New York City
NOX BOYET is fifteen and his only problems in the world are his upcoming physics test and the tiny shorts Patrick Mullens insists on wearing to lacrosse practice every damn day.
His father is traveling to parts unknown—again. He talks to the man’s assistant more than he talks to his father, by a ratio of about ten to one. His mother has been at the hospital for four months due to “exhaustion”—again. Exhaustion means relapse and hospital means sanitarium, and he stopped needing codes when he was ten. Mrs. Grimes from across the street checks in on him every day, brings leftovers from the family dinners, and Nox uses the emergency credit card to eat a lot of pizza.
Then it starts raining.
NOX BOYET is a few weeks away from turning sixteen. He desperately wants two things: for Patrick Mullens to stop being a cock tease (five minutes into a mutual hand job in the shower stall after practice and suddenly he remembered a piano lesson? Bullshit.) and for his father to let him have the old Beemer they leave at the house upstate.
He’s getting A’s in everything at Trinity, and the headmaster referred to him as a “fine young man, like your father” after assembly. He’d tell his parents this in another attempt to get the Beemer, but his father hasn’t been home in over a month. His mother? Five.
Mrs. Grimes said the LaMontes are leaving Manhattan because of the weather. She’s staying to “watch the house,” and Nox is secretly glad.
And it hasn’t stopped raining for almost three weeks.
NOX BOYET is in hell.
Most of the neighborhood is deserted. Residents have fled for drier climes—some have moved temporarily to winter bungalows and summer residences outside the city. Every day there’s another solemn story of people drowning and residents of the city and outlying areas being rescued by boaters. The subways and trains aren’t running due to flooding. The tunnels in and out of the city are closed. Buildings have collapsed under the strain of the torrential downpours and ministorms sweeping in from the ocean. Nowhere on the island seems safe—and no one is making ark jokes anymore.
Mrs. Grimes has her nephew Roy staying with her at the house “for protection.” She still comes across the street, splashing through the muddy river that is Ninety-Second Street, to check on him. He wants to tell her it’s okay and he’s fine, but honestly—he’s not.
Trinity, like all the other schools in Manhattan, has cancelled classes. Most of his friends have left the city with their families. Patrick called him twenty minutes ago to say they’re going to stay with his grandmother in Chicago. There are rumors the bridges will be shut down, like the tunnels already have. He’s trying to be brave, but his father’s assistant says she can’t reach him and the lady who answers the phone at his mother’s hospital says she isn’t taking calls. She’s in “isolation.”
So is he.
He stays in his room, trying not to jump at every little sound. The power has been going on and off for almost two weeks, and if it weren’t for all the crazy survivalist stuff his mother has hoarded in the basement, things would be way worse. He’s never been so grateful for her paranoia and his father’s black AmEx.
He’s only a kid and he’s not ready for this much responsibility.
ON HIS sixteenth birthday, a policeman comes to the door as National Guardsmen roll down the street in jeeps, using a loudspeaker to tell people to be prepared to evacuate. He asks if Nox’s mother is home, or another adult, but no, Nox is alone.
The policeman tells him he’s very sorry, but Nox’s father is dead. His body was found at his office building near the stock exchange—a mugging, most likely. His assistant identified the body.
So sorry for his loss.
Nox doesn’t cry. He walks around the house in a fog, the loudspeaker announcements of urgency fading to background noise. His father is dead. His mother is lost in a land of her own.
There are no grandparents, no aunts or uncles. All of the people considered “family friends” have fled, and really, it was mostly social, the connection from the Boyets to the movers and shakers of old money on the Upper West Side. They were hidden away in this house, shamed by his mother’s illness and his father’s workaholic ways.
He has no one.
A DAY later, the National Guard goes door to door telling people they have to evacuate in twelve hours. The ferries will be departing from the Seventy-Ninth Street Boat Basin. Nox, curled up on his bed, looking at pictures of his mother on the wall, makes a decision.
He fills his waterproof backpack with some food and water and all the money he can find in the house. He layers on the ski clothes he got last Christmas and prints out a map that will direct him all the way up to Inwood, where his mother’s sanitarium, Morningside, is.
