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Sinkhole leads to adventure in ‘Kiki Strike’

The latest Al's Book Club pick is “Inside the Shadow City," a book in the "Kiki Strike" series. The novel tells the tale of Ananka Fishbein, whose life is forever changed by a sinkhole that leads her to a world of delinquent Girl Scouts out for revenge. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Life will never be the same for Ananka Fishbein after she ventures into an enormous sinkhole near her New York City apartment. A million rats, delinquent Girl Scouts out for revenge, and a secret city below the streets of Manhattan combine in “Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City,” a novel about a darker side of New York City. An excerpt.

Chapter one: The second city
Until the age of twelve, I led what most people would consider a rather unexceptional life. You could boil my activities on an average day down to a flavorless mush: I went to school, I came home, I read, I took a bath, and I went to bed. Though I’m certain I didn’t realize it at the time, I must have been terribly bored.

Then, one Saturday morning in the winter of 20__, I woke early and happened to glance out my bedroom window. Across the street from my apartment building, a little park had been all but swallowed by a tremendous hole. Roughly ten feet from side to side and seemingly bottomless, the crater had consumed two Japanese pagoda trees, an ivy-covered birdbath, and a statue of Fiorello La Guardia. The park bench where I had sat just the day before teetered on the muddy lip of the hole.

Holes of this sort are rare in New York City, where everything is sealed beneath a layer of asphalt, and a person can live for years without catching sight of actual dirt. So you might reasonably imagine that such a spectacle would have drawn a crowd. But it was a dreadful day, and the city streets were deserted. Thick, menacing clouds hovered just above the roofs, and a bone-chilling mist had deposited a layer of dankness on every surface. In the buildings across the street from my apartment, the windows formed a checkerboard of pulled binds and drawn curtains. At street level, the hole was hidden from view by a cast-iron fence that still stubbornly circled what was left of the park. A solitary delivery van with a cross-eyed dragon emblazoned on its side sped past without even slowing, headed for the narrow streets of Chinatown.

Leaning recklessly out my third story window, I observed a peculiar bulge on the section of fence nearest the hole. An orange rappelling rope had been tied to one of the pickets, and I followed its course with my eyes, through a row of mangled juniper bushes and over the side of the hole. As I watched, the rope began to thrash violently, dealing a fatal blow to the bushes. Two little hands and a head smeared with filth appeared. The creature to which they belonged took little time to pull itself over the edge of the pit. From a distance, it was not recognizably human. Its entire body was caked in muck, its hair plastered to the sides of its head. When it stood upright, I could see that it was extremely short, and without much else to go on but my imagination, I determined it might be a highly intelligent monkey or a troll of some sort.

For a brief moment, the thing peered back into the hole, apparently hesitant to leave. Then it turned and looked up at me, as if it had known all along that I would be watching at the window. Even now, I can still see its eyes, which appeared empty and without expression — like those of a statue come to life. It all seemed quite sinister until the creature offered a little wave, its hand cupped in the singular style of British royalty. It jumped back into the hole, only to reemerge moments later. Before it scampered over the fence and disappeared into the mist, I could have sworn that I saw it grin.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what my life might have become if I hadn’t had the presence of mind to throw an old overcoat over my nightgown, shove my bare feet into a pair of furry pink snow boots, and run outside for a closer look. I’ve found in my life that such opportunities are indeed as few and far between as people say. If you miss them — or like most people simply fail to recognize them — there’s no guarantee that another chance will ever come your way.

At the edge of the hole, I bent down on my hands and knees and peered into the abyss. The mist had now turned to a dismal, icy rain that seeped into the lining of my boots and trickled over my toes. Slimy mud oozed between my fingers, and in one of the hundreds of darkened apartments that had turned a blind eye to the scene below, a dog barked a muffled warning. The orange rope still dangled inside the hole, its knotted end slowly sinking into the mud at the bottom.

The hole itself was not only deep, but far more cavernous than I had imagined. Where the earth had given way there was little to see, but the hole extended off to one side, the ground above it still solidly in place. In an oddly generous gesture, the creature had left a flashlight behind. It stood upright on what looked to be a table, casting a column of light that hazily illuminated a little room, half of it destroyed by Fiorello La Guardia, the other half still perfectly intact.

