The World Beneath book cover

This month, we’re reading:

The World Beneath

Rebecca Cantrell

Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell drops you into a vast, dark world: 100 miles of living, breathing, tunnels that is the New York City underground.

Software millionaire Joe Tesla is set to ring the bell on Wall Street the morning his company goes public. On what should be the brightest day in his life, he is instead struck with severe agoraphobia. The sudden dread of the outside is so debilitating, he can’t leave his hotel at Grand Central Terminal, except to go underground.

Bad luck for Joe, because in the tunnels lurk corpses and murderers, an underground Victorian mansion and a mysterious bricked-up 1940s presidential train car. Joe and his service dog, Edison, find themselves pursued by villains and police alike, their only salvation now is to unearth the mystery that started it all, a deadly, contagious madness on the brink of escaping The World Beneath.

This title will run until September 30.

Chapter One

November 27, 3:02 a.m., present day

Tunnels under New York City

Subway tunnels breathe. They exhale when trains come and inhale when they leave. Their concrete lungs fill with smoke and soot and rubber and the scents of a hundred ladies’ perfumes. When trains aren’t running, the tunnels hold their breath. They might let wisps of warm air drift into the cold night, draw in slow nips of bracing frost, but mostly they sit still, waiting for trains to bring them back to life.

A thousand times a day their breath coursed over Joe Tesla’s body. It was not so warm as human breath, nor yet so cold as stone. He was used to it, now.

Because he lived here, underground, in the tunnels of New York City.

He had not felt sunlight on his skin for 181 days, and he might never feel it again. His skin, long pale, had whitened. He looked like a vampire, except that he didn’t have the teeth for it.

He didn’t have the teeth for a lot of things these days.

Not so long ago, he’d had plenty of teeth. Sharp ones. Now he wasn’t much use to anyone.

Edison nudged his hand with a cold nose, brown eyes concerned. Edison was his psychiatric service animal—a patient and affectionate dog who’d inherited the best genes of his Labrador mother and golden retriever father. When Joe got upset, the dog brought him back, brought him home. Edison pulled Joe through the darkness. He’d have been lost without him.

He scratched Edison in his favorite spot behind his ear. The dog’s tail thumped the hard train ties. As always, Joe counted, and with each number its corresponding color flashed through his mind: the number one was cyan, two blue, three red, four green, five brown, six orange. Edison stopped wagging his tail, and the colors and sound faded. This late, quiet filled the empty tunnels, broken only by the occasional squeak of a rat, or the rustle of tiny paws across paper blown down from a platform.

No passenger trains ran this late—Joe had long since committed their schedules to memory. Of course, trains were occasionally moved to new stations or out for servicing at night, so his system wasn’t foolproof, but with Edison’s keen hearing and Joe’s knowledge of places they could hole up along the tracks while trains went by, it had been pretty safe.

Joe didn’t need much to keep them safe down here: a metal flashlight he’d discovered on the mantel of his new home, a pewter badge to show transit workers, and the heavy ring of old-fashioned keys hooked to his belt and covered with a polar fleece bag to quiet the jangling. Those keys were said to grant him access to every underground door and platform. So far, they had.

Right now he stood in a vast room deep underground northeast of Grand Central Terminal. Here the tracks merged together under Manhattan before reaching the station’s forty-four platforms (green, green). Since they had been built a century before, many of the tracks were no longer electrified. It was a good place to let Edison explore without worrying that he’d electrocute himself on the third rail.

Joe rummaged through his backpack. His questing fingers found a roll of duct tape, a bag of dog treats, and, at last, the glow-in-the-dark tennis ball. He pulled it out. “What do you think, boy?”

Edison’s tail wagged in approval, brown eyes glued to his hand.

Joe tossed the ball in an arc across the old sidings, and Edison ran after it in a streak of gold. The dog returned with it, and he threw it again. He liked watching the glowing ball careen off tracks and roll under parked train cars, liked to see Edison having fun.

Edison bounded about, abandoning himself to every moment. Joe couldn’t remember a time when the same could be said about him. Maybe Edison could teach him that, too.

Ball in his mouth, the dog loped back again. This time he didn’t drop it at Joe’s feet. Instead, he dropped the wet ball in his hand, a sign that he’d lost interest in playing. Joe tucked it into his jacket pocket and wiped his hand on his pants.

Above, tons of rock hung between him and the sky. It was very different from his beginnings—he’d spent his childhood with only the thin metal skin of a travel trailer separating him from the elements, and often not even that. Whenever he could, he’d slept outside in a sleeping bag. He’d gazed at the night sky from fields across the Midwest, sleeping with quiet stars above and the circus animals moving in their cages around him for company, everyone waiting for the next performance. Now he, too, was trapped in a cage, because his brain, once his greatest ally, had betrayed him.

Enough. No self-pity.

Joe adjusted his night-vision goggles and turned toward home, Edison ranging ahead. The world glowed an eerie green, the best the goggles had to offer. He found them more reassuring than a flashlight. The white beam felt out of place down here, more unnatural than night-vision green.

He’d bought Edison canine night-vision goggles, too. Not hard to find. War dogs used them, but Edison didn’t like them. He’d wear them with a weary air of resignation if Joe made him, but Joe didn’t force the issue. Edison’s eyes were good in the dark. Turned out, dogs could see almost as well in darkness as cats. The tapetum lucidum at the back of a dog’s eye refracted the light back through the retina, like a cat’s or a bat’s.