He’s going to get her, and then they’re getting the hell out of Manhattan.
HE HAD no idea what he was walking into—and no idea he wasn’t coming back.
SOMETIMES PATROL took Nox down past what used to be the Seventy-Ninth Street Boat Basin on the West Side. There was a memorial to the people who died when the ferries sank on Evacuation Day—a block of stone engraved with 1,957 names, the date. “Unknowns” tacked on the bottom for those who were never identified brought the number well over 2000. No bother of sentiment, no solemn saying emblazoned on a bronze plaque.
Only two names on that list mattered—he knew the location by touch, knew the curve of each hammered-out vowel. They were the reason he couldn’t ever leave this place—they were the reason he walked fifty blocks a night to make sure the neighborhood was safe.
There were other memorials, other tributes to those who died during the storms. The floods downtown and on the Island, the fires in the Bronx and Queens, the building collapses on the East Side. But Mayor Freck’s legacy was an administration that liked to remind the survivors their loved ones would want them to move on—they would have wanted the city to rise again.
Plaques said, We remember. The enormous hotels and casinos that cluttered inhabitable parts of the island said, We’ve moved on.
THE DISTRICT—blocks and blocks of Central Park West, Times Square, and Midtown real estate converted into casinos and hotels, built up and beautifully maintained, with a thriving clientele of wealthy jet-setters and a well-staffed security force that kept it as calm and orderly as a debutante ball. The New City.
After the storms, the city was left a hollow shell. So many uninhabitable buildings, so many residents forced into shelters in New Jersey, Connecticut, even Pennsylvania. Wait for the water to recede, wait for inspectors to check the buildings, wait for insurance companies. Real estate prices went from millions to pennies as abandoned buildings continued to sit dark and empty, molding as months passed with no one to tend to the mess. People, museums, and businesses relocated, with vague talks of “going back” when things got fixed.
When the federal money was slow to trickle in, the “going back” became “moving away permanently.” With no commuters and no tourists, New York was a ghost town within five years of the evacuation. The wealthy business owners and their boards collected insurance checks and moved elsewhere—other states offered incentives to relocating businesses and the bottom line was simple. Cheaper to be elsewhere, cheaper than trying to rebuild. Cheaper to take tax breaks and move the headquarters of your company to Chicago or Dallas. Even better, most of your employees followed, because there wasn’t anything to tie them to a rapidly declining city.
The middle and lower classes just couldn’t survive. Many stayed as long as they could but in the end, six years after the storms, the population of New York dwindled to the lowest numbers since the turn of the century.
Three years later, as the remaining citizens complained of war-zone-like conditions and the rest of the country wondered why nothing was being done besides organized looting—Broadway in Las Vegas, museums around the world dividing up the great works of art, pro sports teams lured to nearby cities—a mayoral candidate named Louis Freck swept in like Hannibal on the elephant’s back.
He demanded more aid from the federal government while at the same time preaching the resiliency of New Yorkers. He called for a radical plan to save the city: bring money in by lining the streets with gold and hookers.
Oh, he put it in a much nicer way. Playgrounds for the rich and richer. There were dioramas and beautifully rendered sketches for presentations, followed by minimovies and simulations as Freck’s popularity grew. Worthless real estate revitalized by investment—all from the pockets of developers, not the citizens. The desperate New Yorkers attended rallies, cheering at the chance to have some hope. Rebuild the industry and the rest of the city would grow around it.
Freck won. No one even remembered who ran against him.
Things happened quickly after that. Dump trucks and backhoes from private companies cleared away the rubble; construction cranes once against dotted the streets. After two years, the skyline began to rise again.
Freck made an impassioned plea, and legalized gambling came to Manhattan Island.
The people in the outer neighborhoods waited for the trickle-down effect as time ticked by. One year, two years. Three years—so many promises, but the District needed time to grow, to make back their investments. It would happen—just be patient. Surely all of the money being poured into the District by visitors—surely it would reach their desperately empty pockets. Jobs would be plentiful.