To those of you who are sticklers for safety and approach life with all the caution of amateur beekeepers, I can offer no excuse for what I did then. I can simply remind you that there was a time when you, too, were driven by an intense, fiery curiosity. When confronted with a mystery of any magnitude — whether it was if gerbils could skydive or what treasures lay hidden on the top shelf of your father’s closet — even you found it difficult to rest until you had an answer. Sadly, by the time most people are old enough to buy beer, they have either ceased to care, couldn’t be bothered, or have begun to obsess about the possible consequences of their actions. Fortunately, I was still twelve and fully prepared to meet the challenge at hand.

I must be honest, though. I wasn’t what anyone would have considered a particularly brave girl. I had an unfortunate tendency to shriek if I came upon a spider and I often slept with a light on. (I happen to consider a fear of the dark to be a sign of a fertile imagination — it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The more hideous the monsters one conjures in the dark in those terrible moments before sleep sets in, the more interesting the things that one is capable of dreaming up with the lights on.)

Fortunately for me, bravery isn’t something you have to think about. You don’t choose to be brave. It’s not like opting for jam rather than marmalade on your English muffin. More often, bravery is something that just happens to you. Only in retrospect do you realize you’ve done something unusual. With years of hindsight, my decision to climb into the hole may well have been brave, but at the time, nothing seemed more natural. My curiosity demanded it, and I had no choice but to obey.

Unaccustomed to scaling ropes in nasty weather, I slipped halfway down and landed squarely on my butt at the bottom of the hole, inches away from the colossal bronze head of Fiorello La Guardia. His statue lay face down in the mud, pinned by a pagoda tree. Wincing with pain, I used his protruding right ear to pull myself up, then turned to face the light.

The room, though decrepit, was in many ways remarkably clean. A few passes with a broom, and it would have been ready to receive visitors. Only random clumps of earth and a shrub or two lay scattered across the floor. Four shabby little tables stood awkwardly in the center, shielded by mismatched chairs. Gilded mirrors, their leprous paint shedding piles of chips, clung to the ragged brick walls, eerily reflecting the pale glow of the flashlight. Across from them was a makeshift bar — no more than a wooden counter backed by three shelves lined with unmarked bottles in various stages of consumption. Nothing in the room had ever seen the 21st century — or even the 20th for that matter. Despite my untrained eye, I sensed I had entered an ancient world.

I picked up the flashlight — an army issue flashlight as I recall, with instructions printed in Russian across its base — and followed a trail of tiny, muddy footprints behind the bar. On the highest shelf, a lone book stood propped against a murky green bottle. The book was far beyond my reach and its title unreadable in the distance, so I hoisted myself onto the wooden counter and performed an acrobatic stretch to reach it. But the moment my fingers brushed the book’s spine, the flashlight slipped from my grasp, shattered a bottle of foul-smelling liquid, fell to the floor and rolled to the opposite end of the bar. I shoved the book into my pocket and clamored to retrieve the flashlight.

Where the flashlight had come to a stop, the wooden floorboards appeared strangely warped, and one of the boards jutted up dangerously at its end. I bent to take a look, and on closer inspection the floorboards looked to be of an entirely different wood than their neighbors. Near the upturned board, which I now saw was an ingeniously disguised handle, was a message written in mud. “Open me,” it demanded in a straightforward fashion, so I did. Grasping the edge of the board, I pulled with all the considerable strength that an excited twelve-year-old girl can muster, and the warped floorboards reluctantly rose to reveal another hole.

