Sophia shrieked and scrambled from under him.
“Whoa!” Josh protected himself as he sat back on his heels and watched her pull on her dress. “What’s going on?”
“I saw him,” she said, keeping her eye at the window. “Out there. Demetri is out there!”
Josh sprang to his feet and approached the door. Peering into the dark station, he shook his head. “I don’t see anyone.” After checking the nearest windows, he retreated to the conductor’s booth, pushed the button to open the subway’s doors, and approached the platform.
Sophia threw his pants at him, which he pulled on before exiting the car.
The station from one end to the other was quiet and empty. The bookshelf door to the next gallery stood ajar more than he remembered leaving it, but nothing alarming. A fault in his memory. Because Sophia watched his investigation from the bench in the car, he peered into the neighboring gallery and found it empty.
“There’s nobody around,” he said, but as he entered the car, an uncovered camera just inside, nearly hidden by a string of lights at the ceiling, grabbed his eye.
He joined her on the bench and put his arm around her.
“Hey,” he murmured, and brushed a chunk of hair from her face.
She blushed, smiling.
“I guess I’m exhausted. Seeing things? I mean …”
“I’m so good I made you hallucinate?”
She groaned and covered her face. “I can’t believe we just did that.”
He kissed the top of her head. “You okay?”
“Yeah. You were…” Her eyes sparkled, reflecting the Christmas lights. “Just how I imagined.”
“You were like a beast.”
“Not like —” He paused, stuck for words. When he closed his eyes in thought, she laughed.
“I like you,” she said.
He smiled. “I can tell.”
“What do we do now?” she whispered.
She leaned her head on his shoulder and he tightened his arms around her.
There wasn’t a chance he would have told her about his dad if they’d gotten to know each other outside. They might have met the day after the concert (feeling so low after Erica’s unequivocal heart-stomping almost guaranteed it), gotten some dinner, taken a walk through Central Park, where he would have invariably told her something embarrassing about himself. Something like what he thought about last night’s episode of Alien Architects he would have watched while winding down.
Realistically, he would have been leaving town in the next few days to follow the tour to the next city, and wouldn’t be back to New York for months. He wouldn’t have opened up, wouldn’t have spent the night with her. If either of them still thought of the other in that amount of time, he might call her again, but more than likely those one or two initial dates would have been it.
Instead, he’d done both. And either they’d die here in the museum together or be tied by the inevitable court hearings afterward. His family knew the story about some reckless country bumpkins, probably carrying out a gang initiation. When he imagined his family finding out the truth… the police…
“You’re gonna hit me?” Ajay’s voice rose from somewhere, followed by a deliberate, destructive bang.
Demetri said something unintelligible but angry. Ajay raised his voice as the two of them moved farther away.
Sophia stiffened in his arms.
They had to be right behind the bookshelf for the sound to come through like that.
“What’s going on?” Sophia whispered.
He put a finger to his lips and tied on his shoes before edging toward the door.
The voices were faint, but angry.
“Stay here.” He left the subway car and slipped into the next gallery pulling the shelf to accommodate as slightly and quietly as possible.
The subway doors bing-bonged shut.
On the other side of the shelf in the gallery, almost every book was dumped on the floor except the one that acted as a key. Nothing else in the room had been disturbed.
The voices led Josh through the galleries, gradually becoming clearer. Many of the displays on the way had been trashed, gouges taken out of the walls, paintings slashed or mangled on the ground. Josh picked through the damaged artwork carefully so he wouldn’t trip. With the shouts coming from up the staircase on the other side of the room, he didn’t have to worry about being heard.
“It’s not me you should be mad at,” Kieron said.
Josh took the stairs quietly, listening.
“We saw you were —”
“We live in close quarters, friend,” Ajay broke in. “If we can’t trust each other, this is gonna get real ugly.”
Something clanged. Metal on metal.
“Whoa!” one of them shouted.
The sound continued in rapid succession.
Josh sprinted up the steps.
Demetri attacked the door with the ax with all his strength while Ajay and Kieron stood together against the ticket booth, out of swing range.
“Look who it is,” Kieron said, alerting Ajay to Josh’s entrance.
Demetri stopped his barrage and turned to stare at Josh. “Quite a show,” he said, smirking.
“So you were there?” Josh shook his head. “That was a personal —”
“Whoa, whoa! Wait one fucking minute before you go mouthing off about your dignity and privacy and all that bullshit,” Kieron said.
Demetri hacked the door again.
“You don’t even know —”
“That he watched you plow the lovely Sophia? That he tried to pry the doors open and when he couldn’t, whacked off instead?”
Josh’s blood ran cold. She’d said she saw Demetri through the window, and though he checked the platform, hadn’t believed her. He’d even heard something himself, but couldn’t let go of his own desire.
Tried to pry the doors open …
“Now wait a minute —”
Kieron took a menacing step forward. Ajay had moved behind him to the door, blocking any escape.
“I showed you that control room,” Kieron said, his voice a restrained calm. “So you knew I could see you. You covered those cameras one by one.”
“This is insane. This isn’t your place. You can’t surveil us.”
“Is it insanity to make sure the people you’re forced to live with aren’t criminals? Aren’t plotting against the good of all of us? We were kidnapped: it’s not like our distrust is misplaced. No one’s come forward telling us they want ransom or to fuck with us.”
The edge of the ticket counter dug into Josh’s back, unaware he’d slowly backed himself into it while Kieron forced himself closer and closer.