Freck kept a few promises. He left some neighborhoods alone, zoned for residential rather than commercial use. They had power, fresh water. Crews removed debris from roadways, sometimes even repaved. A newly visible police force—as in, people actually saw black-and-whites cruising the streets.
It was a start, so no one questioned the curfew in the Old City. And now? Seventeen years since the Evacuation? No one bothered to complain about it. They’d grown used to the restrictions, the “doing without”—grown accustomed to the division of the city and abandoned their hopes that one day the largesse of the District would visit them as well.
Nox walked through Old Riverside Park, crossing up toward Ninety-First Street as he headed home. It was quiet. Curfew kept citizens inside after dark; the police didn’t bother to patrol this far north, and the dealers generally stayed downtown near the underground clubs.
These days they were growing bolder. Money was finally trickling out of the District, as whores and gambling bored the tourists after a while, and the “classy” joints couldn’t keep patrons entirely satisfied. Visitors wanted something else, something thrilling and dangerous. Something they couldn’t get anywhere else.
The secret of Dead Bolt: You could only get it here. A few hits of the pool-blue powder and the euphoria beat anything sold in those shiny casinos.
The movement of crime into residential areas worried him. For years he’d taken care of the stray criminal that ventured into his territory. He kept an eye on the street trade—he knew who had which neighborhood in their sights, which of the street gangs that had popped up over the years were an actual threat and which were just overgrown clubs for the bored and underemployed. The visitors could take care of themselves—he didn’t care what they stuck into their veins or how many of them kicked it in alleys downtown. They were part of the problem, bankrolling the festering wound of corruption strangling his city.
Nothing would change so long as more money could be made on strangers with itches to scratch than on those carving out livings amongst the ruins.
THE COLD October air smelled like more snow—winter seemed to start earlier and earlier with each passing year, a double-edged sword of less crime and less food mixing together in five months of desperation. Junkies and dealers, workers and citizens, all trapped inside and trying to survive until spring.
It was crazy to stay—he knew that. It was just… still home to the ones who couldn’t force themselves to leave. They’d survived the hell of the Storms; they’d made it when so many others perished. Maybe it was a badge of honor to scrape out an existence here.
He was a different story.
Where would he go? There were no fresh starts in the world for him. If he left the city, he’d leave behind all the tricks and lies he used to stay hidden. Here, money talked and laws were loose—he could play the system on the island. Off it? He’d be just another penniless drifter with no education, no plan, no real identity.
So he stayed. And he wondered if one day this city would be anything like the one he remembered.
A few blocks from home, movement caught his eye: two dark shadows hovering in the doorway of a long-abandoned store near the corner. A sliver of moonlight illuminated only their general shapes—men, most likely, darting together and pulling away but too tense, too sharp for it to be a romantic encounter.
He blended with the darkness, stealthy and slow as he gained ground on the spot of transaction. The crisp, cold air was still, the icy sting pulling into his lungs with every breath. His clothes kept him warm; the black color let him blend into the shadows. The breathable fabric across the lower half of his face left him anonymous. A blackjack in his hand kept him safe.
Murmurings of the conversation caught his ears. He paused, listened.
How much can you get me tomorrow?
He ducked and dodged the piles of bricks—buildings had come down on this street, destroyed by storms and fire, ignored by the city—until he reached the doorway one away from theirs.
Black-gloved hand tight on the weapon, breath held, eyes steady.
He exhaled and stepped out into the open.
They were unprepared for him. One lethargic and drunk on his own smug power—no police, people hidden away, no one to challenge him. The other’s brain a mess from Dead Bolt and neglect, no idea how to defend himself.
It was over in a few seconds; the dealer lay unconscious, the junkie cowering in the corner.
“Stay out of my neighborhood,” he said simply. He took the bag of poison and dumped it out into the dirty, slushy snow that lingered from the last storm. With the heel of his boot, he crushed it down to unusable dust. “If I see you here again, I’ll kill you,” he said, quieter now.
The man nodded, frantic and jerky in his movements.