Unlike the cave-in which was almost certainly accidental in nature, this hole was smaller and decidedly man made. Just wide enough to accommodate the girth of a portly man, it had a metal ladder attached to one side which groaned disturbingly as I climbed down. I descended through roughly sixty feet of tightly packed soil and rock before I reached a door that opened onto the side of a much larger tunnel — one that ran parallel to the city street yards above.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of stepping into the tunnel for the first time. How does one put words to the feeling that comes with setting foot on the moon, opening King Tut’s tomb, or washing ashore on the lost continent of Atlantis? When I realized I was seeing what no one alive had seen, walking where no one had walked in at least a hundred years, a surge of electricity coursed through my body as if I had hopped on the third rail of a subway. My spine tingled, my fingers trembled, my mouth dried up, and my hair stood on end. I found myself unsure whether to laugh with delight or break into tears.

What I saw, deep beneath the streets of New York, was a true feat of engineering. (A term that — in my opinion — is used far too often to describe uninspiring office buildings and hydroelectric dams.) This was the kind of structure, not unlike the Empire State Building, the Spruce Goose, or the Brooklyn Bridge, that exists as a monument to human ingenuity — the kind of spectacle before which people stand speechless, their mouths unattractively agape. Roughly twelve feet from top to bottom, with brick walls and a ceiling composed of sturdy wooden beams, the tunnel stretched in two directions for an impressive distance until both ends curved out of sight, disappearing into the darkness. I counted at least a dozen doors lining the walls, each door a different color and style — some plain and others gaudily ornate.

I tried the crystal knob of a door that had once been painted a jolly red. It turned hesitantly at first, as if reluctant to share its secrets, before it burst open, jerking painfully out of my hand. An avalanche of soil buried me to my knees, adding an additional layer of grime to my already ruined clothing and filling my mouth and ears with stale, foul-tasting dirt.

As I struggled to free myself, furiously shoveling away dirt just to allow my legs to move, I heard voices echoing in the room above and the unmistakable thuds of heavy work boots on the wooden floor. I suppose an ordinary response might have been to hide, but something told me that the trapdoor I had come through should never be discovered. With several pounds of dirt still trapped in my pockets and boots, I turned off the flashlight, scrambled back up the ladder, softly closed the trapdoor behind me, and carefully rubbed out the message written in mud.

Peeking over the edge of the bar, I saw two city workers in fluorescent orange safety vests standing awestruck in the center of the room.

“Ever seen anything like this before?” asked one.

“Nope,” said the other after a long pause. “Not me, but back when I was a kid and my dad worked for the city, he told me this story I couldn’t get out of my head. He said these guys were putting in a new gas main to that office building that went up south of Chinatown about twenty years back.”

“Yeah, I know the one. The Von Eikel building, right?”

“Yeah that’s it. Anyways, they was tunneling about fifty feet down and then all of the sudden they break into this open space. Can you believe it? An open space fifty feet down?”

“What was it?”

“It was a room like this one — but bigger, a lot bigger. And it was done up like some kind of Chinese flophouse, with those straw mats on the floor and pillows all over the place. My dad said there were these weird screens with little dragons painted all over them. Mr. Von Eikel even came to check the place out himself.”

“Illegal immigrants hiding down there?”

“Don’t think so. You see, that was the really strange part.”

“What’s that?”

“They couldn’t find an entrance to the place.”

“Waddya mean they couldn’t find an entrance?”

“I mean there was no door, no way for people to get inside. It was just a room, fifty feet down, with no door.”

“Uh,” grunted the other, unimpressed. He was obviously the less intelligent of the two. “So what happened to it?”

“Nothing. Von Eikel told them to take the pipes around it. My guess is it’s still down there somewhere. When I was a kid, I tried to get my dad to let me dig for it.”

“Waddya think they’re gonna do with this one?”

“Fill it in I’d say. It’s too dangerous, what with all the kids in the neighborhood.”

“Well in that case, I’d better take a souvenir,” said the dumb one.

The other man laughed. “What do you want, a chair?”

“No. But I’d settle for one of those bottles,” he announced, walking over to the bar, the floorboards protesting loudly to his tonnage.

I sat crouched in the corner of the bar, knowing I was destined for discovery. So as the fat man rounded the corner and reached for a misshapen blue bottle, I stood up and said hello. I don’t think I realized just how filthy I was or how unusual my appearance had become, because the last thing I expected was to hear the man to squeal like a wounded piglet. He dropped the bottle and ran for the opening of the hole where he tried unsuccessfully to hoist his mammoth body up the rope, using Fiorello La Guardia’s head for a boost. His partner stood back in shock as the scene transpired.

