a bit of The Night City

Part of chapter 1 of The Night City.  Enjoy!

The night the Bloody Mother took control, all the children in the city woke at the same instant.

Most soon slid into sleep again, tucked back into bed by their parents. But others stayed awake, hearing the slap of rain against the windows, the rumble of thunder following lightning across the sky. Something was different. Something was wrong.

Some children heard a voice—mother, father—reminding them to be careful. Someone who had died, still trying to help, still warning about danger.

Janira Pangborn knelt on her bed, peering through the rain-washed window. The city lights were blurred by the wind-swept rain. Lightning-flash showed her the tossing trees across the street.

The bedroom door opened all the way; Grandpa came in, hand outstretched to shut the bedroom window.

“Well, now,” he said when he saw her.

He checked that she’d closed the window tight, then bent to straighten her sheets, the night light showing her his nice grandpa face. “Came in to make sure you hadn’t been blown right out of bed. Woke you up, did it?” He patted her back down into bed, smoothed the covers over her. “That lightning was close—bet it almost knocked the Dutchman right off his pedestal. At least his light’s out.”

Really? Janira sat back up and craned to see through the window. Yes, there was a dark spot in the city skyline where red lights usually blinked under the Dutchman’s feet at the top of City Hall.

“Well, you go back to sleep now.” Grandpa lifted the covers so she could slide in, then smoothed them over her again.

“I thought something blew up,” she said. Because that had been in her dream: the bright flash of something being destroyed.

Her grandfather froze and looked at her for a heartbeat, lightning flickering over his face. Then he smiled. “I was just thinking about having a little glass of milk,” he said. “You want one?”

Up at two a.m. on a school night? Sure!

Downstairs looked disappointingly normal, and the milk was ordinary, even though it was two o’clock in the morning, when she’d never been awake before. But the thunder sounded softer, maybe because it wasn’t directly over her head.

“Used to have storms like this when I was a boy,” her grandfather said, sitting down at the table with his own glass of milk. “When I was a little guy, I used to think the thunder was coming right through the roof at me.” He smiled. “Your great-uncle used to wake up and find me hiding under the bed.”

Under the bed? It was hard to think of Grandpa ever being small enough to fit under the bed. She took a sip of milk. “Did Daddy get scared of thunder?” she asked.

“Oh, he’d sometimes come over to your grandmother’s and my bedroom, just making sure we were all right.” He grinned and winked at her, to let her know he was joking.

Daddy scared of thunderstorms! He wasn’t scared now—he wasn’t scared of anything, because he was a soldier. Soldiers weren’t afraid of anything. She wasn’t scared, either. Not really. Not of anything like thunder. It was just that this thunderstorm—

“Do you— Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked.

He drank some milk and looked at her for a moment. “Did you hear something that worried you?”

Not heard. But she wasn’t sure how to explain, so she shook her head.

“I’ve never seen a ghost,” Grandpa said. “You’d think we would, with that cemetery right across the street. But even when I was a little guy growing up in this house, I never saw any ghosts. And I looked for them, because the thought of ghosts always made me kind of nervous.” He smiled. “Did I tell you about Jonesey’s ghost?”

“Huh uh,” Janira said. She loved Jonesey stories. He’d lived right next door when Grandpa was a little boy, and they’d been best friends. Grandpa had a lot of funny stories about their adventures.

“We sneaked out,” Grandpa said, “late one night, after everybody else’d gone to bed. Fog coming off the river; everything kind of misty and wet and mysterious. We weren’t going to do anything; we were just walking around scaring each other in the dark. We were walking right beside that fence at the other end of the cemetery, and Jonesey said he saw something moving in the cemetery, out of the corner of his eye. Well, I looked, but I couldn’t see anything in the fog; and he looked, and he couldn’t see anything in the fog; but then I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye, too. Probably because he put it in my mind that there was something in the graveyard.”

He stopped and took a sip of milk; and Janira drank some milk, too, not actually tasting it. She was thinking about the darkness and the fog and the headstones and not being able to see something clearly. She wished he’d get to the funny part of the story.