He searched the dealer, taking his gun, credit cards, and identification pass before rolling him onto his back. A check of his pulse—alive and well—reassured him that his work was almost done.
His gaze on the wide-eyed junkie, he tugged the dealer’s right arm away from his body until it was straight. Unfurled the fingers. A perfect target.
This was his signature, how they knew he meant business. He raised his foot, then brought it down onto the man’s palm with his full weight behind it.
The dealer jolted awake, then passed out again from the pain.
Practice meant he knew exactly where to connect to break bones.
The junkie swallowed a scream; he scrambled away, tripping and falling in his haste.
Spoils in his pocket—and no backward glance—he continued his journey home.
At the corner of his block, he paused. Once upon a time it had been prime real estate—million-dollar brownstones, homes of the old moneyed elite who sent their children to Trinity, Dalton, or Spence. Pure class.
His mother’s family had roots in the city that went back to when it was New Amsterdam. His father’s people came later but in time to fight in the Revolutionary War.
He was a child of this city, generations of architects and bankers who believed this to be their legacy to the world.
They would hate it now.
The shadows cloaked his path to the doorway. Inside lay the world of another man, a man who worked a job and was responsible for another life, who paid his bills and lent a hand when his neighbors asked. He kept a low profile because he—more than anyone—knew that danger lay everywhere. And in everyone.
Nox dropped the gun down into an open grate; below, he could hear the rush of water that flowed under the city. Sewers, long-abandoned subway tunnels—the water lapped at the shores of Manhattan Island and crept up underneath them, a few more inches every year. The water would sweep the gun out to the Hudson. The credit cards followed, disappearing into the darkness.
The identification pass might get him into places he needed to be—that he kept.
When his knees finally creaked under the pressure, he stood up slowly, working out the kinks in his back as he twisted side to side. He had three hours before the alarm would sound on his other life—the Vigilante’s night was over, and it was time to go home.
CADE CREEL liked to keep his clients happy and satisfied, so when Mr. White laid one pale, blue-veined hand on his knee and said, “I need you to do me a favor,” Cade didn’t hesitate with his yes.
“My favorite,” Mr. White said, almost tender as he patted Cade’s cheek. “This is our little secret.”
Mr. White, at seventy-five, didn’t ask for much from Cade—conversation and cocktails by the fireplace in the Monarch Suite, some pats on the shoulder and thigh now and again. A chaste kiss, once. He only wanted to spend time with Cade, tell his stories of a lost New York City and his glory days of privilege and excess, and be rewarded with dimpled smiles and smooth compliments.
For Cade, every Thursday night was three hours of civilized bliss. He got to keep his clothes on; he was treated like a person.
So when Mr. White asked a favor—just a quick run uptown to deliver a letter—how could he say no?
At the Iron Butterfly, the customer was always right, always entitled to whatever they wanted (as dictated by their credit rating and initial deposit, of course), and should always leave an employee’s company smiling and satisfied.
“Of course,” he said. “Whatever you need.”
His need, apparently, was to have a private letter delivered to the Old City. He didn’t trust the messenger services that handled all the mail, nor was he able to travel there himself.
All Cade had to do was place the letter in the hands of one Sam Mullens and he would earn Mr. White’s undying gratitude.
Which was how Cade—a minor celebrity in the District and the highest-paid “model” at the Iron Butterfly Casino—found himself trudging up what used to be Broadway, headed for Ninety-First Street.
He woke up early on Friday, determined to run his errands before lunchtime and take care of the favor well before curfew, but nothing went right with his morning or afternoon—the approaching Anniversary Weekend had thrown the entire place into a tizzy—and so now he was racing against the setting sun.
Caught in the Old City after curfew? He didn’t want to have to explain that to the police. Or his manager.
Cade tucked his chin into the collar of his trench coat, arranging his cashmere scarf so everything below his eyes was slightly warmer. The wind off the Hudson River nipped at his heels as if reminding him to hurry the hell up. He’d walked all the way from the District, skirting around burned-out blocks and torn-up streets as he made his way north. Keeping the river on his left, Cade gave the old section of Central Park a wide berth.