“What are you doing?” he finally asked as it became ridiculously clear that his friend would never make it to the safety of the street.

“It’s the devil!” his friend gasped, exhausted.

“Have you lost your mind?” demanded the thinner man, now thoroughly annoyed.

“Go look if you don’t believe me,” the other insisted, too frightened to feel humiliated. Again I heard footsteps in my direction, and soon a flashlight was shining directly into my eyes. A look of terror mangled the thin man’s face.

“Would you mind pointing that elsewhere?” I asked politely.

“George, get back here,” called the man, who had regained his composure with admirable speed. “It’s not the devil, you dolt. I think it’s a little girl.” He bent down to study my face. “If you are a little girl, I can tell you one thing for sure. You’re in a whole lotta trouble.”

Two burly, bad-tempered policemen pulled me out of the pit. City workers were already building a tall, blue plywood fence around the park, shielding it from the eyes of the curious. On the surface, I was barraged with a battery of questions. Who was I? What did I think I was doing down there? Didn’t I know I could have been seriously hurt? What kind of little girl was I? Did I know how mad my parents would be? What was their phone number?

I had watched enough war movies to know better than to give them any information. Like a good soldier, I kept mum. Eventually they gave me a roll of paper towels and told me to clean off as best I could and wait in the back of one of the squad cars. I was only making things worse for myself, they insisted, but I knew better than that.

You see, one of the biggest but seldom-recognized advantages of being a young girl is that people refuse to take you seriously. If you’re smart, this is something that can be consistently used to your advantage. While boys must be constantly monitored and are always the first suspects when anything goes wrong, everyone expects girls to do what they’re told. I’m not sure why most people continue to labor under this delusion, but it often comes in handy.

As soon as I began scraping the mud off myself, careful not to remove too much of my disguise, I noticed the policemen’s attention beginning to drift. After a few minutes, one walked to the edge of the hole to monitor the progress while the other stood in the street, directing a stream of traffic around a backhoe that was uprooting the park’s little fence. When the backhoe pulled into the street, the poor fence gripped in its teeth like a limp and wounded snake, I was temporarily shielded from view. I simply sprinted across the street and up the stairs to my apartment.

Saturday mornings, my parents rarely woke before noon. Always an early riser, I had grown accustomed to using those precious hours to devise my own illicit entertainment. I’d generally begin with a search for the contraband foodstuffs that my mother would hide in the salad crisper or stuff behind the rusted cans of tomato soup that had claimed the same space in the cabinet for as long as I could remember. After a well-balanced breakfast of marzipan or pate, I’d settle down to watch forbidden sitcoms on a temperamental television set that had come into the world long before I had. Occasionally, just for laughs, I’d move the furniture and play a quick game of squash against the living room walls.

I had tested the limits and determined that nothing short of fireworks and a marching band would bring my parents shuffling into the living room before midday. So as I opened the door to my apartment, a filthy fugitive from justice, I felt perfectly confident that I was in the clear. I stripped out of my muddy clothing at the door and tiptoed to the bathroom. There, I wrapped the clothing in a pillowcase, intending to take it to the basement laundry room as soon as I had showered. When I dropped the bundle into the hamper, it landed on the bottom with an unusually heavy thump. That’s when I remembered the book.

Although the book was nearly as dirty as I was, I dared not touch it until I had given myself a thorough scouring. The mud caked on every surface of my body was so thick that it clogged the shower drain and left an unsightly ring around the tub. When I had thoroughly dried myself and wrapped a towel turban-style around my dripping hair, I gently wiped the dirt from the cover of my prize.

It was an unusual book — the sort one rarely sees outside the rare book rooms of university libraries and the kind one never comes across in the possession of twelve-year-olds. Entitled Glimpses of Gotham, it appeared at first to be a guidebook to the city of New York in 1866. But unlike the guides one sees in stores today, this focused not on historic sites or conventional places of interest, but on the “darker side” of the city. The author, one Pearcy Leake III, who claimed in the preface to be a naïve young gentleman from the state of Virginia, had gone to great pains to document every slum, saloon, and gambling parlor in lower Manhattan.

