Cyrus woke to bright light again. Bright light and noise. He groaned and peered out to see the morning sun shining through buildings to the east, reflecting off glass windows and right into his face. He blinked his aching eyes, rubbed his knuckles over them, and his foggy head began to clear. The familiar sounds of the city surrounded him. Passing cars. People speaking. The rustling of trash tumbling down filthy gutters in the wind.
His eyes shot open and he looked around.
Cyrus was lying against an old brick building. He looked up and down the familiar street. On the corner, he spotted the Stop n’ Shop. Bright yellow crime scene tape blocked the door, and shattered glass from the window littered the concrete sidewalk below. An immaculate, green hatchback parked at the shop suddenly roared to life and peeled away from the curb. Cyrus peered in at the driver, but the man pulled his faded navy ball cap over his eyes and disappeared down the street.
Cyrus stumbled to his feet. His head spun, like he was moving too quickly for his brain to catch up, and he leaned against the brick wall and groaned. People hardly paid any attention to him as they walked by on their morning commute, ignoring him the way they typically ignored the drugged and homeless, which Cyrus was beginning to suspect that he was. The muscles on his left arm ached. He massaged his fingers into them as he looked back out around the street.
How did he get here?
The last thing he remembered was sitting in the hospital ward, three days after he’d been shot. He looked down at his body. Yup. He wasn’t wearing his own clothes, but instead the gray sweats, white shirt, and a navy hoodie Dr. Harris had given to him. He touched his thigh. The wound ached, and he could feel the bandages beneath the fabric. He reached into his pockets and pulled out three things: a bottle of antibiotics with instructions written on the side, a small burner phone he didn’t recognize…
And the red business card.
Cyrus stared down at it, his heart lodged in his throat.
Part of him wanted to forget about it all—to pretend what the hell the last three days had been hadn’t happened—but as he stared down at the phone number, he remembered everything that strange, dark-haired man had said.
His family was in trouble.
Was it true? Could he trust it? Cyrus wasn’t sure.
He rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers again. Whatever drug he’d been given had almost worn off now, and his head felt less dizzy and flooded. He pushed himself away from the wall and began to walk… but he didn’t immediately make his way south, toward where he lived.
Because even if the guy was the real deal, Cyrus wasn’t stupid. He was positive he was being followed, and he sure as fuck wasn’t going to lead him back to the old bar they’d turned into an orphanage until he’d had the chance to talk to Darius alone—well away from where the rest of the kids were.
A bird fluttered in a tree overhead, and Cyrus jumped and clutched for his chest.
Or, fuck, maybe he was just being paranoid.
Paranoia or not, Cyrus started off by heading west. He passed by the old, ruined storefront of the Stop n’ Shop and peered in its windows. By now, the place had been looted. The shelves had been knocked over and rifled through, and product lay strewn across the grimy tile. Cyrus climbed through the broken window, ducked some yellow tape, and started to look for something to eat.
If he wasn’t going to head home right away, he needed to stock up.
Most of the good stuff had already been taken by now. Any electronics or items of value would have been stolen almost as soon as the cops left the scene, and food items would be picked off more slowly, as the poor and sick quietly stole in and left with arms full of candy bars, bags of chips, and dried fruit. Even all the shopping bags had been nicked—likely used to carry off the rest of the merchandise.
Without bags, Cyrus started to shove things into the front pocket of his hoodie. Things with substance. He tried to collect small items with lots of calories—things that took up less space and would keep him fuller for longer. Dense protein and candy bars. A small jar of peanut butter. High fat pastries. The soles of his sneakers stuck to gooey, green slushie syrup as he slowly made his way through the mess. He vaguely wondered what had become of Lonnie and realized was going to have to find a new job after this…
When his pocket was stuffed so full he couldn’t have fit so much as a roll of mints into it, he climbed back through the window and onto the street.
And he kept walking west.
Cyrus didn’t really have a plan. He just wanted to put a little distance between himself and East Village for a couple of days, then make his way back to the market and let Darius know what was going on. Cyrus knew a handful of parks in Bowery he could hide out in for a while, until he felt safer going home.
The streets bustled with quiet, morning movement. People shifted and broke around each other, ignoring one another the same way they ignored the rest of the environment. Cyrus kept his head up, though. His mind raced, worrying what the hell they would do if they had to move again. Could they find a place big enough for all of them before winter set in? He doubted it…
Suddenly, a woman caught his eye.
She stood on the other side of the street from where he was walking. Tall. Slender. Drab. Her heavy eyelids made her look tired, and her brown hair seemed dull in the light. But her focus was sharp, and as soon as she saw him, her flat lips opened up in a smile.
He recognized her from the Stop n’ Shop.
She waved at him and gestured for him to wait for her, then she made a break right for him. She ran across the street, out into traffic, without pausing to look. Cyrus’s heart jumped, but all the cars slammed to a stop simultaneously without a sound. No honking. No screaming. Cyrus stood there and watched her, shocked, as she came up onto the sidewalk beside him.
“There you are,” the woman said with that high-pitched voice. A wide, relieved smile softened her face and she reached out to touch his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Cyrus said, shrugging and giving a polite smile back. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Thank God,” the woman said, and she let out a sigh. “I was sure they got you after they attacked the store.”
Cyrus frowned. “Who attacked the store? The robbers?”
“Oh, no,” the woman said, waving him off with a lazy hand. “The Martyrs. They’re a nasty little insurgent group trying to make this city more dysfunctional. I thought I saw them grab you after they set off that smoke bomb. I assumed they brought you back to their little hideout, and I’d never see you again.”