He’d heard the horror stories.
District cabs refused fares up here—if you wanted to convince a driver, you’d better have a pile of cash on hand. He couldn’t request a car from the service they used; this wasn’t a job.
Following the grid pattern in the old part of the city wasn’t easy—too many things up here were destroyed and demolished, streets covered in rubble and fallen high-rises, almost two decades of neglect wiping out the orderly function of numbered streets and avenues.
Normally, Cade stayed far away.
Follow the river. As long as you see the red writing on the walls—portus tutus—you’ll be safe. At marker 91, take a left. You’ll see the gray house from there.
Seriously—he’d played video games as a kid that started like that and usually ended with zombies and someone getting their brain eaten.
But what was the harm in a little adventure? So it was the Old City. So it was still touched by the ruin of seventeen years ago. So what if no one knew Cade was up here except a wealthy and slightly scattered millionaire who liked it when Cade wore white gloves to dinner.
Cade swallowed his nerves, felt the brick-heavy weight of the slender envelope in his pocket. He didn’t know what was inside, but it might as well be a ticking time bomb given his jumpiness.
He wasn’t cut out for this spy shit.
Sometimes the Iron Butterfly’s manager, Rachel, imagined herself to be Mata Hari, keeping life interesting by playing with fire. He knew she dabbled in “information sales”—taking things picked up from scotch-soaked officials in dark corners of the casino and turning the murmured secrets into cash.
Sometimes she framed it as “doing good”—helping the little people who didn’t have enough cash to bribe a cop or city employee like the rest of them. “Information should be free,” Rachel would say, and maybe in other places it was. Here? Not so much.
Other times she drank too much and told him it was a good way to fuck with the bastards that ruined the city.
Did Mr. White fill his quiet days with the same sort of real-person chess? Was that what this was?
Up ahead, the path he was walking opened up a bit. Past the mess, he found a sudden expanse of space. Normality. Neat brownstones—bricks scarred and ivy covered—lined each street. A grocery store, open for business, showed off neatly lettered handmade signs in the window.
Local tomatoes—$17 a bushel
We have REAL coffee! Only $35 a pound
A few people walked along the streets, most likely on their way home from the thousands of construction sites around the city—and all of them noticed Cade as soon as he emerged into the midst, their gazes like lasers.
Not one of them. Not a face they knew. Stranger.
Head down, Cade hurried on his way. There were signs here; like the grocery store, they were handmade. Red paint on black wood, fastened to buildings—or at least piles of bricks—on the corner.
With the eyes of the neighborhood burning into his back, Cade strode down the third street he passed. The sidewalks were a mess, the streets torn up by weather and a lack of recent repair. Most of the buildings had clearly burned, hollowed-out shells with collapsed ceilings and walls. But the few houses seemed well kept, with many sporting flowers in window boxes along their top floors.
And bars on every window. Steel security doors marring the classic architecture. Gates lined each occupied home, sharp spikes deterring climbers.
In the middle of the burned-out block sat a slender gray townhouse that at first glance reminded Cade of a church. It stood defiantly in the ruins of that side of the street—at least half of it was nothing but overgrown rubble, the black char of fire giving the reason for its destruction. Only six homes remained standing on this street, a place Cade could imagine once housed the wealthy in this city.
He wasn’t a native—home was the family farm back in South Carolina—but like every person in America, he knew what New York City used to look like.
For years after the evacuation, cable channels had run movie marathons and documentaries, detailing over and over the destruction of the world’s most famous city. Storms and fires and freak events that erased everything it had taken hundreds of years to create. Tens of thousands dead. Landmarks and history reduced to nothing.
He was eight when it happened, and he didn’t remember much—Mom made him and his brother get on their knees and pray for all the dead and missing. She stayed up late, crying over the pictures of death and destruction until Daddy made her go to bed.
Cade dropped his hand into his pocket as he skirted around a pothole that could have swallowed a delivery van. A huge tree, its roots erupting through the concrete, sat just in front of the stone steps, leaving barely a foot between its weathered gray trunk and the steel bars of the gate.