He described in thrilling detail huge “bear baiting” pits dug into the basements of waterfront saloons, in which bears and dogs would fight to the bloody end, cheered by ne’er-do-wells of every conceivable stripe. He visited an opium den in Chinatown where insensate men and women lay on filthy mats, lost in their narcotic comas. He even spent an evening in a run-down mansion where a hundred pigs held court on the first floor. So enthusiastic and evocative were Pearcy Leake III’s descriptions that I began to suspect that he took a great deal of pleasure in his surroundings. I doubted whether he was naïve, a gentleman, or for that matter, had even visited the state of Virginia.

But given the subject matter, you can imagine what kind of impact such a book might have on a girl. After all, there’s nothing quite like feral pigs and bear fights to fuel the imagination. For hours, I scoured it, jotting down notes in my childish scrawl. The book’s previous owners must have been equally intrigued, for the margins were crammed with the markings of numerous pens and pencils. Even the illustrations — fanciful sketches of river pirates, dance halls, and roving bands of prepubescent delinquents — had not escaped comment.

Then I came across one short passage entitled “The Second City” which made my heart beat wildly:

“Police raids are common in the more colorful parts of town, and gentlemen explorers are sometimes mistaken for common criminals. However, if in the midst of your adventures, you find yourself in a bit of a spot, do not despair. Simply ask the way to the Second City. Almost every palace of ill repute on the isle of Manhattan will have an entrance to the city, which offers a handy means of escape when things get hairy. And if you are not deterred by the thought of the countless criminals who make it their home, the Second City also offers an excellent means of getting about when the weather above ground is unpleasant.

Be forewarned. The tunnels of The Second City are uncharted territory, and anyone willing to give you directions is likely to lead you astray. Many have wandered for days without finding a suitable exit to the world above. Others have never escaped.”

So the tunnel I had discovered was, in fact, part of the Second City. And if it was even half as vast as Glimpses of Gotham suggested, then I had seen only a small part of an underground labyrinth that lay deep beneath the unsuspecting city. Other rooms — rooms that would never see daylight—sat waiting to be opened. A hidden world of thieves, murderers, and pirates was about to be explored for the first time — not by archaeologists or engineers, but by me.

By the time I woke the next morning, the hole was gone, and the little park looked like it had been rearranged in the middle of the night by an insomniac housekeeper. Fiorello La Guardia now greeted a different side of the street, the birdbath looked a little less ivy-encrusted, and the trees were missing. But other than that, there was little to suggest that the park had been all but consumed by a sinkhole a mere twenty-four hours earlier. My only entrance to the Second City was gone for good.

I purchased copies of every newspaper published in New York, fully expecting to find a reference to the little room, and perhaps even a brief mention of the mysterious girl who managed to escape from police custody.

Mixed in with dreary stock market reports and coverage of city council meetings, I found:

1. A fascinating account of a three-foot tall monkey man with steel claws who was terrorizing India

2. A tenderhearted story about a Brooklyn family’s tearful reunion with a kitten that had fallen down a sewer drain

3. An investigative journalist’s report on secret shipments of grade “E” (for edible) horse meat that were routinely made to school cafeterias around Queens

But there was no mention of the hole that had swallowed an entire park. Although I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t been immortalized in print, I knew that it meant that the Second City was safe. Only the little room had been exposed, and while it would long live in the lore of New York city workers, it wasn’t enough to interest the New York Times. The creature and I were still the only two who knew of the existence of the Second City.

I can imagine what you’re thinking. What could a twelve-year-old girl do with this kind of information? Ordinarily, my first response might be to scold you for underestimating the abilities of twelve-year-old girls. But this is, if nothing else, an honest account, and in all humility, I can’t say for sure what might have happened if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to meet the person the world would come to know as Kiki Strike.

Excerpted from "Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City," by Kirsten Miller. Copyright (c) 2006, reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury USA Children's Books.