved them into the house.
The interior froze her until her sense of what should be in a house faded. Instead of an entryway or living room, machinery and pipes hummed in a giant cavern beyond the door. Charlie walked past it. “These aren’t real old houses. They were built a few years ago. They just hide the local pumps and access station. And you can get into the sewer here too.” He shook his head. “Rich people apparently don’t care to the see or hear the machinery that cleans their water.”
A sliver of guilt about her trust fund shot through her chest, a byproduct of knowing how lucky she was to have one. It was accompanied by memories of country club luncheons, where she had heard similar complaints from the other side.
Charlie led them deeper into the building, chattering about his gig next week. He frequently patted his hair and looked over his shoulder, beaming widely. Chelsea itched to take a picture of him. He’d be an amazing subject to sketch.
Eventually, they got to the stairs. As they hurried into the underground, the humidity rose, a thickening of the air that made the upcoming fight feel infinitely more real with every step.
By the time they got to the next locked door, Chelsea had pulled her ax and was barely lifting her feet as she walked, ready for the mole people to come from any direction.
Charlie flashed his uncle’s key card once more and opened the door with a flourish. “Here you are, ladies. The doors can be opened from the inside, so you can leave whenever you’re ready. But, just in case, I have a construction job up the street.”
Chelsea couldn’t stop herself. “Construction?”
“Inside construction?” Thinking furrowed his brow. “Is there a word for that?”
It wasn’t in her to make him feel bad. “Maybe.”
“My girlfriend’s dad hired me, part time.” He beamed, perfect white teeth lighting the gloom. “She says it’s better than a gym membership. It keeps me in shape and I get paid.” He stopped suddenly. “Shit. I’m late for work.” He hurried away, pulling out his phone. His apologies echoed up the stairs.
Jess sighed. “Thank the gods for her. He really needs someone looking out for him.”
“Bless his heart.” The phrase slipped out, complete with her mother’s full-on Georgia drawl.
Jess belly laughed again, a warm sound that dispelled some of Chelsea’s nervous energy. “Let’s check in with Andy.” She pulled out her ear piece.
It took Chelsea three tries to get the stupid thing in comfortably. Andy’s voice crackled over the speaker. “And there she is! Is this too high tech for you? Need a walkie-talkie?”
Chelsea rolled her eyes. “Cut the shit. Where’s my monster?”
A few chuckles from the rest of the team answered her before Andy did. “Jess has the map. Just follow her and stay alive.”
Chelsea dutifully followed orders, sheathed her axe, and headed into the dampness under the city.