“So I have to assume,” Kieron continued, “someone here is responsible. Call me insane if you want, but when I found that control booth with every angle of the museum covered, it gave me a sense of security to see what was going on, to watch everyone without them putting up a front. Without you lying to me. The fact that I was watching wasn’t a secret. What raises my suspicion, though, is when I see you covering the cameras.”
“Don’t you think some things warrant a little privacy?”
“If you’d told us from the beginning you and Sophia knew each other or were involved, we might have looked the other way. It’s not like no one asked.”
“Relationships develop —”
Kieron shook his head. “We gave you ample opportunities to come out with it and you denied being involved with her every step of the way. This only tells me you’re lying. Both of you. And if you’re lying about being together, what else are you hiding?”
“She told me each one of you made a move on her. I was —”
“The one to follow through? Doesn’t paint you in the best light either.” He lowered his voice, his nose nearly touching Josh’s, although no one would overhear him over the constant clanging. “More than we don’t trust you, we don’t trust this one.” He indicated Demetri with a roll of the eyes. “Ajay and I saw you with Sophia when we were in the control room, but we also saw what Demetri was doing.”
“Trying to pry the doors open,” Josh finished.
Kieron’s eyes bore into him, warning him against another interruption. “He had the ax with him. Neither of you were in any position to defend yourselves. He would have raped and killed you. Lucky he stopped to watch because it gave me and Ajay time to chase him off. You know why we did that?”
Josh waited to find out if Kieron really wanted an answer, and shook his head.
“Because we’re the good guys. Even though you two were being sneaky assholes, we did the right thing and we’d deal with you later. Later is now.”
The door fell off its hinges and Demetri dropped the ax. His shoulder bled through the fabric tied around it.
Darkness spilled from the opening. A waft of cool, musty air led them to concrete steps up to pitch darkness.
Josh bolted up the steps, happy to be away from Kieron’s threatening stare, and eager to be out of there, stopping at the cold, metal roof, behind which, more than likely, contained more museum. Rivets spotted the otherwise smooth surface. No handles or keyholes or openings of any kind.
“Hand me that ax,” Josh shouted to Demetri, who blocked most of the light in the opening.
Demetri climbed the stairs, ax in hand, closing Josh into a smaller and smaller space.
“Hand it to me,” Josh said, and swallowed the dryness in his throat. “You must be tired.”
Demetri thrust the handle against Josh’s throat, pinning him into the corner.
“Motherfucker,” he said through his teeth.
In the tight space, Josh couldn’t push or kick Demetri away, but he clawed the hands on the ax handle, flailed out at the hot breath in his face.
Ajay and Kieron shouted up the steps, but though they must have been tugging Demetri’s legs, the man doubled down.
Josh greyed out, trembling with exertion.
This is it.
Really like floating.
Josh gasped when he hit the floor. Pebbles of concrete rained on him from the stairs he’d tumbled down.
All that mattered was air. Breathing.
Ajay said something as more stones fell from above.
He pulled Josh by the arms, dragging him along the floor.
The form of another body in a heap beside him came gradually into focus. At first, Josh thought the body belonged to Demetri, but it was Kieron with an angry welt on his temple.
Ajay had Josh under the arms again and screamed, “Get up, goddamnit!”
A sliver of light pierced the stairwell.
Another few frantic swings brought clods of dirt down the stairs. Ajay approached the opening as Demetri continued swinging at reinforced steel rods in the concrete.
Josh pulled himself to his feet with help from the ticket counter, alternating his attention between his burning throat, the widening patch of sunlight on the floor, and wondering what had happened to Kieron.
Sparks flew as the metal contacted, until with enough force, Demetri loosened enough rods and scrambled through the hole.
A soft breeze blew through the opening; a tree branch waved against a grey-blue sky.
Ajay followed first.
With a last look back at Kieron’s prone body, and a thought about Sophia waiting in the subway car, Josh took the stairs up: the need to know it was safe greater than the need to go back for her.
Jagged steel rods ripped Josh’s clothes, scraped his arms and sides and legs as he struggled through the narrow hole. Sunlight blinded him as he blinked the outside world into focus.
The ground was dirt and metal, buckled with tree roots. The wall he backed against was metal, a subway station marker. Lines M, S, and E at MUSEUM ST.
It was like any subway gate around a staircase in a New York sidewalk: painted green metal sides, and the classic black sign white lettering, only surrounded by forest. Solar panels on poles, shaded by overgrowth, stood around a modest clearing in which the subway station stood; beyond that, dense woods.
The confusion Josh felt reflected on Ajay’s face.
“Where the hell are we?” Ajay extended a hand to pull Josh to his feet. “You okay?”
Ideally, with his swollen throat and throbbing head, Josh wanted to lie down for a week, but he nodded.
“Was Sophia following you up?” Ajay asked.
Josh shook his head. Sophia probably wouldn’t move until he gave the all clear.
“One of us should get her,” Ajay said.
The snarled forest around them suggested they needn’t rush.
“Yes, let’s get Sophia,” Demetri said.
He stood against the outside of the railing with the ax rested on top.
Stay away from her, Josh said, but it came out an injured whisper.
Ajay stepped out of the enclosure. “Maybe we should go for help. Come o—”
Demetri struck him on the head with the blunt end of the ax, and Ajay dropped to the ground with a moan. Adjusting his grip, Demetri approached Josh, who stumbled and fell back. He reared back with the ax and buried the blade in the ground next to Josh’s face.
Josh screamed, scrambled to his feet and ran, taking the first few frantic paces in panic, barely registering the low branches whipping his arms and face. Demetri jerked the ax from the ground and chased him.
Josh ran, ignoring the pain, and lead him away from her.