“Stay here a minute.” A hand on my shoulder, Barrons stopped me on the sidewalk, then strode into the middle of the street. He was his usual self again, occupying more space than was his due. He’d changed, too, into faded jeans, a black T-shirt, and scuffed black boots. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in something so . . . well, plebian for him, and the hard, muscled body those clothes showcased was nothing short of incredible, if you went for that kind of man. Thankfully, I didn’t. It was like seeing a powerful, stalking black panther, blood frothing its muzzle, wearing street clothes—very weird.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said when, shoulders bunching and biceps bulging, he lifted the manhole cover, slid it aside, and beckoned me.
“How did you think we were going to get into the sewer system, Ms. Lane?” Barrons said impatiently.
“I didn’t. I must have purposely bypassed that thought.” I walked over. “Are you sure there’s not a convenient flight of stairs around here somewhere?”
He shrugged. “There is. It’s not, however, the best point of access.” He glanced up at the sky. “We need to get in and out as quickly as possible, Ms. Lane.”
I understood that. In very little time it would be dawn, and the streets in Dublin began bustling with people as early as daybreak. It would hardly do to come popping out of a manhole right in front of them, or worse, inches from a car’s front bumper.
I stood over the open hole in the street and peered down into the darkness. “Rats?” I asked, a bit sadly.
“Right.” I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Shades?”
“Not enough to feed on down there. They prefer the streets. Take my hand and I’ll lower you down, Ms. Lane.”
“How will we get back up?” I worried.
“I have a different route in mind for our return trip.”
“Does it involve stairs?” I asked hopefully.
“Of course not. How silly of me. And for our return adventure,” I said, in my best game-show-announcer voice, “we will be scaling the side of Mount Everest, hiking boots to be provided by our trusty sponsor, Barrons Books and Baubles.”
“Amusing, Ms. Lane.” Barrons could not have looked more unamused. “Now move.”
I took his outthrust hand, let him dangle me over the edge and drop me down. Destination: a darker, even scarier Dublin, deep underground.
It turned out not to be so scary after all.
In fact, not nearly as scary as upside had been lately.
Down there, in the dreary, dirty sewers beneath the city, I realized how drastically my world had changed, and in such a small amount of time.
How could a beady-eyed, twitchy-nosed rat—or even a few hundred—compare to the Gray Man? What consequence raw sewage and stench next to one’s likely fate at the hands of the Many-Mouthed-Thing? What significance ruined shoes or nails torn scrabbling over rocks in collapsing parts of the city’s underbelly, when measured against the brazen theft I was about to commit? Against a man who’d taken out twenty-seven people in a single night just because they were in the way of his bright and shining future, no less.
We turned one way, then the next, through empty tunnels with unobstructed walkways, into ones fouled by slow-moving sludge. We sloped down deeper into the earth, veered up, and descended again.
“What is that?” I pointed to a wide stream of fast-moving water, visible beyond an iron grill mounted in the wall. We’d passed many such grills, though smaller and set lower into the walls. Most were affixed in sunken spots, with large pools of black water collected around them, but I’d seen nothing like this. This looked like a river.
It was. “The River Poddle,” Barrons said. “It runs underground. You can see where it meets the River Liffey through another such grill at the Millennium Bridge. In the late eighteenth century, two rebel leaders escaped Dublin castle by following the sewer system to it. One can navigate the city fairly well, if one knows where things connect.”
“And you do,” I said.
“I do,” he agreed.
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Ancient artifacts, how to freeze obscenely large bank accounts, the seedy subculture of the city, not to mention the exact layout of its dark, dirty underbelly.
“Not much.” I could discern no arrogance in his reply; it was simply fact.
“How did you learn it all?”
“When did you become such a chatterbox, Ms. Lane?”