I wait, counting, patient.
After I’m pretty sure enough time has gone by, I turn the corner and find the Scarred Man is totally gone.
It shouldn’t make me happy, but it does. I laugh out loud and throw my head up to the heavens, feel the rain on my face. And then I look down at the cobblestones. Water flows out of gutters and off rooftops. There, on the hillside, it runs quickly in every place but one.
I hold my breath as I sneak toward the swirling, spinning water. A tiny tidal pool has formed in the center of the sloping street. My hand is cold but that’s not why it’s shaking as it sinks into the water and traces the emblem on the center stone.
My breath stops coming as I push and then watch as, slowly, the stones fall away, a narrow opening descending into darkness.
I know I’m supposed to be smart. Now is the time to be careful. For a moment, I do consider going to find a flashlight, but then he might slip away. Already, I can’t see the Scarred Man in the darkness that descends below me. I will not risk losing him again.
There’s a ladder on the side of the hole, and I start to climb down. I count thirty rungs before I’m standing on a floor that is hard and cold and solid. Rainwater drips from the opening overhead.
I look up in time to see the door above me closing. In the faint and disappearing light I see the system of pulleys that moves the stones. It’s old, I realize. Then I correct myself. It’s ancient.
I can’t help but recall what Rosie told me my very first night here: There are five hundred kilometers of tunnel beneath the city. Maybe more. Probably more. And I know that is where I am. The Scarred Man’s mysterious comings and goings start to make sense.
Finally, I feel like maybe the Scarred Man isn’t too many steps ahead of me.
For a moment, I stand still in the silence and let my eyes adjust to the dark. There are torches on the walls, lined up like bicycles waiting for their owners. In the extreme darkness of the tunnel I can make out a distant, flickering light. The Scarred Man has already chosen a torch to guide his way, but I don’t dare take one for myself. I can’t risk him knowing that he’s not alone. Besides, I don’t have a way to light it. I’ve spent three years avoiding things that burn. So I start off down the tunnel, trusting, feeling my way.
The walls are rough but smooth, like they were carved out by hand but worn over time. The floor slopes slightly, and I follow a trickle of water, knowing I’m going downhill. Like the streets that run above me, the tunnels are not straight. They curve and twist, backtrack. Sometimes the entire way has been caved in. Sometimes I take out my cell phone and use it to shed a little light, but mostly I’m trusting the echoing sound of the Scarred Man’s footsteps and the distant, flickering glow of his torch to guide my way … until that torch goes out.
I don’t dare risk using my phone, tipping my hand. In the blindness that follows, I creep along the tunnel until my foot kicks the torch that lies on the ground, still warm to the touch. He’s coming back for it, I just know, but I don’t let it scare me.
I feel the walls. The floor. And then I look up and see a small crack of faint light coming through something like a trapdoor overhead.
The rain must have stopped because there is no more water in the tunnel. I don’t know where I am. I have no idea what stands above me. But I also know that there is only one way to find out. I hold my breath.
When I emerge into a dim space, my first thought is that I’m in a building, not on the street. There is carpet, but not the plush, soft stuff of the palace. The fabric beneath my palms is harsh, industrial. Something made to withstand a nuclear blast or a bunch of tourists with muddy feet. It’s so stark and modern that it’s almost like whiplash to me — like I’m literally crawling on my hands and knees from one century to the next.
The lights are off, but there is a narrow window high on the wall that probably looks out at ground level. A little ambient light filters through the glass and fills the space. I look up at the darkened fluorescent bulbs that hang overhead. The ceiling is low and there’s nothing on the walls — no sign whatsoever of where I might be. I might have followed the Scarred Man into his office or his home, the basement of any house or business in the country.
There’s absolutely no way of knowing where I am, so I stay perfectly still. Waiting. Listening. And then I hear the voices.
I don’t even stand. I’m too afraid the floor might creak, my knees might crack. I don’t dare do anything that might break the flow of that moment as I crawl on my hands and knees and peek around the corner.
At the end of the hall, there is a door that’s open just a crack. A soft light burns inside, and I can make out the shape of the shoulders I have been following for days.
I recognize the voice as soon as the Scarred Man says, “There will be plenty of opportunities. More than enough.”
On the other side of the door, there’s mumbling. Someone speaks to him, but I can’t make out the words. In the basement, water runs through pipes. Hot and cold air flows through vents. The voice on the other side of the door is lost to me. So I ease closer.
“It will be an easy job,” the Scarred Man says. I see him start to turn, so I scoot backward. Faster and faster. It’s like the hallway is on fire and I can’t stop moving long enough to stand.
But when I reach the trapdoor I freeze, the Scarred Man’s words echoing in my ear:
“There are many perfectly adequate ways to die. I just have to find one.”
I’m back inside the tunnel.
I’m running — falling down. The ground is damp and I lose my footing. I crash on my side. My head spins, but I force myself to my feet, no longer caring if he hears me. I no longer want to know where he goes. What he does.
I run faster and faster down tunnels that spiral and branch. Soon I have no idea which way I came from. Without the Scarred Man’s light I am shrouded in darkness. Pushing. Clawing.
When my hands land upon another ladder I have no idea where it might lead, but my options are to either climb or die, so I reach for the ancient rungs as one thought fills my head; there is one fact I cannot make myself forget. But there is no time to think about that now, so I bang my fist against the trapdoor overhead, push it harder and harder, but it doesn’t want to move.
Down the tunnel, I can see a flickering light. The Scarred Man is coming closer. He’s going to find me. He’s going to kill me. So I throw my shoulder against the door. Over and over and —