Authors: Kirsten Miller
For the wonderfully irregular Caroline McDonald,
who first discovered the secret of Kiki Strike
but didn't live to share it
By taking the time to open this book, you've become a member of a very elite group: The Curious. I can't tell you how pleased I am that we've found each other. As you must have noticed, there aren't many of us around.
Contained on these pages is a true account of my first adventure with the legendary Kiki Strike. If you're looking for a thrilling story to keep you entertained on those rainy days when you have nothing better to do, it should serve that purpose quite nicely. But if you're interested in learning a few essential skills along the way, all the better. Of course, I'm not speaking of the kind of skills you're likely to learn in any classroom. Hopefully, I'll be able to provide you with an altogether more useful education.
Until the age of twelve, I led what most people would consider an unexceptional life. My activities on an average day could be boiled down to a flavorless mush: I went to school, I came home, 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, early one Saturday morning, I happened to glance out my bedroom window. Across the street from my apartment building, a little park had been sucked into an enormous hole. Roughly ten feet from side to side and seemingly bottomless, the crater had swallowed two Japanese pagoda trees, an old marble birdbath, and a statue of Washington Irving. 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 the earth is sealed beneath a layer of asphalt, and one can go for years without catching sight of actual dirt. Ordinarily, such a spectacle would have drawn a crowd.
But it was a dismal November day, and the streets were deserted. Black clouds hovered above the roofs, and a bone-chilling mist had licked every surface. In the buildings on the opposite side of the park, the windows formed a checkerboard of pulled blinds and drawn curtains. At street level, the hole was hidden from view by an ivy-covered fence that stubbornly circled what was left of the park. A delivery van with a cross-eyed dragon painted on its side sped past without even slowing, headed toward the narrow streets of Chinatown.
Leaning out my third-story window, I noticed a peculiar bulge on the section of fence nearest the hole. An orange rope had been tied to one of the pickets, and I followed its long end 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, and then two tiny 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 didn't appear human. Its entire body was caked in muck, and its hair was plastered to the sides of its head. When it stood upright, I could see that it was extremely short, and with nothing to guide me but my imagination, I determined it might be a highly intelligent monkey or a troll of some sort.
For a moment, the thing peered back into the hole, apparently hesitant to leave. Then it looked up at me, as if it had known all along that I would be watching at the window. Even now, six years later, I can still see its eyes, which looked colorless and without expressionâlike 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 minutes 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 thrown an old coat over my nightgown, shoved my bare feet into a pair of furry pink snow boots, and run outside for a closer look. I've found that such opportunities are few and far between. If you miss themâor like most people simply fail to recognize themâthere's no guarantee that another chance will ever come your way.
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At the edge of the hole, I bent down on my hands and knees and peered into the abyss. The mist had turned to an icy rain that seeped into the lining of my boots and trickled over my toes. Mud oozed between my fingers, and in one of the hundreds of dark apartments that had turned a blind eye to the scene below, a dog howled a muffled warning. The orange rope still dangled inside the hole, its knotted end slowly sinking into the mud at the bottom.
The pit itself was far larger than I had imagined, and there was little to see where the earth had given way. But the hole had opened into an underground chamber that 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 a table and cast a column of light that illuminated a little room, half of it destroyed by Washington Irving, 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'll admit that a more mature human being would never have let her curiosity take control.
Thankfully, I was twelve years old and fully prepared to meet the challenge at hand.
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Unaccustomed to scaling ropes in nasty weather, I slipped and landed in a puddle next to Washington Irving, who lay facedown in the mud, pinned by a pagoda tree. Wincing with pain, I used his right ear to pull myself up, then turned to face the light.
The room was in many ways remarkably clean. A few passes with a broom, and it would have been ready to receive visitors. Only a couple of clumps of earth and a shrub or two lay scattered across the floor. Four shabby tables stood awkwardly in the center, shielded by mismatched chairs. Gilded mirrors, their paint shedding piles of chips, clung to the ragged brick walls. Across from them was a makeshift barâno more than a wooden counter backed by three shelves lined with strange bottles. I felt certain that nothing in the room had ever seen the twenty-first centuryâor even the twentieth, for that matter. I knew I had entered an ancient world.
I picked up the flashlight and followed a trail of tiny muddy footprints behind the bar. On the highest shelf, a lone book stood propped against a bottle. I pulled myself onto the 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, and crashed to the floor. I shoved the book into my pocket and jumped off the bar to retrieve the flashlight.
Where the flashlight had rolled to a stop, the room's floor appeared warped, and one of the wooden boards jutted up at its end. I bent down to take a look, and on closer inspection I saw that several of the floorboards were made from a different wood than their neighbors. Near the upturned board, which I now realized 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 strength I could muster, and the warped floorboards reluctantly rose to reveal another hole.
Just wide enough to accommodate the girth of a bigbellied man, the second hole had a metal ladder attached to one side that creaked as I climbed down. I descended through fifty feet of tightly packed soil and rock before I reached a door that opened onto the side of a much larger tunnelâone that ran parallel to the city street far above. As I stepped through the doorway, a surge of electricity coursed through my body as if I had hopped on the third rail of a subway track. 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 the kind of structureânot unlike the Empire State Building, the Egyptian pyramids, or the Great Wall of Chinaâ that leaves people speechless, their mouths hanging open.
Roughly twelve feet from top to bottom, with brick walls and a ceiling of sturdy wooden beams, the tunnel stretched in two directions until both ends curved out of sight and disappeared into the darkness. I counted at least a dozen doors lining the walls, each door a different color and style.
Just as I reached for a crystal doorknob, I heard voices echoing in the room above and the thud 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. I scrambled back up the ladder to the first room, closed the trapdoor behind me, and 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 the larger of the two men.
“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 a story I could never get out of my head. He said these guys were putting in pipes to one of the skyscrapers that went up near Chinatown about twenty years back. They were tunneling about fifty feet down when all of the sudden they broke into an open space. Can you believe it? An open space fifty feet underground?”
“Was it a subway tunnel?”
“Nah, they were deeper than the subway. There isn't supposed to be
that far down around Chinatown.”
“Well, what was it?”
“It was a room like this oneâbut bigger, a lot bigger. And it was done up like some kind of fancy Chinese bedroom, with straw mats on the floor and pillows all over the place. My dad said there were these weird silk screens with little dragons painted all over them.”