Joe swept his gaze along the tunnel. This one was cut and cover. It had been built by tearing up the street above, cutting the tunnel, then covering the top back up and replacing the street on top. Most of the tunnels this high were cut and cover.

He liked them better than the deep-bore tunnels because they had more room on the sides to get out of the way of trains. Deep-bore tunnels were drilled with a big round drill. They were barely large enough for the train cars. He and Edison could be spread across the walls like tomato paste if they got caught there off guard at the wrong time. Even there, if he flattened himself against the side, he’d survive a passing train. Edison would be safe, too, so long as he didn’t panic, and Edison was never one to panic.

Counting each step, Joe marched toward home. He used the short strides he’d developed for walking in the tunnels. Instead of measuring his stride by the length of his legs, he measured it by the distance between train ties. It had felt awkward at first, but now it was his natural gait down here. When he went back to the stations and shops topside, it took him a few minutes to switch back to the same gait as everyone else.

Edison stopped to sniff a foul-smelling object on the ground, probably a dead rat.

“Don’t roll in that!” Joe called.

Edison had, before. He often brought the odors of dead rats or rotten food into their home, and Joe had to toss him in the giant claw-foot tub and scrub him clean with Balenciaga soap. Edison didn’t like the scent any more than Joe liked the stench of dead rats, but since Joe had to do most of his shopping at the luxury stores in Grand Central Terminal, Edison had to take what he could get.

The yellow dog gave him a hurt expression, as if he would never think of coating himself with the stink of a dead rat, and trotted to stand next to Joe’s leg. Joe bent and ruffled the animal’s soft ears. “Good boy.”

The dog stayed close to his leg as Joe walked toward home. He’d warned Edison about the dangers of the third rail, but Joe didn’t like to take chances and kept him to heel when he could.

They arrived at a round metal door faced with an ornate pattern molded into the Victorian-era steel. On it, Joe tapped his own addition—a high-tech electronic keypad. Nineteenth-century security combined with twenty-first-century technology kept people, and the occasional floodwaters, out of the most personal part of his domain. He entered an eight-digit code on the keypad. At the green light, he inserted an old-fashioned key from his key ring, turned it, and pushed open the heavy door.

He took off his night-vision glasses and entered a large tunnel floored with wooden planks long worn gray with dust and soot and lit by amber bulbs strung along the ceiling. The bulbs looked old enough to have come from the workshop of the original Edison—Thomas himself.

His Edison bounded ahead. Joe followed along the planks toward home. As always, he paused before entering his house, amazed that he lived there.

The amber lights illuminated the neatly painted facade of a full-size Victorian house. Surrounded by stone, it looked as if someone had chiseled a house-shaped cavern into the schist, then teleported a building into it. He blinked, but the house was still there when he opened his eyes. Even now, his mind had trouble fathoming it. It was completely incongruous, but it was real. A three-story Victorian house built deep underground.

Nearly a century before, the eccentric lead engineer on the construction of Grand Central Terminal had been granted the weirdest perk Joe had ever heard of—a house buried in the tunnels far below Grand Central Terminal, deeded to his family in perpetuity, combined with access to all the tunnels in the system. It was his key ring that Joe carried on his belt, and the keys on it had opened every underground door that he had come across.

The engineer and his wife had raised their children in this fantastical house in the world beneath, taking them up in the elevator each day for school and outings. A few articles about their unusual living situation had appeared in turn-of-the-century newspapers, and then the world had moved on and forgotten.

The engineer’s children had opted for lives aboveground. Following generations had used the family house only for parties. Joe’s ex-girlfriend Celeste Gallo and her twin brother, Leandro, Joe’s college roommate and old friend, were the final heirs to the house. Ever since Leandro had told him about it, Joe had itched to see it, but had never found time until he became trapped in New York not far from the house’s entrance.

Tonight, Joe gazed at the house. The wooden facade glowed bright sulfur-yellow with clean white trim and gingerbread accents picked out in brick red. It resembled the famous painted ladies lining Alamo Square in San Francisco, except that this house stood a hundred feet below where it ought to.

Buried treasure.

He could see why Leandro had fought so hard to keep it after September 11, when the government had tried to have it closed down as a security risk. But Leandro’s great-grandfather’s contract had proved ironclad, and the house had stayed in Gallo hands.

He was just grateful that he’d persuaded Celeste, with whom he shared a complicated romantic history, to let him live here. It hadn’t been easy, and Leandro had fought it. Leandro had claimed, “Digging Joe into a bigger hole is just enabling him.” Leandro had told Joe that what he really needed was a good kick in the pants. That would cure his agoraphobia, and he could fly back to his life in California.

That wasn’t going to be possible.

Celeste had won in the end because, like everyone else, Leandro couldn’t deny her anything she wanted. So, the house was Joe’s.

Edison stood in front of the front door, wagging his tail. He was ready to sack out. So was Joe.

As he walked up the stairs to open the door for the dog, he had an uneasy feeling. He and Edison had been exploring the tunnels for months, and they’d encountered only the occasional maintenance worker down this deep. Tonight, Joe had come across unfamiliar prints. They’d had pronounced ridges, more like hiking boots than the simple straight-line treads of the shoes worn by most transit employees, and they had ranged across dozens of the lower tunnels.

He’d met homeless people underground before, of course, clustered near subway platforms or in the upper tunnels, but no one had ever dared to come as deep as Joe’s house.

Until now.

And Joe didn’t like that at all.

 

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