Cade took a huge breath, filling his lungs with the cold, crisp air. The insanity suddenly became more than just a hum in the back of his head; he was miles outside the District, with no protection, with no weapon, with no reason to be here he could possibly explain without getting in a shit ton of trouble.
The people back on the Avenue were dressed like what they were—the poor working class who built new hotels and casinos and cleared debris and delivered packages. They weren’t even good enough to be hired to clean in the District—businesses imported people from the mainland for that. These were the idiots who’d never left, who’d never bothered to find better lives on safer shores.
This was where the crime was.
Creels aren’t cowards, his dad would say with a shade of sarcasm, as if he didn’t entirely believe the statement to be true in Cade’s case.
So Cade walked, feet pounding against the concrete until he reached the front gate.
There was a latch, simple to unhinge. Leather gloves holding slightly trembling hands, he reached out, worrying all the time that it was electrified or triggered a silent alarm or….
Nothing. No bolts or jolts. Cade unhooked the latch and then pushed the gate open. It creaked, but no machine gun turrets appeared. No snipers with rifles. He took a deep breath.
He stepped over the threshold.
Cade tucked his hands in his pockets, pinching his thighs through the fabric to try to control his anxiety. Knock on the door, hand off the message. Get the hell out of there.
A thin layer of sweat began to form between his body and the sweater/jeans combo he’d donned for this foolhardy trip. His boots clacked on the stairs. How was he so noisy? People would peek out their windows; everyone would see him. And those window boxes would turn out to be diversions when these people came out of their houses and killed him.
He pulled back his hand, whispered “fuck” under his breath, and knocked three times on the gray metal security door.
Nothing stirred inside the house. The curtains—dove gray and heavy—didn’t move. No sounds could be heard.
Cade tried again, battering his gloved knuckles against the door.
This time a rattling followed, as if locks were being disengaged. Cade sucked in some air, stepping back slightly.
Hand over the envelope. Get the hell out of there.
After what seemed like forever, the sound of metal scraping signaled someone had heard his knocking. It pulled open only about six inches, then a young man’s face appeared in the opening.
“Hey, hi. I have a delivery to make?” Cade tried to smile as warmly as he could.
The dark-haired kid didn’t blink, amber eyes behind thick-rimmed black glasses, the collar and logo of a District messenger uniform visible and hanging loosely on his slender frame.
Ironic—he was delivering a letter to a messenger.
“We—we didn’t order anything,” he stuttered out. The door started to shut.
“No, wait. Um, it’s for Sam? Are you him?” Cade asked quickly, trying to stop the door closing in his face. “It’s from a friend of mine—Mr. White?”
No sign of recognition on the Mr. White part, but his eyes widened at “Sam.”
“Yeah, that’s me.” Sam opened the door another few inches, still wary, from the look on his face.
“Great.” Cade reached into his pocket slowly, then pulled out the letter. “I’m supposed to make sure you get this.”
The kid reached out tentatively, like Cade was offering a snake. Or a snake offering an apple. He touched the corner, then snatched it away.
“Thanks. I think you should leave now,” Sam said, his voice shaking. The door slammed a second later, almost knocking Cade backward off the stairs.
“You’re welcome,” Cade yelled before turning to leave. Seriously? All this effort to be treated like a delivery man?
“Not even a tip,” he groused, jogging down the stairs. If he hurried, he’d be early for the staff meeting and could actually get something to eat before he had to get ready for his shift.
He walked back the way he came, the wind picking up as he got closer to the river. The people he’d seen before were gone, he assumed due to the approaching curfew. He hoped it was because of curfew, and not because they knew something he did not.
No, he wasn’t doing that again. He would not see shadows or hear noises in the rapidly approaching twilight. After all, the worry he worked up on the way here turned out to be so much bullshit. His brother would probably count this as a “two punches for flinching” situation.
Next time he went for a visit (for the holidays… some holiday… at some point), Cade would bring this up to get a laugh from his family. Maybe a slight headshake from his father.
Of course you were scared, he’d think. Pretty boy in a bad neighborhoo