Time had finally lost its meaning.
Weeks could have passed. Or months.
Not days, though, for the memories of what his life
had once been were fading into the fog that filled his mind.
Not years, either, for the memories still had shape and texture
and color and smell.
Not just any tree, but the walnut tree behind the house in
which he grew up. When he was little, the tree was huge, its
lowest limbs branching off so far up the trunk that his daddy
had to hold him up to touch them. When he got big enough,
he climbed up the rough-barked trunk into its spreading
canopy—even built a tree house once, where he could hide
on a lazy summer afternoon. The sun filtered through the
dome of leaves, and the whole world seemed to glow with
the faintest tinge of pale green.
In the cypress hedge that surrounded the yard, hundreds of
sparrows roosted at sunset, their rustling almost inaudible
until his dog—a little black mutt named Cinder—went racing
up and down, shattering the quiet with her high-pitched
yap. The birds would explode from the hedge in a rush that
sounded like wind and looked like a swirl of autumn leaves.
The sparrows would wheel in the sky, etched against its darkening
blue, and slowly settle back to the hedge, only to be
flushed again a moment later.
Those were the memories that were still brightest in his
mind, for they were the oldest, and though he himself wasn’t
old, his mind was already playing the tricks of the aged. Why
could he clearly remember that tree from nearly twenty years
ago, but barely recall the last room he’d lived in?
Was it because he didn’t want to remember that room?
As he paused in the gloom that surrounded him now, vague
outlines recreated themselves in his mind. A tiny space almost
filled by a single sagging bed, a metal table with a chipped
enameled surface. The stairs leading to it reeked of piss, partially
masked by the stink of stale cigarette smoke. Not that
he’d worried much about it—he had lived in rooms like that before.
Then one day he left the room and never went back. He
didn’t care—he couldn’t pay the rent anyway, and the bastard
landlord who lived in the crummy apartment in the basement
probably would have changed the locks in a couple of days.
Not much to remember after that.
He’d wandered around the streets for a while, and that
hadn’t been too bad. At least he didn’t have to waste any
money on rent. But then it started getting cold, and once or
twice he’d gone to one of the shelters. Not the one out on the
island—what the fuck was the name of it? Like some department
store from a long time ago.
Wards. That was it—Wards Island.
He hadn’t been about to go out there. Not that he figured it
would be any worse than the places he’d seen since he followed
Big Ted down into Grand Central.
They’d been hanging around the food joints on the lower
level when a couple of transit cops started looking at them
funny. “Come on,” Big Ted muttered, and he’d followed him
to the platform down by Track 42.
On the other side of the track there was a weird jumble
of walls and pipes and ladders. Half the walls seemed to
be falling down, and most of the ladders didn’t look like they
led anywhere. Big Ted jumped off the platform, crossed the
track, and scaled a ladder on the opposite side. He hesitated,
then heard someone yelling, and didn’t wait to find out what
they wanted. He quickly followed Ted across the track and
up the ladder and was just able to keep up as the other man
ducked through a door.
Ted led him through a couple of rooms, then climbed up on
some pipes and started working his way into the darkness. He
still heard shouting behind them, and it drove him on, following
At first it was kind of fun—sort of like an adventure. He
figured he’d hang with Big Ted for a couple of days, then
maybe go somewhere else. Maybe even get out of the city.
But a couple of days later it started snowing, and at least it
was warm down in the tunnels.
Well, at least it wasn’t freezing cold down there.
If you were careful, you could use the men’s room around
the corner from the Oyster Bar, if you didn’t stay too long and
the transit cops weren’t feeling too mean. But after he barely
got away when they busted Big Ted, he spent more time in the
tunnels than upstairs.
He got used to it. It wasn’t nearly as dark as it seemed at
first. There were more lights than he’d thought, and after a
while he even grew accustomed to the noise. “Like the gentle
rolling of ocean surf,” Annie Thompson had called it in her
gentle drawl that two years on the streets of New York hadn’t
hardened. “Puts you to sleep just like you were on the beach
at Hilton Head.” He didn’t believe she’d ever lived in Hilton
Head, but then, she probably wouldn’t have believed he’d
grown up in California. It didn’t matter.
All that mattered was that they were both still alive.
Or what passed for alive. Most of the time there wasn’t
much difference between night and day, unless you were
under one of the grates that opened up into a park or something,
and for the last couple of days—maybe even a week—
he’d been staying away from the grates.
The grates, and the subway stations, and the train stations,
and the culverts, and the mouths of the tunnels. None of it
was safe anymore.
None of it.
Not any friends anymore, either.
A few days ago, maybe a week, he’d had friends. Annie
Thompson, and Ike, and that girl—the one whose name he
couldn’t remember. Didn’t matter no more anyway, once they
started coming after him.
The thing was, he didn’t know who “they” were. Up until
the craziness started, he’d thought “they” were his friends.
But then one day when he left the tunnels, he snatched a
purse. It was real easy—he’d watched Big Ted do it lots of
times. The woman he’d snatched it from hadn’t even tried to
hang on to it.
She didn’t even yell for help.
A couple of hours later, still on the outside, he ran into
Annie Thompson. She’d been right there in the subway station
where he made the snatch, and saw it all. But instead of
asking him how much money he’d gotten or to split it with
her, which he might even have done, she told him off. “You
crazy? What did you want to do that for?” She kept on
talking, but he didn’t listen—he was too busy looking at a girl
who’d just come out of the big church on Amsterdam Avenue,
and wondering what it would be like to talk to her. Not touch
her or anything like that. Just talk to her. So he’d pretty much
ignored Annie until he ran into her later—he couldn’t remember
exactly when—and she’d warned him. “Better get
out,” she said. “You really think you could get away with
that? Now they’re comin’ after you.”
He hadn’t believed her until the next time he tried to get to
the surface through one of the subway stations and some of
Ike’s friends had shown him their knives.
He could tell by the look in their eyes they weren’t kidding.
He’d been on the run ever since.
And he’d been going deeper and deeper, climbing down
ladders whenever he found them, crawling through drain-pipes
he could barely fit into, creeping on his belly through
slimy passages so tight that if they hadn’t been slick with
scum, he wouldn’t have been able to make it at all.
Now he lay on a ledge above a passageway that was so
dark, if he shut off his flashlight he couldn’t see his hand in
front of his eyes. The batteries were dying, and even if they
hadn’t been, he couldn’t risk the dimming glow of the flashlight
giving him away.
He heard something moving in the dark, then felt whatever
it was skitter across his hand.
In the distance, a train rumbling.
In the darkness, a flash of red.
The rumbling of the train grew louder.
He shrank back against the wall behind him, instinctively
holding his breath. The whole passage trembled as somewhere
above him the train roared over. As the rumbling
tremor faded away, the passage grew still.
He let himself relax.
He took a breath, and the fetid odor of decay filled his nostrils.
Again a glimmer of red, this time from the other direction.
Now he could see two spots of red, creeping along the floor
like glowing insects. They came together and seemed confused
for a moment. Then both glowing red spots began
moving toward him.
He tried to squirm back deeper on the shelf, but the cold,
dank hardness of solid concrete stopped him.
He lost sight of the glowing dots for a moment, then looked
They were both on his chest, close together.
He never heard the shots. Long before the reports of the
exploding shells reached his ears, one of the bullets tore into
his heart, while the other smashed his spine.
Even in that last split second before he died, he still didn’t
know why it had to happen.
He only knew there was no way to stop it.
Excerpted from The Manhattan Hunt Club by John Saul. Copyright © 2002 by John Saul. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.