“So,” he finally went on, “we were walking along that fence, kind of worried because nothing should be moving in that graveyard; and then we heard Officer Diller coming along. Police officers still walked a beat around here in those days, and Officer Diller was walking his beat, keeping an eye on the neighborhood. We hid when he came by, because he’d take us home and wake up our parents, and then we’d be in real trouble. We were huddled up in the bushes right beside the cemetery fence. And Officer Diller went by us, and we kind of relaxed; and just about the time the sound of his footsteps went away, Jonesey grabbed me. I never saw him so scared.”

Grandpa smiled at the memory. Janira looked at him anxiously. Was this the funny part?

“Jonesey was scared,” Grandpa said, “but he managed to pull me away from that fence, and he whispered, ‘Grabbed me. It grabbed my leg.’ And I looked, but I couldn’t see anything in the darkness and the fog, and there wasn’t anything like a stick or anything that would have been grabbing him through that fence. But, you better believe I wasn’t going to stick around where ghosts were grabbing people; and we started for home; but then we heard Officer Diller’s footsteps coming back, down the other side of the street. He was checking the shops there, making sure nobody had broken in. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see him, and he wouldn’t have been able to see us, but I didn’t think of that, and I dragged Jonesey back to the fence. And then he made a squeaky sound and jumped and pointed down, back at the fence; and I looked down, and I could just see that something was coming through that fence, clawing at Jonesey’s leg, something I could barely see, even with the streetlight.

“I was about to run across that street, even if Officer Diller would get us in trouble, because ghosts were scarier even than my father. But then the ghost made a mrowr sound, and I thought, ‘That’s a cat.’ And it was. Mrs. Johansson’s big cat wandering through the night and the fog. It liked us and was trying to get our attention.” He chuckled. “It sure did get our attention—just not in the way we wanted.”

Okay, this was the funny part. Janira’s laughter was part relief that the story hadn’t turned into something that Grandpa thought was funny, but was actually scary. Sometimes his stories were like that.

“I don’t really think people come back from the dead, especially if it would worry children,” Grandpa said. “I think most people’s ghosts are like Mrs. Johansson’s cat. I have seen some strange things: all police officers see strange things. People totaling their cars and coming out without even a bruise. Children finding their way out of a burning building without being hurt. And there was a drive-by shooting where bullets hit cars and buildings and even sacks of groceries people were carrying, but they didn’t hit a single person.”

She loved this story. “And Gabriel Lightning,” she murmured. It was a wonderful name.

“I tell this story a lot, huh?” Grandpa said, smiling. “Yes, I was interviewing witnesses, and asked if anyone had seen or heard anything besides the bullets, and a boy said, ‘Just Tasha hollering “Gabriel Lighting, help us!” ’ Tasha was eight years old. Just her pet name for an angel, I guess.” He looked at the clock on the kitchen stove. “Oh, hey, we need to get back to bed,” he said. “You’ve got school tomorrow.” He peered at the clock again. “Today. You’ve got school today.”

Suddenly Janira was tired—so tired she could barely drag herself up the stairs to bed.

“Guess we can open the window a little,” Grandpa said.

Outside, the thunder was now just a muttering in the distance, and the rain-washed air smelled clean.

How comfortable her bed looked! Janira snuggled down and closed her eyes as Grandpa tucked her in. “’Night, Grandpa,” she murmured.

“’Morning, you mean.” His voice had a laugh in it, and she smiled.

Outside, a car went past, its tires hissing on the wet street. On the other side of the wall, her grandfather’s bed creaked as he got into it. Out in the dark hallway, the old clock steadily ticked and tocked. Comforting sounds. Normal sounds.

But something kept Janira from sliding into sleep. Something that— She had to check.

Dragging herself out of her comfortable bed was almost painful, but she had to look, had to make sure.

She peered through the window at the rain-shiny street. The Dutchman’s statue still stood in darkness. The streetlight made the wet leaves on the oak tree in Mrs. Coiner’s front yard glitter like little stars.

Janira felt herself relax. The sidewalk was empty. There was no one there now, no figure walking up and down, misty in the darkness.

The figure that had been there before, when the dream woke her, was gone: her mother, in her Army uniform, patrolling with her rifle on her back.

Her mother’s ghost, patrolling in the darkness.

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