A stone fell into the pit of his stomach. Maybe it hadn’t been a hospital.
“Well, I was brought somewhere,” Cyrus said quietly, and the woman’s brows furrowed. “Are you saying those people did this?”
“Yes,” the woman said quietly. “This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted your help with. I need to stop them.”
“What could I even do?” Cyrus asked.
“Tell me where they brought you,” the woman said.
Cyrus shook his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t see it, and they drugged me when they brought me back.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “But you remember them?”
“Of course I—”
“There has to be a reason they let you go,” she said, this time almost to herself, then her eyes went wide again, like she’d figured it out. “He didn’t get it out of you, did he?”
Cyrus frowned. “What?”
“Did you tell him anything?”
“Did I tell who anything?”
“Blaine,” the woman said, but at his absent look, she went on. “What did he ask you?”
Cyrus shook his head. “I don’t have any—”
But the words got lost in his throat, because he suddenly saw someone else sprinting toward him through the crowd. Her long, black hair was pulled into a low ponytail and swung behind her as she darted between pedestrians on the sidewalk. Her black, void-like eyes fixed on him and didn’t move.
It was the woman who shot him!
Fear broiled in Cyrus’s stomach, and he turned to run the other way, but the woman with the heavy eyes looked over her shoulder. Everything about her shifted.
Her irises went pin-tight, furious, and terrified.
Her lips curled into a snarl.
Her hands reached out and wrapped around Cyrus’s wrist. She pulled him around in front of her, one arm wound around his neck in a tight, painful grip. Something cold pressed against his throat.
And that vice closed in around his head again. Searing pain in his temples. His vision began to go gray. He shook his head and tried to focus…
The woman in black closed in, and her mouth pressed together in a hot, angry line. She leveled a pistol up—over Cyrus’s shoulder, to the woman now holding him in front of her like a human shield. The pressure on his temples grew heavier. Thicker. More overwhelming.
“Who do you know?” that sickly voice growled. Terror filled Cyrus, dousing his whole body in a rush of cold fear, as he realized her voice wasn’t just by his ear. It was in his head. “Who are they looking for?”
“Cyrus.” The woman in black stood, stoic and strong. People on the sidewalk strode around them, ignoring them, as though they weren’t there at all. The woman in black didn’t seem bothered by this. She focused, intently, right at Cyrus’s face, like he was the only person in the world who mattered right now. “Fight her. Don’t let her in.”
“Who are they looking for?”
“It’s going to be okay.” The dark-haired woman again. She took a step closer. The grip around Cyrus’s throat, and his mind, tightened. “You can do this. Don’t say anything—”
“Take one step closer and he fucking dies.”
Cyrus’s world was a swirl of pain and voices. That sickening, biting scream, forcing commands into his consciousness. They sank into his mind and from there wove their way into his muscles. His mouth opened. He tried to stop it, but it was no use.
His tongue formed the words:
That high-pitched, sweet, demonic voice laughed by his ear.
And something sharp plunged into his neck. It slid through muscle and tendon in a smooth, excruciating movement and clicked when it pierced his windpipe. Cyrus tried to scream, but he couldn’t. His throat tightened around the metal in useless, horrifying panic.
The arm around his neck, the vice around his brain, released him all at once and he stumbled forward. He was vaguely aware of the woman disappearing behind him, of a gun going off and someone yelling. He collapsed onto the sidewalk. The pavement bruised his knees and scraped his palms. Wide, bright ribbons of crimson painted the concrete between his shaking hands.
He gasped. Breathed in hot, thick blood. Coughed it up. A metallic, sweet taste coated his tongue. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but instead of words, a rough, garbled noise poured over his lips in a syrupy mix of blood and saliva. Cyrus raised a hand to his throat and felt the hilt of a knife sticking out from the side.
Then two strong, secure hands came onto his shoulders and gently tilted him back. Instead of staring down at the blood pooling on the ground beneath his knees, he saw the sky. An animal spiraled in circles above him—an anxious, smooth silhouette against the bright blue backdrop. Its wide, webbed wings caught the sun and glistened a deep, blood red. Cyrus hardly had the sense to process it. People continued to walk past like he didn’t exist.
All but one.
The woman in black came into his frame of view. Her hair was falling out of its ponytail. Long, dark strands draped around her face and cast her sharp features in shadow. Her hands were covered in half-finger gloves, and they grabbed the sides of his face and tilted his chin to look at her. Deep, black eyes looked right into his, filled with rage, regret, and heavy sorrow.
“Hold on,” she said. Her deep voice was steady. Steadier than Cyrus felt. She brushed his hair away from his face. Her fingers felt warm and comforting against his skin. “Help is on the way.”
He opened his mouth again. He wanted to say he was sorry. Tears swelled behind his eyelashes. He felt them pour out the corners of his eyes, onto his temples, into his hair…
“Don’t worry,” the woman continued. “I’ll find him first. I’ll get him. I promise.”
Cyrus nodded. Or maybe he didn’t. He didn’t know. His legs were numb. So were his arms. His whole body shook from the cold, and his lips felt frigid and stiff against his teeth. He watched the woman, took in the details of her face. The world around him began to dissolve. Black spots dotted his vision, starting at the edges, speckling in slow circles toward the center until all he could see was the void behind her chilling black eyes.
Then everything faded into darkness, and Cyrus faded with it.