Kim-na didnt seem to be terribly happy either as she walked ahead with the lamp. A stream of curses, some of which were not things Caitlyn dared repeat and the rest of which were in some Asian language that Caitlyn couldnt repeat poured from Kim-nas mouth like an irritable drizzle before a summertime thunderstorm. The girl wasnt happy, and her tail twitched back and forth anxiously.
The walls around them were worn old gray brick covered in greenish mold in places and dingy and wet in others, and they were close enough that Caitlyn and Kim-na had no choice but to walk single-file. Strands of whitish cobwebs dangled loosely from the ceiling, threatening to consume their hair as the sludge threatened to consume their legs.
This narrow hall connected to a tight tunnel behind them, and while that tunnel had been a little narrower, it had been higher up and dry. It ran gently uphill to the old bookcase that had covered its entrance, a bookcase whose dirty shelves supported only a few broken pieces of dust-covered lamps, a shade here, a base there, a loose wire over there, and inch-thick dust everywhere. Dust was infinitely better than sludge.
And somehow before that, this night had begun with a date. Not a dozen hours before an eternity! Caitlyn had had a perfectly reasonable life and been on a perfectly reasonable date with a man who seemed to like her, and now she was dateless, her father mysteriously alive, and she was being chased by Lord-only-knew-what through the sewers of New York with a teenage Asian ghetto centauress. She tried to ponder how her life could get any worse or any weirder from here, and the problem with asking that question is that life often finds a way.
Suddenly she stumbled, her right foreleg disappearing into the sludge. There was a little current here, and it ran to the hole that her leg had fallen into. She slumped against the wall, and the entire right side of her body was instantly covered in slime.
Gah! she cried. Aw, dammit!
Yo, girl, keep yo ass movin, said Kim-na, looking back over her shoulder.
I fell in a hole, she grumbled, pulling herself out, and scraping her hands against the rough brick of the wall. There was no doubt: Her clothes were ruined beyond recognition.
Yeah, well, they all sorts of shiyat down here. You gotta watch yo ass.
Im trying, she grumbled, walking forward, and carefully stepping past the hole when her hind legs neared it.
How much farther do we have to go? asked Caitlyn irritably.
Yo, what do I look like, a map? I aint been in this rat maze before. Alls I know is unca Ji say it leads us outta here. We there when we there.
Caitlyn silently fumed at life, but kept walking. She hoped Ji-Cheng was doing better with the assailants than she was doing with the sludge.
* * *
The narrow grimy tunnel connected with a much larger tunnel after another few minutes. They poked their heads out. The sewage drained out of their tunnel into the larger tunnel in a small waterfall if that yellow-green ooze could be called water and ran down the larger tunnel in a canal fronted by a narrow sidewalk, thankfully on their side of the canal.
There was a crude marking on the wall beside them, etched with some kind of white chalk that hadnt faded with the moisture. It said, very plainly, in large block letters, TURN LEFT.
Kim-na leapt from the tunnel down to the left sidewalk as best she could, her hind legs very nearly slipping into the canal, but she made it. She took a few steps forward, her hooves making nasty squishing noises against the hard cement, then held up the light.
This tunnel was wider than it had first looked, and its roof was high overhead. The walls had a faint greenish tinge, and here and there they could see the flickery shine of a metal grating with water pouring through it.
Caitlyn took a deep breath, and leapt to the sidewalk. She landed with a squish, but she landed, and didnt slip.
They continued forward into the darkness.
* * *
This tunnel continued for what seemed like years. It really may have been two or three hours, but they finally reached a point where they could go no further. The sidewalk had widened in the last half hour or so, as had the canal, but this was the end. A high wall loomed in front of them, and a nasty-looking brownish waterfall gushed from its upper surface. The route continued up there, but it was easily ten feet above them.
Maaan, grumbled Kim-na, stopping and turning around. She took off her backpack and dropped it on the floor.
Now we climb, said Kim-na, taking out a rope from her backpack. Unca Ji said to bring this. I gonna beat his ass so hard when I get back.
If we get back, added Caitlyn silently. There was no guarantee that Ji-Cheng was still alive they hadnt seen anyone following them, thank God, but there was no proof hed survived. Those men seemed pretty ruthless. And they were after her because of her father.
And he was alive? That was the only explanation for everything that was happening. He was alive. And he was the cause of all this mess. And maybe the cause of more? She hadnt even thought about it until now, but that note on her apartment door had just been signed K, and while that could have been Kat, it could also have been Kevin. It was an unrefined block script. He had written like that. Kat usually had an elegant cursive with little hearts to dot her is and js. Her father just might have written that note indeed. But that meant
Run. That was the message of the note. Leave. As fast as you can. Its not safe. That didnt sound like Kat either. Kat was a sweet girl, but she was usually clueless about anything important. She didnt know the year or the President, much less anything printed in a newspaper. It was all she could do to keep up with the doings of a handful of celebrities in Hollywood.
No, this had to be her father... didnt it? The voice in the Park was a mans, but it had been so wispy and faint. Where were the dulcet tones of her childhood? Where was Daddy in that wisp?
Kim-na was proving herself capable: Caitlyn snapped from her reverie, as the girl had somehow looped the rope over a pipe overhead, and was doing something that surely should have been impossible: She was scaling the wall, her arms pulling mightily at the rope, her forehooves walking the wall as her hindquarters swung back and forth overhead.
Kim wouldnt it be easier to change back first!? cried Caitlyn.
Yo, you change if you want, girl. I spend two hunnert a month on that tail. Aint a boy on the east side resist this boo-tay, baby. You want a tiny little white-girl ass, you can have it. Me, I finally got my all eeequine Asian big-ass hottie from head ta hoof, aw huh, so Is keepin it! Id snap my fingers at yo ass but Is busy savin yo ass, so if you dont mind, I got climbin to do.
She grunted and pulled hard, and swung her hindquarters a full hundred-eighty degrees and landed gently on the platform above.
Yo, you turn, she said, peering over the edge, her arms akimbo.
Uh, said Caitlyn.
I said, yo, you turn, said Kim-na irritably.
You want I should haul yo fat ass up here? Girl, this aint the Olympics. It aint even gym class. Climb yo weak-ass white-girl self up here and then lets get the heyell outta here.
Caitlyn fell silent. Climb up with four legs or two? Shed been awful at climbing ropes with two. Shed never tried with four. Kim-na had made it look easy, but well, there was only one way to answer the question.
She took a deep breath and pulled at the rope.
* * *
If there were any lessons to learn from the incident, they were that Kim-na was strong, and that rope-burns around ones barrel hurt.
Caitlyn had put in a good effort, and discovered that she was quite a bit stronger than she thought she was, but still, the highest she could reach was about halfway before landing squarely on the cement again with a sickening thud. And after three tries, Kim-na had gotten tired of waiting, and had made Caitlyn tie the rope around herself, and the petite Asian girl had somehow hauled her up to the platform, groaning and cursing all the way.
Now they were walking again, and there was light at the end of the tunnel literally: A dim light shone through a side tunnel. They turned, walked another few yards, and were greeted by an the oranges and reds of a sunrise over a dry brown cement drainage ditch.
In the distance, the spires of Manhattan and the gray-blue waters of the Hudson River gleamed in the first rays of the sun. Ji-Cheng had made good on his word: Somehow, they had crossed the river and were safe from their pursuers. Caitlyn grimaced: This was the first time shed ever felt truly grateful to be in New Jersey.